Today is the 7th anniversary of the day I met a young man in Arusha, Tanzania, a man who would change my life. Back then I encountered a painfully shy 19 year old who was standing by himself against the wall at TEDGlobal 2007. I asked "My name is Tom, who are you?" He replied "My name is William Kamkwamba and I'm from Malawi." And so began an incredible adventure for both of us, one that neither one of us could have prepared for exactly, where William worked indefatigably to achieve his goals, and for me, where mentoring evolved into parenting.
While we've acknowledged this marker every year, for me, this year's date has special significance. As I got to know him over the conference, I felt like he had earned a right to have a chance at something larger, and I resolved to see if I could do something. I decided to change my flight home after the conference and visit William in Malawi instead. I then realized that Africa is full of white visitors' temporary enthusiasms, where six months' help followed by silence was almost worse than none at all.
Before the trip, before we left TED, I said to him, look, I'll give you seven years. Seven years is enough to get you through high school and college. And nothing you can do or say will make me leave or abandon you. No matter what. I don't know when I have ever made such an emphatic commitment, and at the time the decision was instinct more than insight.*
Recently we had dinner at our traditional restaurant in New York, talking animatedly about his future. (Two amazing things to share in the next couple of days.) When we walked outside and reached the corner we realized it was the same corner where I had first taught him how to cross the street safely.
It's a different world today: William is a confident 26 year old young man who speaks great English, has a education, a exciting work opportunity, has started two for-profit businesses in Malawi and an NGO, and has personally financed and supervised the transformation of his village. Most importantly, many in Wimbe no longer say "It's God's will" meaning, "I'm powerless to change my fate, (especially when something bad happens)," to "Maybe I can."
He's not a symbol, but a real, imperfect person, and it's been a lot of pressure to navigate between being william kamkwamba and WILLIAM KAMKWAMBA. For the last three years he's spent 95% of the time happily lowercase-- as a student.. And there has been sadness as well as joy, as he's lost three of his four grandparents while away at school. Each was a remarkable person in her or his own right, and William was close to each of them, especially his namesake William Sr., who died earlier this year.
He has amazing friends from the U.S., Haiti, India, Kenya, Ghana, all over Africa and the world, and an extended American family including Andrea Barthello and Bryan Mealer that joins his amazing parents Agnes and Trywell, and his six sisters, Annie, Isha, Doris, Rose, Mayless, and Tiyamike plus aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother. So many friends and supporters have helped him along the way.
But what is most interesting that in all these years of achievement, sharing his story, and notoriety, his character remains fundamentally the same as when we met: (a little bit less) shy, modest, kind, empathetic, curious, ambitious, hard-working and extremely smart.
To say that William has been a gift in my life is trite and woefully inadequate. And while pride is one of the seven deadly sins, in this particularly case I refuse to repent. Needless to say, today hasn't been a expiration date for many years. We will always be family.
Part 1 of 2 parts; Part 2 on Sunday
*I am extremely aware that this post could come across as self-serving, humble-bragging, back-patting, earnest, mawkish, even. My intention is sincere.