Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Speaking of Giving: Ride the Electric Wind

Last night, I received first place in the first round of the Toastmasters International Speech contest, held in our Chief Anderson Toastmasters chapter. (Only three of us presented speeches for the contest, so this isn't as big an honor as it sounds ... but it still gives me a shot to go on to higher levels, so we'll see!) This being my first Toastmasters contest, I'm still waiting for details about how things proceed from here.

Since I am in the midst of an experiment where I am embracing giving throughout my life, my speech was also on the subject of giving. Here is the speech I gave (with heavy editing, since I write far better than I talk):

Ride the Electric Wind
A few years back, in the African nation of Malawi, there was a famine. The Kamkwamba family, in the village of Wimbe, were down to eating one meal a day, of an un-riped corn turned into a sort of porridge. The father was drying their last tobacco harvest, so he was able to get some loans against it ... but the loans soon outstripped the amount that would actually be made from the sale of the tobacco.

In the midst of all of this, the family didn't have the money to pay the fees for their son, William Kamkwamba, to attend the local primary school. He still tried to go to school, avoiding the authorities that would notice him. Finally, though, he was caught and told to leave. But he didn't give up on learning, and spent time at the local library. He especially enjoyed reading about science topics.

Keep in mind, English was not William's primary language, but the books were in English. So to research the science topics, he had to teach himself English. And what he couldn't learn, he had to get other people to translate.

One of the things that he learned about were windmills. He was fascinated by the idea of building one, to bring this "electric wind" (as he called it) to his poor community. The focus of his research became building one of these machines. Using materials salvaged from his local trash dump, he pieced together the turbines that would turn the motion into electricity and the windmill itself and the circuit breaker [to keep his house from burning down - see the Daily Show video below]. He was mocked by his community and family, most all of which (except for his father) thought him insane.

But William Kamkwamba, at age 14, was successful. He built a working windmill for his house.

This is the point where things get ... well, not interesting, because it's already interesting ... but they get worldly, I guess you could say. Because William's windmill came to the attention of newspapers and blogs, and finally to the attention of the people who organized the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conferences, who asked William to attend.

At the TED conference, 19 year old William was brought on stage where he, in halted English, explained what had happened: "After I drop out from school, I went to library and I read a book titled Using Energy and I get information about windmill and I try and I made it." [See the video below!]  

William met wealthy patrons from around the world. Now he had funding! He built a new, improved windmill, and now women from his village can access the electric irrigation system, which brings water directly into the village ... rather than hiking for miles to bring water every day for their family. He received the funds to attend a prominent school, where he will learn the skills he needs to be successful in life and to transform his community in ways that even he can't yet imagine. Just last December, he announced that he was leading a project to rebuild his primary school. (The old building was built in 1950 to educate 450 students, but now has 1,480 students!)

This would be impressive enough, of course, but I want to focus on another aspect of this story, which wasn't included in his book - The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind - or in any of the other major commentary on the matter that I've read. I only found out about this other aspect because I work for a company which makes textbooks ...  in fact, for the very company that published the textbook, Using Energy, from which William learned to build his windmill. The company offered this textbook, as they offer many textbooks every year, through a program where they donate textbooks to libraries in developing countries throughout the world.

So this whole inspiring story, really, begins with someone, over a decade ago, in a boardroom, or an office, or a cubicle, deciding that it would be worthwhile to give away textbooks to libraries in the developing world. And then that person had to, no doubt, push for their idea and get it implemented as a practice by a major corporation ... to give away the very product they sold to make their profits.

The gift of a textbook changed the lives of thousands of people in a village in Malawi. A good call, in my opinion.

When we give, we don't always know what the full impact will be. But we give precisely in the hope that if we give, there will be a worthwhile impact. And the more we give, the more we reach out to expand knowledge, and learning, and opportunity, and hope, the greater the impact that we can expect to have in the world.
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