Malawians scorn broken Chichewa in movie ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind’: But many comes to its defence

By Duncan Mlanjira 

The trailer for the movie, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which tells the story of Malawian, William Kamkwamba, a 13-year-old school dropped who studied on his own by tinkering with batteries and broken radios to create a windmill, has been released and it is trending on social media but several Malawians who watched it condemned the way Chichewa is spoken by the non-Malawian actors.

The critics were appalled by the way the Chichewa was spoken by the actors, Kenyan Maxwell Simba as Kamkwamba and American Chiwetel Ejiofor as Kamkwamba’s father, saying it wasn’t depicting the way the  language is spoken in Malawi. 

But many others have come to the defence of the film’s director, Chiwetel — the main actor himself, saying what should be focused is the lesson one can get about the power of self sacrifice and innovation from a poor boy for insatiable appetite for education and science.

Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College

“The debate about the broken Chewa in the newly released movie ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind’ has got me thinking,” writes Sunduzwayo Madise on his Facebook. “If Chewetel didn’t direct and produce the movie, would it ever have been made?

“How many other movies of our local heroes and villains have been made? Even the stories of our people are not written by us! So maybe let’s support the Shemu Joyahs of this world when then they do their local projects.

“But as he will tell you, we are not really a movie going nation. We are not really a reading nation but moaning and groaning, we love. We can spend the whole day finding faults and criticising.

“Meanwhile, the world doesn’t stop, it keeps moving on and those who bet on chance have their rewards,” Madise said.

The wind turbine he created

In his response, Mufunanji Magalasi said: “I think it is good that this debate is happening because slowly we are getting the film business talk that our friends have dealt with. It is not just about desires to do things no. It is also about money. 

“Charles Shemu Joyah funds his films to sometimes a tune of K15 million and he actually hired a South African director of photography for his latest brilliant movie Road to Sunrise. 

“South African movie, Tsotsi by Gavin Wood got funding from South African organisations; Department of Culture, National Arts Council and the South African Film fund. Cry the Beloved Country had foreign funding involved and Ed Harris and James Earl Jones were brought in, tussling at one time or another with Zulu. 

“So where is the issue? The issue is that our lack of participation in film productions, internationally makes us unaware of how the business of film making is done. Nationalist aspirations need to be paid for otherwise they remain rhetorical.”

“Another production is coming soon to Malawi in February and it has come via Nigeria and the principle actors will be flown in, crash-teach them Chichewa and Tumbuka two days before they walk on to frame. So this debate is good. What we are busy debating here is normal out there. Just have your own finances and be in charge.”

A scene in the movie

Andie Litete said: “There is even nothing to debate here. People, it’s only a movie and the best we can do is celebrate and be happy that someone has recognized Kamkwamba. Talk about finding fault and complaining till kingdom come.”

Kenneth Bowazi said: “We dont even have a book about Kinnah Phiri, Lawrence Waya, Jack  Chamamgwana and the other legends. We wait for somebody to write for us. The Boy Who Harnesed the Wind is in every local library in the UK including an animated version to inspire toddlers — all written by foreigners and we complain.”

The movie is based on the book Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer about his poor background that forced him drop out of school because his parents could not afford tuition fees.

In a desperate attempt to retain his education, Kamkwamba began to frequently visit the village library from where he discovered his true love for electronics and after reading a book called Using Energy he decided to create a makeshift wind turbine using a cheap dynamo and eventually made a functioning wind turbine that powered some electrical appliances in his family’s house. 

When The Daily Times wrote a story on Kamkwamba’s wind turbine in November 2006, the story circulated through the blogosphere and TED conference director Emeka Okafor invited Kamkwamba to talk at TEDGlobal 2007 in Arusha, Tanzania as a guest.

His speech moved the audience, and several venture capitalists at the conference pledged to help finance his secondary education. His story was covered by Sarah Childress for The Wall Street Journal and managed to get enrolled at African Bible College in Lilongwe. 

He then went on to receive a scholarship to the African Leadership Academy and in 2014 graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Among other appearances, Kamkwamba was interviewed on The Daily Show in 2009, attended the 2011 Google Science Fair introductory meeting as a guest speaker and his book was selected as the 2013 ‘1 Book, 1 Community’ title for Loudoun County, Virginia‘s Public Library system. 

The ‘1book 1community’ is a countywide reading program that promotes community dialog and understanding through the shared experience of reading and discussing the same book.