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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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The policemen swooped in and swallowed my father in a swarm of fists and elbows. The crowd rushed in behind. From the look of things, it appeared my father had been properly handled.

But suddenly, one by one, the policemen began flying off the pile as if wrestling a cyclone. They twisted in the air like sacks of flour and limped off in pain. When the last policeman was pitched to the wall, the room erupted in cheers.

There stood the Pope in the center of the crowd, shaking his mighty fists.

“Who is next?” he shouted. “I’LL FIGHT YOU ALL!”

A pack of Young Pioneers then tried their luck, only to be pitched off the same way. For half an hour, the cops and government thugs tried everything to shackle my father’s hands, and each time, they failed. Too exhausted to continue fighting, my father finally agreed to be arrested and spend the night in jail (“Only because I respect the rule of law,” he told them). However, he had one condition: that first he be allowed to enjoy his Independence Day barbecue. So after devouring a plate of delicious kanyenya, the Pope washed his hands and walked out with the police.

And that is the story of how my father fought twelve men and won.

Soon the story spread across the district and my father became famous. People congratulated him in the bars and markets of the lakeshore, and business improved as a result. This fame also attracted many of the thieves and robbers who lurked in the markets. “You’re so strong,” they said, slapping him on the back. “Let us use your strength to make us all rich!”

But my father was no criminal. He just wanted to work hard for his money and drink his Carlsberg. However, if anyone wished to fight, that could be arranged.

ALTHOUGH HIS FRIENDS HAD no idea, for quite some time the Pope had been keeping his eye on a particular girl. She appeared at the market at the same time each morning, only to disappear in the crowds. An hour would pass, and she’d reappear, carrying a bundle of vegetables or bag of flour, then make her way home to the neighborhood down the hill. These brief moments became the most important part of my father’s day, and he made sure he was always at his stall where he could watch her. Even though he’d never heard her voice, something about her seemed to change something inside him. This girl, as you probably guessed, was my mother, Agnes.

Well, my father must not have been very smooth, because my mother was well aware of him staring, the way he gazed at her like a puppy at the henhouse door, never sure what to do. She’d asked around and knew his reputation. For some odd reason, these stories of fighting and misbehaving made her excited. Each day she couldn’t wait for her mother to send her to the market. Even before entering the rows of wooden stalls, her heart would pound like the chiwoda drums of her childhood dances. Making her way across, it took everything inside her to keep from grinning. But my mother couldn’t let on; she was no easy fish to catch.

This game of staring continued for several months, and my mother wondered if this man would ever make his move. If he was so strong and brave, then why on earth was he frightened of her? (As my father tells it, she was always too far away to chase after, and also, yes, he was terrified.)

Finally, my mother decided to test this big, powerful man.

One morning, my father saw her enter the market, and as usual, he quickly became lost in the sight of her. But this time she did something different. She took a new route through the market—one that was bringing her straight in his direction.

My father became nervous, but knew the time was now or never. This is my big chance, he thought, but what will I say? He didn’t have time to think, because in a matter of seconds, my mother was right upon him. It was the closest she’d ever been, and the sight of her skin made his heart go mad, as if it was trying to run away.

Somehow, he found his courage and leaped over his stall. As she passed, he shouted, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!”

My mother spun around. My father was standing there in the row, arms open, those same eyes now meeting hers.

“I’ve loved you my entire life,” he said. “And I want to marry you.”

Struggling to stay composed, my mother said, “I’ll have to think about that one,” then turned and ran away.

Well, my father didn’t give her much time. That very afternoon he was at her house, asking again. The next day, the same thing. My mother’s older brother Bakili warned her about my father. Bakili was also a trader in the market and knew my father’s reputation.

“He’s always in the bars, drinking and fighting,” he said. “Sister, this man is not a good husband.”

“I don’t care,” my mother said. “He’s so strong, and I love him.”

Bakili then told their parents. My grandmother Rose was a tough woman, so tough she’d built the family home with her own hands while my grandpa worked as a tailor in the market. She’d even built the furnace and molded the bricks herself, which is not an easy job, and even today, not the job of a woman.

Hearing the news, my grandmother and grandfather confronted my mother.

“Now tell us the truth, Agnes. Are you serious about this man?”

“Yes,” my mother said. “Double serious.”

As it turned out, my grandfather had proposed to my grandmother in much the same way, after seeing her dance in a village competition. “The way she was dancing just stole my heart,” my grandfather said. “And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to marry her.’ ” He’d sent a young village girl to inform my grandmother he wanted to speak with her, only to have my grandmother confront him personally.

“You want to talk to me?” she said. “Then talk to me. What do you want?”

“For you to be my wife,” he answered.

So what could my grandparents really say now? Six months later, Agnes married my father, and the following year, my sister Annie was born. But even with all these new developments, my father remained the Pope.

Well, the Pope’s drunken lifestyle soon began to take its toll. My mother grew increasingly tired of him coming home drunk and smelling of booze, and often they’d argue. It was a dark period all around, a time that saw several of my father’s closest friends die or go to prison, while others simply vanished.

