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Malawi: Windmill genius, burying the first lady, and other things Malawian

He made his first windmill when he was 14 years old, having dropped out of school due to lack of school fees in 2002. And until two weeks ago, he had never touched a computer before, let alone use email. This month he was the toast of an international technology conference in Arusha, Tanzania, where he shared the limelight with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Jane Goodall,Bono, Larry Page (the inventor of Google), among many famous names. The story of William Kamkwamba and his genius achievement is the highlight of this round-up of the Malawian blogosphere, in addition to a recent conference on VOIP; the recent death of Malawi’s first lady, Mrs Ethel Mutharika; returning on air after a year’s absence; defining white collar and armed crime; broadening solutions to problems of food security; and remembering forgotten nationalists. Herewith another round-up of the Malawi blogosphere.

Boy genius and the windmill at the TEDGlobal conference

The most exciting phenomenon in the Malawian blogosphere, as I am writing, is the 19-year-old William Kamkwamba. Five years ago William dropped out of secondary school just after two terms due to lack of money for school fees. Visiting a nearby school library supplied by the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA), a USAID project, he one day found a book on how to make electricity using home-made materials, and today he has not only built a windmill that is attracting attention around the world, he was also given a standing ovation at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference, held June 4-7 in Arusha, Tanzania. On his one-week old blog, which has already attracted comments from different parts of the globe, William describes how it all started with MTTA’s deputy chief of party, Dr. Hartford Mchazime, who was visiting one of his project’s schools, which turned out to be the one whose library William had drawn his original inspiration from. Dr. Mchazime brought journalists with him, and a story published in Malawi’s The Daily Times was picked up by other newspapers and bloggers around the world. Here is how William describes what has happened in his life in the last few weeks:

Unbeknownst to me until about two weeks ago, Soyapi Mumba, a software engineer based in Lilongwe brought the article to the attention of Mike McKay, his colleague who writes a blog called Hactivate, and Mike posted on his blog about the story in the newspaper. I found out recently that several other people also wrote about my story on their blogs, too.

Two weeks ago I used a computer for the first time. I learned about Google and searched for “windmill” and “solar energy.” I was amazed to learn how many entries there were for both subjects. My friends showed me how to create an email address and now I am on Gmail. Now I am practicing sending and receiving emails when I have access to a computer.

Soyapi Mumba attended the TED conference in Tanzania, and writes about the sessions at the conference, one of which featured William Kamkwamba:

Among these was a 3 minute Question and Answer session where the curator Chris Anderson asked William Kamkwamba questions regarding the Windmill he created for his home in Kasungu, Malawi at the age of 14. Through the Questions with photos on the slides, William told his story which made people shed tears and later, give him a big applause and a standing ovation.

Mike McKay himself posted on his blog Hacktivate an entry after receiving an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) message from Soyapi from the conference site:

Remember William Kamkwamba and his homemade Windmill made from bicycle parts?

After I made that post, Emeka Okafor invited William to attend the TED conference in Tanzania. Soyapi (who is also there) just irc’d me to say that William gave a presentation and received a standing ovation. People like Bono, Larry Page, and lots of other movers and shakers are there.

VOIP conference in Malawi

Still on technology, Clement Nyirenda describes how contrary to his fears, he was selected to attend a workshop on Voice over Internet Procol (VoIP)/SIP held recently in Malawi. While commending the instructor for a job well done, he voices his concerns that the future of VOIP in Malawi remains uncertain as there is no clear policy on how the technology can benefit Malawians in rural areas:

On the other hand, it must be pointed out that although the workshop was a great success, the future of VoIP technologies in Malawi is still unclear. In her opening address, the Minister of Information and Civic Education informed us that cabinet did not approve the initial VoIP policy because it did not specify the benefits of the technology for the rural masses. She challenged us to reshape the VoIP policy so that it addresses the concerns of cabinet. In light of this, most of us were of the impression that on the final day of the workshop, we would discuss the VoIP policy and the future of this technology in the country. But contrary to the general expectation, the workshop wound up without addressing these issues.

Feeling the airwaves again

Also bringing new technology know-how to Malawi is Sweden-based blogger Victor Kaonga, GV author, home in Malawi for the summer holidays. Victor is back on air at Trans World Radio, where the reaction from his listeners has been nothing short of amazing:

I am still humbled by the feedback from the audience. There are listeners from almost parts of Malawi; rural and urban listening to the station daily. Of special surprise to me was the number of text messages that came during the regards programme this morning (Tiwale) where I read not less than 100 text messages in 40 minutes!

While traveling across Europe and various places in Malawi, Victor keeps a keen, observant eye on what he calls a “human right” that is also a part of human nature. He finds himself comparing public rest rooms, and discusses the differences in the fees one pays for this “right”:

I am seated at Oslo Central Station and wondering if indeed I have to part with 10 Norwegian Kronor (equivalent of 220 Malawi Kwacha) as toilet fee. In Malawi's cities of Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba and Lilongwe, toilet fees arrange between 5 and 30 Kwacha. In one place in Mzuzu, men pay more than women for reasons difficult to put online. To think of paying 220 Malawi Kwacha for using a toilet sounds and is too much for a Malawian who finds the amount enough for two return trips from Area 25 residential area to City Center.

