A Light to Read

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

If this story (HT: Dismuke) doesn't turn the saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention," on its head, it should at least cause people to reconsider what the term "necessity" means in the context of man's nature as a rational animal. (Hint: Bare physical survival is not enough.)

... Kamkwamba, who grew up in Masitala, a tiny rural farming village off the grid in Malawi, was 14 years old in 2001 when he spotted a photo of a windmill in a U.S. textbook one day. He decided to make one, hacking together a contraption from strips of PVC pipe, rusty car and bicycle parts and blue gum trees.

Though he ultimately had big designs for his creation, all he really wanted to do initially was power a small bulb in his bedroom so he could stay up and read past sunset.

But one windmill has turned into three, which now generate enough electricity to light several bulbs in his family's house, power radios and a TV, charge his neighbors' cellphones and pump water for the village's fields and household use.

Now 22, Kamkwamba wants to build windmills across Malawi and perhaps beyond. Next summer he also plans to construct a drilling machine to bore 40-meter holes for water and pumps. His aim is to help Africans become self-sufficient and resolve their problems without reliance on foreign aid.
I highly recommend reading the whole article. Back before people started describing the daily calamities of the Bush and Obama Administrations as "something out of Atlas Shrugged," I recall a similar phrase used to complement heroic people like Kamkwamba: "He sounds like he stepped right out of an Ayn Rand novel." In this case, two of them come to mind: Atlas and Anthem. The second did especially when I read of the time Kamkwamba's "witchcraft" started getting the blame for a drought.

On reading this, I started wondering things like, "What could someone like this accomplish in the developed West?" "Would someone like this even be possible in the West today, given how well-insulated from things like the tyranny of sunset so many of us are and how poorly people are taught about the role of technology in improving our lives?"

But this story answers that second question in the affirmative just about on its own. Men have free will. Some have an indomitable thirst for knowledge and the power that goes with it. Some men are not afraid to overcome the paltry limits placed on them by untamed nature or to stand alone against derision and crowds of second-handers. No one is determined by his surroundings, be they grinding poverty and superstition or opulence and indolence. One can always choose to think for himself.

If you think I'm just gushing, go read the story and check that premise when you're done. You can thank me later for the inspiration.

No. Scratch that. Thank Kamkwamba.

-- CAV


: Clay points to this video of Kamkwamba himself speaking. Unsurprisingly, the young man is engaging and humorous.


C. August said...

I agree. A great story.

On a lighter note, I laughed when I read that he used bottle caps for washers, because of where he found the caps.

Outside the "Ofesi Boozing Centre."

What a great name! It makes me want to start an African-themed bar here in the states, and name it that.

Gus Van Horn said...

Yes, that and the fact that HE was the one being slammed as a pot-smoking nut were both pretty choice.

Clay said...


Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks! That merits an update to the post.

Richard said...

Kakwamba is not above a Western Man. Though he exemplifies the Western spirit applied in a 3rd World region, and his goals are laudable, I suggest that much more than 50% of N. Americans think just as well. The problem here is, we expect it. Meanwhile, there, it stands out.

He IS what that region needs, but he is what some huge portion of Westerners would do if they were plummeted into so backwards a world. It is not that Kwakwamba's neighbors do not know about the West, it is that they do nothing in emulation. His good character is that he did.

Sadly, he stands out, and we laud him, without grasping, properly, how the average man going to work in America, is not far from Kwakwamba at all.

Yes, yes, I know that average man is falling backwards on that very issue. Still, it is the Western value that must be promoted, not the odd 3rd World character that succeeds with it.

Gus Van Horn said...


Yes, Western culture is distinctive for being by far the most rational culture in history, but it is not completely rational. It is mixed, and the irrational elements are starting to win out because most Western intellectuals have abandoned reason. So, regarding your point that we should be promoting Western values, I can only agree that we should be promoting those Western values which are rational.

I can see why you would object to my praise of Kamkwamba on the basis of his level of achievement, but I think you're missing how independent he had to be to get even that far. (Otherwise, why hadn't any of the other villagers already done what he did? The knowledge and materials were plainly all there.) The fact is, he did what you say any average Westerner would have done, but WITHOUT having absorbed Western culture or having as much life experience with Western technology.

Having said all that, I think you underestimate Kamkwamba. You are perhaps also reading into this post a Tracinski-esque "ideas don't drive history" notion. That would be mistaken.

I didn't state this explicitly, but despite Kamkwamba's rationality, he doesn't stand a chance if there are not other people around him rational enough to not steal the fruits of his effort or to trade with him. (I shudder to imagine what might have happened to him had the drought not ended when it did.) He could eventually have his mind undercut by bad philosophical ideas if he can't correct them with recourse to explicitly rational principles. (Lots of university professors I have encountered come to mind.) Nor will Malawi progress very far or for very long without the people there becoming more rational overall. (You can't teach an implicit philosophy to make that happen.)

As we are seeing in the West, this can't happen without an explicit, rational philosophy to serve as a more general guide to life analogous to the physics textbooks he read, that can be learned by other individuals in his culture, and passed down from one generation to another. This story actually illustrates that on one level: Kamkwamba might have still done a lot, comparatively speaking, but he would have been set back even more than he was because he would have had to re-discover so many principles (at least on a rudimentary level) that he was able to get just from the textbook. Indeed, I doubt he could have built even his first windmill/generator/lighting system without it! One man can discover only so much on his own.


Richard said...

Thanks Gus,

I completely agree with you concerning rational Western values. I was implicitly expecting the context around "Western" to imply Enlightenment ideas enhanced by the Objectivist perspective, such are explicit at this blog.

I agree that KwamKwamba's intellectual effort and independence stand out from that of the culture in which he is immersed, and in no way meant to downplay those qualities in him (and am not doing so, below).

Kwamkwamba saw his father's parched land, & that he could not afford schooling for his son. Kwamkwamba saw he was facing a dead-end &, wanting more, set about pursuing more by his own judgment.

It was Kwamkwamba's ideas that drove his pursuit of appropriate technology. What he found in the local library affirmed those ideas, in spite of family and neighborly ridicule. [I strongly disagree with the technology drives history view.]

My main point was that it seems to require a standout amongst poverty and backwardness to get attention, when there are standouts all over America that get little or no attention —some are even vilified.

To take the point further, it seems to me that altruism's focus on the poor, the backward and the needy looms large here. It makes Kwamkwamba's success more attention-worthy & more praiseworthy among the MSM & no small part of the scientific community. If he had grown up in America and been proportionately, if not more, inventive & productive, he would have been largely ignored.

That is why your point about rational Western values —particularly in ethics— is absolutely essential, both culturally and for Kwamkwamba himself.

Gus Van Horn said...


"My main point was that it seems to require a standout amongst poverty and backwardness to get attention, when there are standouts all over America that get little or no attention —some are even vilified."

Ahhh! THAT makes sense. You do have a point there. Thanks for clarifying that.


Beth said...

Great story--esp. in light of the recent Nobel Peace Prize. It's people like this who should be recognized and celebrated. Thanks.

Gus Van Horn said...

"... in light of the recent Nobel Peace Prize ..."

True! That one made me laugh. Thanks for sharing that observation.