The Lost Art of Building With Your Hands

by | May 2, 2010 | Parade Magazine | 0 comments

William Kamkwamba of Malawi built a windmill from trash.

The kid had an idea. He didn’t have money. He didn’t have supplies. All he had was a book with pictures. He went to a junkyard, found a bicycle rim, PVC pipe, an old tractor fan.

And he did something many of us used to do.

He used his hands.

He bent. He hammered. He glued. The kid’s name was William Kamkwamba. His idea was to make a windmill, because a windmill could make electricity, electricity could pump water, and water could grow crops for his drought-plagued village in Malawi, in southeast Africa.

“Normal people do not collect garbage,” he admitted, laughing. “The people in my village thought there was something wrong with me.”

But three months after he started, he’d done it. Made a small windmill with enough energy to power one light bulb.

He was 14.

When I spoke with Kamkwamba, now 22 — the subject of the best-selling book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind — I was impressed with his ingenuity. But I also felt a pang of concern. That same day, I’d read about the advent of 3-D television. I worried about our kids, sitting on the couch, wearing funny glasses, all the imagination done for them.

I worried they are losing what Kamkwamba found: the joy of creation, of dirty fingernails. It’s mostly done for us now. We download. We boot up. We plug and play. We call tech support.

And it starts younger and younger. The world of Wii and PlayStation has rendered building blocks laughable. Who needs blocks when you have a joystick?

I remember, as a kid, building a beginner’s darkroom in our basement (getting instructions, like Kamkwamba, from a library book). I shook film in a plastic canister. Slid paper into a tray of smelly chemicals. It took hours. But eventually, I held a wet print in my hands. Today, my 3-year-old niece, when you snap her picture, grabs for the camera and says, “Lemme see.” In her world, all photos are instantly viewable on the back.

Now, I don’t want to play Cranky Man to technology. But there is a time to discover what you can make on your own. What kid, when we were younger, didn’t have paint, tape, or magic markers? A ball of rubber bands? A father’s toolbox that you weren’t supposed to get into?

What kid didn’t, at least once, go to the hobby store and buy a plastic model to assemble? Remember that word? “Assemble”? We built little airplanes. We glued plastic ships. We hammered nails (and our fingers), we made forts, we strung tin cans, we drew faces on socks and pulled them over our hands.

And through it all, when we held up the toy rocket or the puppet, there was quiet. No thumping music. No sound effects. We growled the noise of an engine, we spoke the parts of our characters. We used our own voices. And in doing so, we discovered them.

It was quiet when Kamkwamba tinkered with his windmill creation. Just him and his spare parts. He was too poor to attend school. He knew nothing of texting, e-mail, or the Internet.

“The day I connected the generator to the windmill, the whole village came to watch,” he said. “I was scared that if this thing is not going to work, then the people who think I’m crazy will prove me crazy.”

It worked. The village cheered. That led to bigger windmills — and finally a water pump. But it is fitting that the first thing Kamkwamba powered was a flickering bulb, the symbol of an idea. Because children should know that the most rewarding lights of their lives will always be lit — not by microchip processors, but by their imagination.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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