Film review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - Still

Photo credit: Ilze Kitshoff / Sundance Institute programs.

By Anders Lorenzen

On the surface, life in Wimbe a village in Malawi seemed decent for the schoolboy William Kamkwamba (played by Maxwell Simba) and his family. The farming family seemed to do well enough to get by and could even afford to send William to school.

But things soon deteriorate. First, the villagers are forced by the local community to sell the nearby trees, much to the displeasure of William’s Dad, Trywell Kamkwamba (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). Trywell worries that the removal of the trees would lead to flooding. And sure enough, rains arrive and Trywell battles hard trying to save the crops. Due to the poor harvest, they have to pull William out of school as they can no longer afford the tuition fees.

This is followed by a severe drought which brings a food crisis to the village. Trywell joins with other men in the village to protest that the government are doing nothing to help them, and the family is robbed by desperate people who have not eaten for days. As a result, they have to ration their food, eating only one meal a day.

But William has a trick up his sleeve. He has a knack for technology and has been fixing the villages` radios for a while. After he could no longer go to school, he still sneaked into the science classes and was subsequently expelled. But by blackmailing the teacher (who was in a secret relationship with his sister) he manages to get into the library. There he studied the book ‘Using Energy’ which talks about wind energy.

He decides to try to build his own wind turbine. The idea is that it could power the water pump which will give his family and the village a steady and consistent flow of water. Getting help from his friends, and with parts from the local scrapyard, he builds a prototype model to prove that it works. But in order to build the large model and have the blades turn correctly, he needs to take apart his Dad’s bicycle.

But Trywell is having none of it and does not believe in his son`s invention. He is suffering from depression after the loss of their crops, by the hardship caused, and by the fact that his daughter has left home. He orders William to get working on the farm instead. But in the end, William’s Mum convinces Trywell to give the turbine a chance. Together with the remaining villagers (many had fled as the crops failed), they help William build the structure of the wind turbine. They all wait in anticipation while the blades charge the battery. Suddenly the pump starts to work, the water to flow, and the drought-plagued fields turn into green fields.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on the true story of William Kamkwamba. But in the real-life story, he used the wind turbine to power electrical appliances in the house. Then followed a solar powered water pump and other wind turbines. After the achievement in 2006, he gained worldwide fame.

While there’s no mention as to whether the drought in Malawi at that time (mid 2000’s) was due to climate change, there’s no doubt that such African communities are held back in their development due to lack of electricity and no access to the grid. Earlier in the film, while William was still in school, he could not study at night because the family did not have enough kerosene to fuel their lamps. Kerosene is a polluting hydrocarbon liquid which is derived from petroleum. Charities like Solar Aid have been campaigning hard to eliminate kerosene while offering a cheap alternative in the form of solar light. This would allow children to study at night after sunset, providing a step ladder to education and development.

A striking message in the film is also how little it takes to set development into reverse. A drought like the one experienced in Wimbe can cause severe hardship, and it can set a family back severely. The late Swedish statistician, Hans Rosling, has talked extensively of the different development stages, as families climb the ladder out of poverty. For example, having a bicycle is an incredibly valuable asset, giving unique mobility which is demonstrated in the film. It is perhaps why Trywel was so reluctant to part with his.

For me what the film demonstrates is how much a community can benefit from smart cleantech solutions such as water pumps powered by solar or wind power. Technologies that require electricity, to which we can add cooking stoves and fridges, are not appropriate across Africa where so many remote communities are not connected to the energy grid. Decentralised wind and solar power are the answer.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is currently showing on Netflix.


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