In the first episode of ‘Journeys to the Ends of the Earth,’ photojournalist David Adams travels across the shimmering heat of the Sahara desert with a Tuareg caravan. These fierce nomads have crisscrossed this forbidding landscape for thousands of years calling it ‘The Land of Fear.’
While Adams’ account of the Tuareg life is altogether fascinating, there was one scene which made me pause. It’s when Adams says the Tuareg set their makeshift camps at least five miles away from the nearest water source.
That’s crazy! I thought to myself. Why would anyone do that in such an inhospitable climate?
They do so, Adams explains, so that their children don’t take water for granted.
Stunned, I had to stop watching. I couldn’t help but contrast the Tuareg perspective with that of the industrialized West and wondered if living in close proximity to abundance explains why it’s so hard for us to count our blessings. In this part of the world, I thought, the Tuareg practice would likely get them sued for child abuse.
When young, my go-to response when I broke something at home was, “We can always buy a new one.” Born into wealth, I grew up thinking money grew on trees and took everything for granted. It drove my dad insane, yet, instead of straightening me out, he gave me a free pass tinctured with a brief sermon. Later in life, I would pay dearly for such disregard.
Now that I can barely sustain myself, I wish I would’ve been raised like a Tuareg child or shared the life of the boys who shined shoes at the park in front of my childhood home in Guatemala.
Across our front street, the park had curved pathways shaded by tall, broad-leaf trees, where these boys, as young as seven, shined shoes for men in hats during their lunch break or after work. These kids did not attend school. Their meager earnings were mostly handed over to their fathers to buy alcohol. Looking down at them from the roof of my house, I envied their freedom, the ruggedness stamped on their brown, sinewy bodies, the dexterity with which they propelled discarded bicycle rims with long sticks held with their stained hands, and the way they laughed as they raced behind them. Meanwhile, surrounded by abundance, I was bored and unhappy.
Norman Douglas, author of ‘South Wind,’ noticed that the children who have the most fun, the children who are most inventive, are those who have absolutely nothing to play with.
William Kamkwamba was such a boy… a boy who harnessed the wind and saved his family and village from starvation.
In my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I use William’s story as an example to boys of how poverty and hardship are often catalysts for ingenuity.
Excerpt from Chapter 5
William was born in Malawi, Africa. He lived in a village of about ten mudbrick houses, painted white, with roofs made from long grasses collected from nearby swamps. For most of William’s life, his village didn’t have electricity, just oil lamps that spewed smoke and coated their lungs with soot. His family, like others in the village, were poor farmers who grew mostly corn.
Unlike most kids in rich countries, William had no toys to play with. He and his friends scavenged for empty cardboard boxes which they would wash and then use to build toy trucks. They built larger wagons, like go-carts, using thick tree branches to build the frame and giant sweet potatoes for wheels. The wheel axles were made of poles carved from a blue-gum tree. They also loved to play soccer but had no money to buy real soccer balls, so made their own with plastic shopping bags which they wadded together and tied with rope.
I think kids are better off without flashy, fancy, noisy toys. If I were still young and was writing a letter to Santa Claus, I’d ask him for just five things: A stick, some string, a cardboard box plus a cardboard tube and dirt!
The year William turned 13, he became aware things in him were changing — not only his body, but also his interests. Like you, William was growing up.
He and his best friend Gilbert began to take apart old radios to see what was inside and figure out how they worked. For a long time, William had been fascinated by the sounds coming out of a radio and wanted to know how they got there.
“Why are these wires different colors?” “Where do they all go?” The boys had many questions but no answers, so William set out to find them himself. Before long, people were bringing their broken radios and asking William and Gilbert to fix them.
At that point, William didn’t know much about science, or that doing science could be a job. But he was becoming more and more curious about how things worked. For example, he wanted to know how gasoline makes car engines work, so he began stopping truck drivers to ask them: “What makes this truck move? How does it work?” But no one could tell him. It seemed to William that people in his village were happy enjoying their cars and radios without knowing how they work, but not him. “I was filled with the desire to understand,” he says, “and the questions never stopped coming. If finding these answers was the job of a scientist, then I wanted to become one.”
Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of all times, once said he had no special talent but was only passionately curious, like William.
I don’t know what makes people stop using the Life Force of Curiosity as they grow older. They stop asking questions like ‘What if?’ or ‘I wonder…’ or ‘If only…’ Most of our world’s greatest inventions have come about precisely because someone asked these questions. Sometimes these discoveries can even save lives as William was about to prove.
When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate only one meal a day. Unable to feed his dog, Khamba, William took him out to the field one day, tied him to a tree, and left him there to die. There was nothing else he could do. With little money, his father could no longer pay for his education so he had to drop out of school.
“It was a future I could not accept,” William says.
Now imagine yourself in a similar situation: living in a cramped, mudbrick hut with your parents and six sisters, no electricity, only able to eat once a day; you’re hungry all the time and can’t go to school anymore because your parents can’t afford it. Imagine further that you’ve never used a computer, know nothing about the Internet, and barely speak English. This is what William was up against when he was fourteen years old.
But rather than whining about it or complaining that the world was unfair and owed him a better life, or looking for an easy way out, William imagined a better future for himself, his family, and his people, and decided to do something about it.
Because he couldn’t go to class, William spent his time playing board games with his other friends whose parents could not afford sending them to school anymore. “But these games weren’t enough to keep my mind stimulated,” William says. “I needed a better hobby. Perhaps reading would keep my brain from going mushy.”
