I recently read the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a memoir by William Kamkwamba, and also a new Netflix film by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The book and movie describe Kamkwamba’s upbringing in Malawi, his attempts to go to school and how they were thwarted due to lack of money, and the famine that ravaged his country. It’s no exaggeration to say that his family almost starved to death, and his description of that bone-deep hunger, and fatigue, and hopelessness, is not something I’ll soon forget.
The bulk of the book is about how young Kamkwamba built a windmill for his village using scavenged parts, instructions from a library book, and his own ingenuity. (Read a summary and see a diagram here.) He built prototypes along the way, and would make steady progress, only to have his efforts stalled due to lack of parts. In many ways, his project was at the mercy of whatever machinery happened to show up at the scrapyard, and sometimes he would wait a long time for just the right thing. I suppose good fortune played a role in his story—it took him months to locate a 12-volt bicycle dynamo, for example—but as Edna Mode says in The Incredibles, “Luck favors the prepared,” and he certainly was that.
It’s an insiring story, both humbling and affirming. Humbling, because I’m very aware that I am a white lady who teaches mainly white audiences about the power of improvisation, and there are people around the world who don’t need to be taught, who in fact would be justified in laughing at the very idea. Plenty of people improvise every day out of necessity, because it’s the only choice in a world without power or material abundance. Kamkwamba is invited to speak at a TED conference after his invention attracts worldwide attention, and he quotes another speaker, Erik Hersman, who says it well:
Africans bend what little they have to their will every day. Using creativity, they overcome Africa’s challenges. Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles. Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.
But as I said, the book is also affirming. His book helps me realize that, with whatever platform I have, I need to amplify these stories of improvisation on the margins. But it also affirms that the drive toward Yes-And truly is universal—available to privileged white ladies too.
For the past several months, our family has been in a phase of life that has required heightened, even constant, improvisation. We’re still in the midst of this phase, and the story is still unfolding—and not really mine to tell. No, I am not improvising in order to save my family from famine, and I would never pretend that it’s the same as what Kamkwamba faced and faces. But I’m humbled to realize the power of this approach to life, which I wrote about a few years ago but understood even more deeply now. Improvisation may be one of the things that unites us as human beings, regardless of privilege or circumstance, because improvisation is about hope—about scoping out the best outcome possible given imperfect conditions, and using whatever tools you have to move toward that outcome.
Where are you having to improvise lately?
If you haven’t already, check out installments 1-4 of the Living Improv video conversations on my YouTube channel, where we talk about these very issues, and sign up to get the rest of the series as they are released.