“Look at William, staying up past the dark!” my father said. “Congratulations, son,” said my mother. “You know, we’d also like our rooms to have these lights. Think you could manage?” “Oh,” I joked, “are you sure you want to use electricity generated by a madman?” “Eh, you proved everyone wrong,” she said, smiling. “But I admit, I did worry about you.” “What if the wind stops blowing?” asked Rose. “Well,” I said, “the light goes off, and I’m stranded. But I’m already thinking of a plan for having a battery.” Once I had more wire and a car battery, I explained, I could store electricity for the times when the wind stops blowing. It could also provide light for the entire house. It would have to be done little by little, but once complete, it would save my parents the money they normally spent on kerosene, and that was just the beginning. The next machine would pump water for our fields. One day, windmills would be our shield against hunger. That night, I was too excited to sleep. After everyone went to bed, I stayed awake and flipped through Explaining Physics, preparing for the next step. Every now and then, I stopped what I was doing and looked up at the light and the way it blinked and flickered. The warm glow painted the walls and the pages of the book and shined against the red clouds of dust pushed in from outside. As usual, that night a strong wind was blowing.
CHAPTER TWELVE A S I EXPLAINED TO Rose, the windmill wouldn’t work without wind. On calm, quiet nights, I’d still be stuck in the dark looking for matches. The only way I could change this was to find a battery. But while I waited for one, I still managed to use my windmill for other purposes. My cousin Ruth, who was Uncle Socrates’ daughter, happened to be visiting from Mzuzu town. She was older and married and had a mobile phone, and often, she would bug me to take it to the trading center and charge it for her. A few guys in the trading center were making loads of money charging phones for people who didn’t have electricity in their homes. These guys would cut deals with shopkeepers, who allowed them to string an extension cord out the door, where they kept a small shaded stall. They sold scratch cards for phone units, and a few even had mobile phones on a table and you could pay to make calls, kind of like an open-air phone booth. These stalls can be found all over Malawi. In the bigger towns like Lilongwe, some guys even powered photocopiers and electric typewriters this way, and let people prepare their résumés and then call about an available job—all on the sidewalk or the dirt road. Of course, the constant blackouts weren’t so good for their businesses. One day I was complaining about taking Ruth’s phone to the trading center again when she said, “Why can’t you just charge phones with your windmill? It produces electricity, doesn’t it?” I’d already thought about this, but I knew I didn’t get enough voltage from my bicycle dynamo to power a charger. My dynamo produced twelve volts, but a charger needs two hundred twenty. Twelve volts was fine for a lightbulb, but not strong enough for heavier jobs.
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