First his friend Kafu picked up gonorrhea, known as the “bombs,” from a prostitute in the bars. The veins that led to his testicles became swollen and rotten. One day, they exploded and Kafu died. Another friend named Mwanza was beaten to death in the pub over a girl. The new prostitute in town had made the mistake of flirting with both Mwanza and his friend. Well, they couldn’t decide who was taking the lady home at the end of the night, so they decided to fight. It began innocently, but before anyone knew it, Mwanza was dead in a pool of blood. Of course, the prostitute fled before the first punch and never returned.

In Dowa, there was a famous preacher named Reverend JJ Chikankheni, who happened to be one of my father’s most loyal customers. Reverend JJ led one of the biggest Presbyterian churches in Dowa, along with twenty-five smaller prayer houses across the district. He’d often stop by my father’s stall and buy a bag of rice and the two men would chat. One day, the reverend looked deep into my father’s eyes, as if scraping the bottom of his soul.

“Kamkwamba?” he said.


“Do you know that God loves you, and that you disappoint Him every time you drink and fight and cause trouble?”

“Thanks, Reverend, but…”

“The good news is that even though you disappoint Him, He’s ready to receive you. He wants you to turn to Him.”

“Thanks, Reverend,” my father said, trying to be polite. “Whatever you say.”

A few nights later, my father was drinking as usual in the pub when a man walked up and knocked over his beer. The man was drunk and looking to fight the biggest guy in the room. Well, my father gave him what he wanted, and more. In a matter of seconds, the man lay on the floor with blood gushing from his ears. My father had to be pulled off the man, having nearly beaten him to death. The police soon arrived and arrested my father.

“You’ve really done it this time,” the officer told him.

The head prosecutor in Dowa was a church deacon named Mister Kabisa, who was also one of my father’s loyal customers. When Kabisa heard my father was in jail awaiting a trial, he paid a personal visit.

“Kamkwamba,” he said, “I’ve always advised you not to indulge in these unnecessary fights. Someday you’ll be killed or kill someone else, and look what happened here. You’re my friend, and I don’t want to lose you.

“You’re supposed to go to court today and stand trial,” Kabisa continued. “You’ll probably lose and be sent to jail, perhaps even Zaleka prison. You’ve heard about the conditions there. Chances are you won’t make it out alive.”

Mister Kabisa then leaned in close and looked into my father’s eyes the same way Reverend JJ had done, as if searching the dark corners of his heart.

“But I don’t want you to go to prison. There’s a better path for you. I’m willing to tear up these files and release you, but you have to promise me one thing.”

“Anything,” my father said.

“Turn your life over to God.”

Of course, my father happily agreed just to get out of jail. But what the man said stayed in his mind. All that evening and the following day, it never gave him peace.

The following night while asleep, my father was visited by a dream. All he saw was darkness, nothing but an endless expanse of black. He felt confused and scared. It was as if he’d gone blind and couldn’t shake himself awake. Then came a voice, piped in like a loudspeaker from heaven. It said: “These things will destroy you. Turn to me.”

When my father awoke in the morning, his entire body was trembling like a baby bird’s. The dream, plus all the advice and warnings of the past week, seemed too great a message to ignore. He woke up my mother, who lay sleeping beside him, and said, “My wife, today I’m turning to God. I’ve seen the signs, and now it’s time to change.”

That same morning, instead of going straight to work, my father stopped by the church to see Reverend JJ. The preacher was in his office.

“I’m here,” my father said. “I’m ready.”

My mother didn’t recognize this new man who began coming home each night after work, this man who suddenly had lots of money for food and medicine for his kids. She was so happy, but still couldn’t believe her good fortune. Each night for weeks, she’d still say, “Come here!” when he walked in the door, just to sniff his breath.

WHILE MY FATHER HAD been traveling, trading, and boozing, his older brother John had built up a booming business. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s when President Banda was building all the big estates near Wimbe and Kasungu, there was lots of work for the local men. Building contracts were like gold, and Uncle John happened to know some of the managers who were hiring these subcontractors. Working as a kind of headhunter, John became the middleman, finding the right skilled, trustworthy crews to do the jobs. Because his judgment was always good, the estates paid him handsomly.

After several years of working for the estates, Uncle John saved enough money to start a farm imports business, buying and selling maize seed and fertilizer to the local farmers. He even had a small storefront in the trading center. This business became successful, and after a few years, he sold it and bought fifty-nine acres of land from Chief Wimbe, which he used to grow maize and burley tobacco—a kind of mild tobacco that’s cured in the open air under handmade shelters.

Since Uncle John had money for good fertilizer, the tobacco from his farm was top quality. His fields never had any weeds and the leaves were deep green while growing, drying like the color of milk chocolate with fine traces of red. His tobacco fetched a high price each year at the Auction Holdings Limited in Lilongwe, where the farmers sold their hundred-kilogram bales on the auction floor. One good bale of tobacco would pay for seventeen more bags of fertilizer, enabling his farm to stay strong, given the good weather.

In 1989, when I was one year old, Uncle John came to Dowa for a friend’s engagement party and stopped by for a visit. That night he and my father went for a walk.

“Why don’t you come back to the village and farm with me,” John said. “Things are going well.”

“I can see,” said my father. “But farming takes too long. I’ve gotten so used to the trading. How can I start something new?”

“It takes a long time, true. But if you invest that time and just a little money, the payoff is huge. Look what I’m making from tobacco. That kind of profit is impossible with trading. How much are you clearing each month with your rice and secondhand clothing? Five percent?”
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