You may have seen the TED talk, or read the book, or just seen an interview with him somewhere like CNN or the Daily Show. He’s William Kamkwamaba, a young man from Malawi, who dropped out of school at a young age and built his family a windmill. From junk. And it worked.
In the early 2000s, Malawi was suffering through a crippling drought, which led to the worst famine in its history. The Malawis primarily grow maize, and as their crops withered, people starved. William’s solution was to build a windmill to pump water. Then he built another. His family’s crops were able to grow despite the drought, and soon his story became a well-known TED talk. That’s when entrepreneur Tom Rielly heard his story and thought, ‘This kid needs a chance.’
So Rielly took William under his wing, and got him back into school (a prestigious magnet school in South Africa), and eventually college. A book (which became a bestseller) and a film deal also came together.
A new film premiering at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin this week, ‘William and the Windmill,’ tells the story of what it was like for William to have his story told. In other words, it looks at what life is like when you’re simple village teenager who all of the sudden becomes an energy icon. It also asks important questions about international aid and development.
‘William and the Windmill’ joins the boy as he’s becoming a young man, navigating life in the media spotlight as well as an introduction to completely new cultures. Director and Producer Ben Nabors follows William through high school, a book tour and his first year of college, with occasional trips back to Malawi.
The film’s strength lies in its embrace of ambiguity: Is William being exploited? Is the Western world putting too much emphasis and pressure on one boy in order to build up an entire nation? Does our perspective on energy and development negatively color how we provide aid to the rest of the world? What is the the best way to help the rest of the world to develop without being paternalistic and inefficient?
The film never directly answers. That’s intentional, the director said in a Q&A session after a screening this week. “The subtlety of film was extremely important but difficult to maintain,” Nabors said. “I wanted to give William a portrait beyond his book and beyond his TED talk, that would allow him to do everything he wanted to do.” The film was a Grand Jury Winner at the SXSW Film Festival this week.
For William’s mentor, it was a question of trying to help one individual instead of thousands. “I think the only way to change the continent is find the spark plugs, the future leaders,” Rielly said after the screening. “And support them to lead, instead of going in and changing everything.”
William is set to graduate Dartmouth next year. “It’s going quite well,” he said after the screening this week. “I’m excited.” He plans to return to Malawi after graduation. All of the proceeds from his book and film deal go directly into his bank account. He’s using that money to put his five sisters through private school. There’s now a solar-powered water pump for his village, too. William is working with a few non-profits, like the Moving Windmills Project (which helped finance the film, along with crowd-sourced funding) to build schools in Malawi with solar and wind power.
“I say that I’ll be able to control my life with an education,” William said. “Most of the people in my community didn’t go to school. Most become farmers, but not by choice. But if I become a farmer, it will be because I choose to.”
And William will be taking a bit of Texas with him when he returns to his home country. While in Austin this week, he got his first pair of cowboy boots.