Public rest rooms being not the only item Victors finds himself making comparisons about, he also discovers, while traveling, that the Internet is not as cheap in Europe as it is made to be, going by the exorbitant fees he had to pay in cafes in Finland and in Norway. Back to technology, Victor updates his readers on his progress in a global online course he has enrolled in, and how he has finally succeeded in making his first podcast.

Burying a first lady

As Victor covered in the last Malawi round-up, Malawi has been mourning the death of Mrs. Ethel Mutharika, the wife of the Malawian president Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika. Austin Madinga observes that despite everyone’s wishes that the recent death of Malawi’s first lady would unite all Malawians, soon after she is buried Malawian politicians are at each others’ throats yet again

:

For the past few weeks following the death of the first lady, there were calls from various sections of society for the goodwill displayed around the funeral to continue. Plenty people also commented that good would come out of all of it. I was one of those hoping good would come out but somehow I was not optimistic.

Continuing on the topic of the death of the first lady, Kondwani Kamiyala uses the occasion of June 14, Freedom Day in Malawi, to reflect on the death of Madamme Ethel Mutharika and the pacifying effect her death has had on the country:

As I write, we are in a mourning period for our First Lady, Madame Ethel Mutharika, wife to Bingu wa Mutharika, our President. She succumbed to cancer, and a month’s mourning was declared.

During this period, the nation has known great unity. Bingu’s predecessor Bakili Muluzi cut off his trip to the UK to attend Madame Mutharika’s burial on 9th June. The two have been at loggerheads since Bingu ditched Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (the party that ushered him to power at the 2004 elections) to form his Democratic Progressive Party. John Tembo, the opposition leader and leader of the Malawi Congress Party made a eulogy that praised the First Lady, while at the same time calling for continued unity. For once, it seemed even the rapists who have been making headlines for raping babies were so grief-stricken, since there was nothing about them in the press during this time. They had recovered a little bit of their senses, and were not out raping their granddaughters. For once, you would think Madame Mutharika’s call for the protection of the girl-child was making sense on them.

Also on the death of the first lady, Among The Trees praises her down-to-earth, non-flashy character:

She gave selflessly and sought no accolades. Not for her the prominent fashionista image more commonly associated with the wives of other national leaders. Hers was the more typical mother/grandmother/friend/counselor/teacher role. She led by example and this drew people to her. Her husband implicitly trusted her judgement particularly on the public podium as can be evidenced by an anecdote in Ko's tribute to her Even in our internecine local politics none sought to malign her character and rarely was she spoken of.

‘Penned or Armed Crime’: what’s the difference?

We move away from the sad story of the first lady to a daily concern amongst Malawians and people everywhere. KwathuNetwork waxes poetic and asks who does more damage, white collar criminals or armed robbers: The blogger provides an own answer:

Regardless of the situation, they are guilty of the same kind of crime…robbing the innocents. The armed robber with a gun and the pen robber with a stroke of a pen steal millions of Kwacha, all in effort to maintain their fallacious lifestyles. They both love the glamorous dinner dance and to fully participate or host such events, they must have the wherewithal to afford it. If compromising their integrity and mortgaging their conscience is what it takes, they gladly embrace it. If ruining the lives of millions is what it entails, they willingly accept it. If siphoning the financial resources or killing the manpower of the nation is the only option, they adopt it.

Feeding the nation

And contributing to the discussion on how to sustain the bumper harvest Malawi has registered this year, Soka Liyenda writes about how to more broadly deal with food security problems in the country:

The solution to food insecurity is like a puzzle, different pieces coming together to reveal the bigger picture. In my opinion food insecurity requires an integrated approach. Policy makers overlook education, and health, vital issues necessary to solve food problems. We live in a rapidly changing environmental, economical and political change. We have to continue updating and advancing to keep up with the rest of the world. If anything for food insecurity the principal focus should be on education. With education comes new perspectives and a better frame of mind to implement new techniques and to understand new technologies.

Remembering the heroes

Lastly, Malawi Politics writes about Malawian nationalists who led the struggle for Malawi’s independence, listing such names as Dunduzi Chisiza, Kanyama Chiume, and Atati Mpakati, a Malawian who was called a dissident by the Banda regime, and was killed by a letter bomb in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1983. Malawi Politics writes:

It is widely suspected that the parcel was sent by agents of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. Mpakati had survived a similar attack in 1979, which President Banda admitted ordering.

3 comments

  • I checked out William Kamkwamba’s new blog and was really impressed. I’d be a little surprised if he was the one writing it himself, but the pictures of his home and household inventions are interesting to say the least.

  • I cruised in here from the Global Voices site. What a great story. I had to take a look at Mr. Kamkwamba’s site for myself. I love his passion and his smiling face. Thanks!

  • kefa kasakula

    I just like the fact somebody somewhere somehow can write and put online stories about the warm heart of Africa

    God bless you all

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