How did you hear about William?
I’d just finished writing my Congo book, All Things Must Fight to Live, and was feeling pretty burned out and disillusioned about Africa. I’d spent an intense five years covering the cycle of war, disease, rape, and pillage that’s become the calling card of the continent. I’d struggled with this in Congo, but felt there was little time to cover anything else but that grueling and horrific conflict. You’d always look out for positive stories, and I’m sure they were all around me, but the war always had a way of masking them in its filth. Africans would usually be the ones to point out this discrepancy, and I’d never have a good answer. The week I turned in my Congo book, my agent called and told me to look at the Wall Street Journal. William and his windmills were on the front page. I thought, ‘Wow, this is exactly the story I’ve been looking to tell.’
How did you guys go about writing the story?
I spent the next year going back to his village in central Malawi, living with his family, meeting all of his cousins and neighbors, interviewing everyone I could find. I spent weeks just interviewing people about magic, which played a huge role in his childhood. The famine took most of the other time. Since William’s English was still improving, I interviewed him through a translator – Blessings Chikakula – which allowed William to speak comfortably in Chichewa, cracking jokes and telling these great, often silly stories. He’s a really funny guy. Eventually, I was able to mine these core elements of his speech and give him an English voice. Each night after work, I’d charge my laptop and transcribe notes under lights powered by his whirling windmill outside.
How did this experience affect you?
It was an incredible journey, and along the way, William and I became very good friends. As he often says, “I saw a need to change something, but couldn’t wait on others to do it for me.” His story counters the stereotype of Africans as helpless subjects of corrupt politicians and international aid groups. For once, I didn’t come home cynical and depressed. I was seeing Africa through his eyes, and it’s a much more hopeful lens. It was exactly the remedy I needed after those years in Congo, and helped remind me of why I’d fallen in love with the continent in the first place.
What happens to William now?
William has received a good share of international attention because of his story, but he seems determined not to rest on his laurels. Getting an education and providing for his family have always been his two major goals, and he’s still very committed to achieving them. Right now he’s finishing his studies at African Leadership Academy, a pan-African prep school in Johannesburg, South Africa, that’s filled with other young superheroes like himself. After that, he plans to attend college in America or South Africa and continue his effort to power rural Africa. He wants to teach young people in small villages how to build and maintain windmills to provide electricity and pump water for crops. That way, families won’t be so vulnerable to drought and famine. His story will definitely be worth following. He’s also the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Moving Windmills, that kind of picks up where the book leaves off. I’ve seen some of the footage and it’s pretty powerful.