William decided to go to the library.
I could talk all day long about why you should read and learn instead of playing video games, but I’ll let William’s story convince you of why it’s such a good idea.
“Come to borrow some books?” the librarian asked William as he entered the small, musty room. It was the first time he had set foot inside a library.
He nodded, then asked, “How do I do it?”
William spent that first morning sitting on the floor, flipping through pages and marveling at the pictures. He says that for the first time in his life, he experienced what it felt like to escape without going anywhere.
Wanting to keep up, he checked out the same books his friends were studying at school. Back home, he fashioned a hammock from empty flour sacks and strung it between two trees. From then on, he spent his mornings at the library and the hot afternoons reading in his hammock under shade.
One Saturday, Gilbert met him at the library just to look at books for fun. The first book William spotted was the ‘Integrated Science’ textbook used by his older, former schoolmates. Turning the pages, he saw a photo of a large waterfall located in southern Malawi where the country’s electrical company operated a hydro plant. This is basically a machine that produces electricity using falling or flowing water to turn the blades of a turbine which spins a generator.
“Well,” he told Gilbert, “this sounds exactly like a bicycle dynamo. It lights a bulb by turning a wheel.”
Dynamos are like small metal bottles with a grooved spinning cap that attach to the wheel of a bicycle. William had seen them around the village before but didn’t know what they were for until he saw his father’s friend riding-up to their house on a bicycle with its headlamp shining. As soon as he stopped, the light turned off. It was the dynamo that created electricity to power the lamp.
The photo in the book made William think about the swamps behind his house which also created a waterfall during the rainy season.
“What if I put a dynamo underneath it?” William asked Gilbert. “The falling water could do the spinning and produce electricity. We could listen to the radio whenever we wanted.”
Putting a dynamo under the waterfall would be easy. The problem was running wires all the way to his house to power the lights and radio. That would cost a fortune. And what about during the dry season when there is no waterfall?
“I guess I’ll have to research this a little more,” he thought.
William kept reading, but because his English was so poor, he struggled with many words, so went to look for the dictionary on a bottom shelf of the library. When he squatted to grab it, he noticed a book he’d never seen before. It was pushed deep into the shelf so hidden from view. It was a textbook called ‘Using Energy.’
William says this book changed his life.
The cover of the book showed a long row of windmills. William had no idea what a windmill was. All he saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a fan.
He called Gilbert over and pointed at the picture. “Don’t these look like the pinwheels we used to make?”
“Yeah,” Gilbert said, “but these things are giant. What are they for?”
“Let’s find out,” William said, and began to read:
‘Energy is all around you every day. Sometimes energy needs to be converted to another form before it is useful to us. How can we convert forms of energy? Imagine hostile forces have invaded your town. If you needed a hero to save the day, it’s unlikely you would go to the nearest university and drag a scientist to the battlefront. Yet, according to legend, it was not a general who saved the Greek city of Syracuse when the Roman fleet attacked it in 214 B.C… it was a scientist.’
The book went on to explain how a Greek inventor, named Archimedes, used his ‘Death Ray’ — basically a bunch of mirrors — to reflect the sun onto the enemy ships until, one by one, they caught fire and sank. It was an example of how you can use the sun to produce energy. Just like with the sun, windmills could also be used to generate power.
It all snapped together for William.
“If the wind spins the blades of a windmill,” he thought, “and the dynamo works by turning the pedals of a bike, these two things could work together! If I can somehow get the wind to spin the blade on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I can create electricity and power a lightbulb. All I need is a windmill and I could have lights! No more smoky lanterns in my house. I could stay awake and read instead of going to bed at seven.” But most important, a windmill could also pump water. With his village and the rest of the country starving to death, a water pump could save lives by irrigating crops.
“Gilbert!” William exclaimed. “I’m going to build a windmill!”
William had never tried anything like it, but he decided to step out of his comfort zone and embark on a hero’s quest.
Gilbert smiled. “When do we start?”
“We start today.”
For the next month, William woke up early each day and went to a scrapyard to find pieces for his windmill. Now that he had a purpose and a plan, he began to find exactly what he needed. “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity,” he says. When he wasn’t at the scrapyard, he hung out at the library or sat in his hammock and read. His imagination was constantly at work.
People in his village thought he was crazy. His room was full of junk from the scrapyard. “What’s wrong with you?” his mother asked one day. “Your friends don’t behave this way. Look at this room! It looks like a madman’s room. Only madmen collect garbage.”
William proved them wrong.
Despite the many things that went wrong, he persisted, and brought his windmill to life.
In the ‘Land of Fear,’ the Tuareg camp five miles away from the nearest water source so their children learn to not take it for granted.
The shoeshine boys in my country were happier and more inventive than a privileged child looking down on them with envy.
A poor boy in Malawi used hardship as a catalyst for ingenuity.
Meanwhile, children in the West grow up in abundance, plied with the latest gadgets, toys, electronics, and myriad distractions, which partly explains the growing epidemic of anxiety, ADHD, and depression plaguing American children.
In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai warriors greet each other with the phrase “Kasserian Ingera?” — “Are the children well?”
“Not well at all,” would be my answer should one of them greet me at a shopping mall in an industrialized city, especially on a Black Friday.
Parents in this part of the world might want to consider removing their children from their world of plentitude to spark their inventiveness and teach them to not take everything for granted.