Recently the video of the ‘African genius’ who at 14 discovered how to use wind energy as a power source in his rural Malawian Village embedded itself on my Facebook page. It had obviously gone viral on the way reigniting the admiration people feel when the underdog wins. I clicked ‘like’ before I watched it. Then, scrolling through my notifications a friend had commented on it and I felt duty bound to actually watch the video. Neatly subtitled and smartly shot, it was a compelling video, not quite a tear jerker, but definitely an emotional heart warmer. The inspiring hope and potential of the uneducated African boy in the midst of poverty, desolation and a life of hard labour. By all means I congratulate and applaud his initiative. Living in the West, to a degree I feel has corroded our innate creative genius which has enabled the human race to become the top dogs in the food chain. Instead of forcing ourselves to figure out how to create, make something work, generate electricity, we simply type our query into Google and are happy to take someone else’s ideas. We live, perhaps, a life of ease. So I take joy in the fact that the world can celebrate the ingenuity and fighting spirit of said underdog. It pleases me that his story has been spread to remind people that we make our own destiny. Let it not be said that in the midst of brokenness something whole cannot be found. Whilst Europe is struggling with a recession and people bemoaning the democratic welfare states that have pampered us, the drought ridden, corruption induced countries of Africa are filled with entrepreneurs and market fighters who every day are finding ingenious ways to stay alive.
What irritates me is the media response. Let’s take William’s story into perspective. His 20 strong family could not afford to send him to school. I would assume William is the eldest. Therefore he’s been removed to enable his younger siblings to at least learn basic numeracy and literary skills before they too are sent to the farm to earn their keep. In the midst of this, perhaps sudden, perhaps gradual decline into ‘abject’ poverty, this young boy of 14 has trekked to the library which is probably located a good few miles in the nearest large town or city from his rural village, to borrow a library book on windmills. This is Malawi not the UK. That book would have cost money to borrow, if not because the State decrees it, then because the librarian is fearful that it may never return. Here we have a boy whose family are struggling to educate him using some means of money to borrow a book on windmills. He then somehow, after his eureka moment, manages to find, buy, borrow or steal the materials needed to make his prototypes. Anyone who has grown up in an African/Asian family would know that all the while his mother would have harassed him – Go and help your father. Look after your brother. Why are you wasting time with those sticks. Will they feed you? [ insert some native dialect cussing]. But this is a happy story. William finally succeeds, the librarian tells his friends and no doubt gets a cut on the side for exposing this ‘miraculous’ find.
Now I don’t mean to be a cynic about William’s success. It truly is a wonderful thing and will have done great good for his family and his community, and most definitely for his future (William is now enrolled in the first pan-african preparatory School, the African Leadership Academy, in Jo’burg). What upsets me is that William’s ‘prize,’ for discovering something his own Government, or at least all these UN/Charity Aid Projects should have been pioneering, is a trip to New York. He gets to fly over the city, visit some wind-farms in Cali and go on the radio speaking to people who will most likely forget his name, let alone the country he’s from when they step out of their cars, if not before the next song comes on. The amount of money it would’ve cost to send, maintain, house, feed William for however long his trip was, considering he was coming from south-east Africa to north-east America before flying over to the West Coast, would more than likely have afforded the building of a dozen more windmills in his village. It could probably have paid for his whole family to go to school considering school fees are only $80, and a trip to America could easily exceed $500. After all the media hype and patronising congratulations for figuring out what we in the West are still struggling to put in place, he is sent back home to continue his fight for the survival for himself, his family and his village.
Is this how we encourage and promote a better future? Is a trip to a America really what William needed? Yes, it was probably an exciting experience, but let’s be real. He was given a taste of a future that many never come into existence and which didn’t sustainably promote his desires. He says he wants to discover more ways of providing electricity. The reason he couldn’t do it earlier was because he wasn’t in school. His ‘genius’ can only be furthered with more education. Lets stop patronising those less fortunate and their attempts at taking hold of their own futures and not waiting around on the various and dubious aid agencies to realise they exist, lets stop putting on a facade of global charity which is really a mask for increasing globalisation, and in this case, Americanization as the ideal dream and Utopia we must all aim for, and practically make a difference. In the case of William and his initiative, I would bet it would cost our debt riddled West a lot less if we actually gave him what he needed and not what we think he desired. What I hope from William’s story is that the world realises once again that what all of us in difficult situations, whether it is poverty, depression, self-esteem or war need, is not the glimpse of a better life, not even the concerned visit or exciting trip, but a practical economical way for us to pull ourselves up. And not just ourselves; though William has found fame and opportunity, he has ‘seen the world’ and provided electricity for his family, there are still millions of people living in his former situation. They may not have the genius, the means or simply the time to do what he has done. So instead of us shining a quick spot light let’s be practical. Either make an appeal at the end of your expose, show people how to contribute to a fund, or simply don’t fly expensive equipment out there to make a sweet film, but invest that money in a productive means to alleviate the current situation.
There is a lot of good in this film, no doubt many people’s eyes will have been opened. I just fear that stories such as these will become a curtain behind which we can shout – Look at the good news – but fail to support it and continue that good news from travelling, flourishing until William’s story becomes the norm, not the exception. Let’s exchange the carbon footprinted trip to a far away country, for an education that costs less than a full tank of petrol and maybe we will see an actual change in the world.