For the five years before COVID struck, I had my best job ever. In some ways, I lucked into it, although looking back over my life, I can see how I prepared for it for over decades. I’m going to get to the book in question, but the story of this job helps to understand why I liked this book so much and why I believe it’s an important work for others to discover.
I read voraciously as a child and teen, and even tried my hand at writing stories, but never took writing seriously as a job until I met some working authors when I attended college. Becoming a writer doesn’t happen overnight, and in order to pay the bills, I tended to make money by first relying on my typing skills, then my computer skills, and eventually on my understanding of online communications. Yes, I wrote for these positions, especially the latter, but it wasn’t necessarily the work of a writer. When we moved to Denver in 2015, I grew frustrated in my job search that wasn’t getting me any interviews, so for this next cover letter I wrote, I decided to fall back on my MFA and wrote a creative cover letter for a Social Media Manager position for an international development organization called iDE that compared what I had gained by buying an Apple Macintosh in 1984 versus investing in Apple stock. That letter got me an interview, but after the second question or so, the hiring manager said, “I don’t really think you’re the person for this job.” I started to sputter a response, but she continued with, “I do, however, think you might be perfect for another job I have in mind. Would you be willing to come onboard as our head writer?” Twist my arm!
And as iDE’s writer, I lived my personal life of Riley. I had the opportunity to interview talented staff and inspiring clients to put together stories about tenacity, ingenuity, and progress in the fight against poverty on the personal level, as well as how this can scale to improve entire communities and beyond. I learned about how toilets are not a luxury but a necessity, by preventing disease, providing dignity, and improving lives; I visited farmers using drip irrigation that saved women and girls hours every day of having to gather water; I saw entrepreneurs everywhere using sun tunnels, solar pumps, brick-making machines, and improved pest control; I met with pastoralists in Ethiopia who lived by following their cattle around but who had decided that growing fodder for those cows would be preferable to dealing with constant drought. I spent a month in Cambodia; weeks in Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Mozambique; and five years in the Denver headquarters, chronicling the amazing work being done by people all over the world.
Then COVID happened and my perfect job stopped being so exciting. Instead of going to Zambia in March 2020, I started having to communicate with the field offices and my Denver colleagues via Zoom. For the first time in decades, we could see the communities we work with struggle and even lose the hard-won progress they had made. Personally, I needed to do something else, so I announced my impending retirement, and helped train people to do the jobs I had been doing.
What does this have to do with William Kamkwamba’s book? In many ways, Kamkwabwa’s story is eerily familiar in that it resembles all those stories of iDE clients I wrote about. His depiction of life in Malawi and the struggle of both traders and farmers to earn money and improve their homes echoes not only with the Africans I grew to know, but also with those entrepreneurs I wrote about in Asia and South America. As Kamkwabwa’s book depicts, people are not poor because they want to be, but because so many things happen to prevent them from creating wealth, like natural disasters such as the drought and famine Kamkwabwa experienced as well as floods, earthquakes, and invasive pests. Kamkwabwa’s story about the changes in political leaders in Malawi happens elsewhere, where politicians promise and never deliver. But the most important aspect of his story is how he shows what the power of education can deliver in the world’s poorest locations. It became a bit of a stereotype or trope when I asked farmers and other small entrepreneurs what they planned to do with the extra money they made and they inevitably responded with “send my children to school.” But education is one of the best methods of helping create generational change. People who live in countries where basic education is free do not realize what a powerful economic force happens with that decision; instead, you get people complaining about their school taxes and criticizing little elements of the curriculum taught.
I have to emphasize at least one other aspect of this book: the focus on how the entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t have to have everything be perfect, although access to resources is still necessary. Kamkwabwa’s illustration of how he created his “electric wind” machine by raiding junk yards for parts, buying simple dynamos in the village, and requiring the services of a welder underscores exactly the kinds of support iDE tries to create in communities by creating the opportunities for people to have the resources they need to be successful.
If it isn’t clear by this point, let me emphatically state how much I enjoyed this book, but even more, believe it a wonderful lesson in the power of people to grow and prosper with just a little assistance. Kamkwabwa’s tale centers around a physics textbook where he learned so much about electricity and what was required to harness the wind, but it’s more than just that: it’s also a metaphor for how international aid can help people, not by providing them a handout, but a hand-up.