The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a beautiful but bitter-sweet African story set in Malawi in 2001.
It’s based on the true story of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba whose agrarian community is in the throws of famine brought on initially by intense flooding followed by a devastating drought, coupled with a corrupt government’s intentional neglect.
The boy, who grew up and wrote the book, wanted to find the means to save his community. But his family’s failed crop meant there’s no money for school fees, so he’s unceremoniously kicked out. This means he can’t even read the science books he yearns to learn from.
Yet William (played by Maxwell Simba, one of the Kenyans in the film) is unrelenting and finally figures out how to construct a ‘jua kali’ (makeshift) wind turbine that can power a water pump so his family’s forsaken land can be irrigated, thus enabling crops to grow, food to be harvested and the whole community eventually fed.
It might sound like a common-place or even tragic tale, but it nonetheless illustrates how one tenacious person, with his people’s support, can overcome impossible odds. It also shows how climate change hits the most vulnerable the hardest.
The book itself is what touched the heart of Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor of Nigerian descent. So much so that this award-winning actor who starred opposite Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave chose to write the screenplay for the film which he also directed and co-starred in. He even learned the Malawian language, Chetewa, to enhance the film’s authenticity.
Playing William’s father, Ejiofor has previously starred in films like Amistad, American Gangster, The Martian and Dirty Pretty Things. But he’d never directed before; never made a film in Africa before, specifically in Malawi where he first scouted out the actual land, home and school where William had lived, farmed and schooled.
In William’s case, his efforts to sneak back into the school library to read books about sustainable energy, including wind power, was risky business. He was severely reprimanded by his stern headmaster, played by another Kenyan actor Raymond Ofula, who’s hardcore until his character finally relents.
Other Kenyans in the cast are Martin Githinji, best known for his TV series, ‘Sue and Johnnie’, Melvin Alusa, for his part in the reality TV show, ‘Big Brother’, Eddie Mbugua and Robert Agengo.
The Boy who Harnessed the Wind, despite its brilliant acting, authenticity and suspenseful story, could easily have been overlooked as just another Third World film. But probably, Ejiofor’s star-power played a role in getting the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up by Netflix which has pitched in on the film’s marketing.
This past week saw the Kenya Film Commission open its third Kalasha film market where we hope Kenyan films got similar attention to ‘The Boy’s.