Friday, July 3, 2020

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind - Sermon for week ending July 4, 2020


Our first reading is from The Boy who harnessed the Wind by William KamKwamba, about the 2001 famine in Malawi.

By late January, the real starvation began. Famine arrived in Malawi. It fell upon us like the great plagues of Egypt I’d read about, swiftly and without rest. As if overnight, people’s bodies began changing into horrible shapes. They were now scattered across the land by the thousands, scavenging the soil like animals. Far from home and away from their families, they began to die. They stumbled past in a daze, their eyes swimming in their sockets. Some people wasted away until they looked like walking skeletons. Women with thin, ashen faces sat alone, quietly pleading with God. Everywhere the anguish was silent, because no one had the energy to cry.

Our second reading is also by William KamKwamba, who at age 14, built a windmill out of scraps, saving his village from starvation. This is William in a Ted Talk 18 years later.

I try to share my story with people around the world who might be in the same  situation I was in when I was doing my work, to help them get inspired to do some project to solve problems in their communities. My dream is to continue to find ways to solve the problems people are facing throughout the world.


Our movie with a message for this week is The Boy who harnessed the Wind, available on Netflix, which tells the true story of how 14-year-old William KamKwamba saved his family and his village from starvation during the 2001 famine in Malawi. 

The story opens before the famine, when life in William’s rural village was difficult, but survivable. All the farmers grew corn, and the whole family worked to till the soil, plant, fertilize, and harvest the crop that would hopefully provide them with enough food for the year.  William’s parents saved enough money the year before to send him to primary school, and with his curiosity and a natural aptitude, he learned to repair radios and CD players for the villagers. He said, “Although most people were content to enjoy these inventions without explanation, questions constantly filled my mind.” 

Normally, the rainy season in Malawi started the first week of December and continued through March. But in December 2000, the rains were late and much too heavy.  Deforestation caused severe flooding, which destroyed crops and homes. And, as we heard in our first reading, soon famine came to Malawi. William’s family was eating only one small meal a day, and they began to suffer the effects of hunger. 

In the past, the government had stored grain to subsidize the farmers, but that year, they had sold their reserves to surrounding countries to pay off debt. People began eating corn husks, which they usually gave to their animals. William counted his family’s supply of food and found that it would serve them one meal for 24 days, but it would be 210 days before the next harvest. People sold their farm animals, then their possessions in order to buy food.

Although William had to drop out of school, he started visiting the library to try to catch up with the few students who were still there. He was drawn to science books. One book, Explaining Physics, used illustrations to answer some of the questions he had. He learned how electro magnets could power motors and how a wind turbine could produce electricity
to rotate a pump for irrigation. If he could build a windmill, they wouldn’t have to depend on the rains, and the dry season wouldn’t scorch the plants. He said, “With a windmill, we’d finally release ourselves from the troubles of darkness and hunger.In Malawi, the wind was one of the few consistent things given to us by God, blowing in the treetops day and night. A windmill was more than just power. It was freedom.”

William visited scrap yards to get the materials he needed. When he had gathered and assembled everything, he asked his father to give him his bicycle, which was the family’s only means of transportation, to power the generator. But the people of Malawi, including his father, did not know about or trust science. Their culture was one of magic and witch doctors. At first, he said, No, but eventually, William convinced him that the windmill would mean that they could have an extra harvest. Everyone in the village pitched in to cut birch trees and build the tower. When everything was ready, William climbed up and touched wires together, and the windmill began to spin. It supplied his home with electricity, and water pumping from the well, irrigated the crops year round.

This story lays bare economic inequality and government corruption. Malawi today, almost 20 years later, is still one of the poorest countries in the world. But this is also a tale of hope, hope through human ingenuity and tenacity. William didn’t stop at his village. He built a windmill for the school, so that students could get news and music. 

And he taught anyone who was interested how to make electricity with wind. William ended up graduating from Dartmouth, and now works with WiderNet a non-profit that provides digital education for communities across the globe. He also runs the Moving Windmills project, which he created, equipping schools in Malawi with solar panels and a digital library so that students don’t have to be online to access academic material. 

As we heard in the second reading, William said he wanted to be an inspiration to others searching for ways to solve problems in their communities. And his story can inspire us to put our brains and hearts and resources to work to provide opportunities for education and research and innovation in our own community. Amen.

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