SALT LAKE CITY — Over his 31 years, William Kamkwamba has experienced things he never dreamed of. But seeing an actor play him as a 13-year-old on the big screen might top the list.
"It’s a little bit weird and interesting at the same time," the subject of the Sundance Film Festival's Salt Lake opening film, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," said in a recent phone interview.
It's no wonder that Kamkwamba has conflicting emotions about seeing his early years played out on-screen. Kamkwamba, who grew up in a small, impoverished village in Malawi in southeastern Africa, is a pioneer and real-life hero for his community, but his achievements didn't come without difficulty.
The film — directed by Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12-Years a Slave") in his directorial debut — and the 2009 book, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," which Kamkwamba wrote with Bryan Mealer, detail his young curiosity, his battle to gain an education and eventually, learning about and building a windmill out of scavenged junk and household items to harness wind energy for his family farm. But as the first person in his small corner of the world try something so ambitious, his ideas didn't immediately impress his family and neighbors — including his father.
"I think the reason why he wasn’t very happy at the beginning … (was because when) I was very much younger, like between 4 and 6 years old, I took apart his radio, because I thought there were small people who speak (inside of it) and I wanted to say hi to them," Kamkwamba said. "I completely messed up that radio."
He soon figured out that it wasn't tiny people who made his father's radio work and became adept at fixing the broken ones. But radios were only the start for the young boy. Although his family lacked the money to send him to the local school, he was able, through some ingenuity, to gain access to the school's small library. It was there that he found the two books that would change his life.
"One was a usable energy book, that’s the one that inspired me for the windmill, but there were also a physics book. … It was exciting to understand the physics," Kamkwamba remembered. "Growing up I was very curious, so I just wanted to understand the physics part and how things work, and being able to go to the library and find the books and being able to read and to learn about them, it was very, very exciting to me."
Once Kamkwamba learned about using the wind as a power source, he obsessively worked to harness it, despite his neighbors mocking and his dad's initial hesitation.
"One thing that made me think that I could do it, I told myself that if this windmill exists somewhere else, that means that a human being made it — it’s not something that was formed out of nature. It was made by somebody," he said.
Kamkwamba's struggles — through poverty, drought, the ignorance around him and his own inexperience and lack of know-how — might have put off others, but he remembered thinking that if it didn't work out, "I am not going to be the first person to fail. People have failed before," he said.
That wise thinking is one of Kamkwamba's many mature and level-headed traits that the new film highlights. With a cast that includes Ejiofor as his father and newcomer Maxwell Simba as the young Kamkwamba, the film was shot on location in Malawi and depicts the difficulties the country's average farmers face, from government corruption to lack of education to local violence. It also shows Kamkwamba's first triumph: creating a workable windmill that brought power to his village, a moment he hasn't forgotten.
"It was the happiness not necessarily to prove to people that what I was working on was useful — proving that I wasn’t crazy, the way that people were thinking — but I was happy because it worked," he said.
From that first windmill, things began to improve for Kamkwamba and his community. In time, he was able to go to school, eventually giving a TED Talk when he was 19, then touring with his book and attending Dartmouth University, where he earned a degree in environmental science.
He started the nonprofit Moving Windmills Project in 2008 and is currently working to start what he calls an "innovation center" Malawi, which he hopes will connect young people with professionals, give them a space to create and provide them with resources. He's full of ideas about improving farming in Malawi and is working on making available a machine that locals can use to drill their own wells and access clean water.
It's inspiring to hear about Kamkwamba's goals and see all that he's done — something he hears often from those who read his book or hear him speak. And while this new film will help more people hear his story, it will also give viewers, many of whom will be American, a glimpse into a world very different from our own — a view that might help us appreciate what we have.
"I think that you take (education) for granted (in America), and the opportunities that people have here, they are higher than the opportunities people have in Malawi," Kamkwamba said.
"I have come to understand that you don’t think you are taking (education) for granted because you haven’t experienced what some other people are lacking. Until you … see what other people don’t have, (then can) you appreciate what you have."