Friday, July 10, 2015

A famine seen by its victims

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a bestseller about a remarkable boy in Malawi. I'm sure I wasn't the only reader who had to look on a map to learn where in Africa was this small country. And now, having read the book, I feel as if the exact location isn't the important thing: William Kamkwamba shows us how humans anywhere can apply their intellectual curiosity and determination to build things to improve life, can overcome challenges that seem insurmountable.

Author Kamkwamba was around 14 years old when his dream of education was interrupted by a famine that impoverished his family: they could barely get food to eat, and definitely not pay his school fees. In an effort to keep up with the lessons he was missing, he began to read books from a small local library in the farming village where he lived. A science text described how to make a windmill -- and he determined that he would build one to bring electricity to his family.

Their needs were simple; when they didn't have money for kerosene lamp fuel or batteries for their radios, they spent idle evenings in the dark. Wind-powered electricity would allow them to light a small electric bulb, listen to the radio, or help neighbors by charging their cell phones.

Without any money, his creativity and grasp of how things work enabled him to patiently invent solutions to the challenges of needing blades for the windmill (made from old PVC pipe, flattened by heat); a dynamo and other moving parts from an old bicycle; washers made from beer caps; a structure made from blue gum tree poles; and many parts scavenged from old cars in a dump. The details and small successes along the way make fascinating reading. This book is crafted marvelously in the way it describes each step in his inventive creation.

The triumph of building a windmill is the most memorable part of the narrative, but I was also totally fascinated by the description of how his family ate in normal times, and of the day by day description of the famine. Everyday food for the people of his village was corn porridge with relishes such as greens, other vegetables, occasional meat, or sometimes insects like sweet ants or crunchy grasshoppers. They raised a few chickens and guinea fowl; their cash crop was tobacco. Kamkwamba and his friends sometimes snared small birds and ate them in their kids' clubhouse. He shared his food with his dog.

One year, no rain came. Crops dried up and it became obvious that the stores of food people kept would run out. Corruption in a new government regime meant that the reserves that previous administrations had kept for such emergencies had been sold to profit the rulers, and the types of aid that had been available were no longer there. Occasional food distributions were corrupt, inadequate, and led to near-riots. The long and detailed description of the months without food is horrifying and enlightening. I've never read anything so personal about a famine.

Slowly, food consumption declined until the family were eating only one meal per day, just a few bites of corn porridge, rarely any other food. Prices in the marketplace became sky high. His mother began to make corn into small cakes, sell them in the marketplace, and buy more corn each day -- enough to feed the family a small meal and sell more the next day.

Christmas was a cruel day. The family chickens that had been a hope for one day's better rations had become sick and died. Churches cancelled all festivities. Memories of soft brown bread, margarine, sugar, and tea for breakfast and chicken for dinner on earlier Christmases made this Christmas "like a punishment." (p. 115)

"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." (p. 134)

Those who were fleeing from one place to another begged the Kamkwamba family for food, but they too were starving. Many families were selling all their possessions for just a few days' worth of corn.

The author and his friends tried to snare birds but had no grain to bait the traps. An outbreak of cholera and cases of malaria contributed to the misery. His friends became emaciated. "We were all losing weight. The bones began to show in my chest, and the rope I'd used as a belt no longer sufficed. ... My mouth was always dry. My arms became thin like blue gum poles and ached all the time.... No magic could save us now. Starving was a cruel kind of science." (p. 150-151)

After months of famine, the family mustered the strength to plant the next year's crops. When the first small ears of corn became just big enough to eat, they gathered them and finally had enough to eat. "I chewed slowly and with great satisfaction .... Each time I swallowed was like returning something that was lost, some missing part of my being. ... to have a stomach filled with hot food was one of the greatest pleasures in life." (p.157)

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Intriguing. A friend of mine did mission work in Malawi, helping them build wells, so I'm a bit familiar with the territory. (How many times can I correct that word to get it right!)