Helping us appreciate The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a special guest, Ms. Hong Hyewon, with a unique experience of having worked in Malawi as a young South Korean volunteer. Ms. Hong is an undergraduate student at Sogang University, majoring in French Culture and Political Science. A Korean native, she has studied French, English, Japanese, Arabic languages and learned the basic command of Chichewa to work for the Africa Future Foundation in Malawi in 2017. Since January 2019, she has been volunteering at a Korean shelter service for international refugees, many of whom Africans, called Refuge pNan.
The interview was conducted via Skype between Seoul, Korea, and Berkeley, USA, in April 19, 2019 [Pacific US time]. It has been edited for length and clarity. The copyright for the interview content belongs to Ms. Hong Hyewon and anyone who wants to quote from the interview below should contact Ms. Hong for an explicit permission. The letter “Q” indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, the interviewer, and “H” indicates Ms. Hong.
Q: My first question relates to the issue I have raised in the review, that William Kamkwamba's initial accomplishment, amazing as it was, was, in real life, not directly tied to the dramatic alleviation of drought as illustrated in the film. Perhaps this level of dramatization was necessary to get the project off the ground. What do you think about this issue?
H: Right, as you have indicated in the review, this is a question of representation versus reality. I have read Kamkwamba's book [the source for the film], and he does state that the primary motivation for building the windmill generator was to get electricity for his home.
Q: I should state that the need for electricity and illumination, so that one could study at home in the nighttime, does not strike me in any way as less “important” or “desperate” than running a water pump, in the real-life context wherein someone like Kamkwamba found himself.
H: I absolutely agree. I think the irrigation pump was a dramatic device, in a way, to make Kamkwamba's “eccentric” behavior ultimately meaningful for those around him, to show that his accomplishments could benefit the community he belonged to.
Q: I see. So, he had to demonstrate to the community that his projects were not just for himself.
H: Right. And also to show those outside the local community that this type of engineering feat could be done with the meagre resources available within. I think the compressed narrative and dramatization strategy Ejiofor employs was necessary, generally speaking. Otherwise, his messages might not have been conveyed with the kind of urgency and strength seen in the film.
Q: It is worth noting that his peers and friends were the most sympathetic members within his community.
H: Yes, not only in the movie, but also in the Kamkwamba's book on which the film is based, William's cousin Jeffrey and Gilbert, the Chief of Wimbe's son, were early and important supporters of his endeavors.
Q: What aspects of the Malawi culture and life that you had experienced and observed that you feel were not captured in the film? Or, this is perhaps a related question, what aspects of the Malawi culture you had observed that would have come across as different from what we usually expect from a film of this type?
H: Are we assuming the perspective of a typical Korean viewer?
Q: Well, you don't have to, but that is fine. We are both Koreans, after all [Laughter]. I suppose I could also take on the viewpoint of an American viewer, typical or whatnot.
H: Yes, well, I definitely am not an expert on the Malawi culture, so I hope the readers do not take my comments in that way. Having said that, to give an example, the scene in which the villagers gather together at Chief Wimbe's residence is a lot less like an American town hall meeting in real life than it perhaps appears in the film. The Chief's authority is complexly localized, and there are many types of protocols to follow. I don't think we could simply assume that the locals would obey the chief's authority and decide what they would with the lands, either. The movie sort of collapses these forms of traditional authority into a series of symbolic depictions, and tends to focus on the individuals who already are "modernized" or being transformed into those in that mold, who could sell their lands essentially without the consent of their community. So a village meeting is, for better or worse, not as simple as just a show of hands and then moving forward with everyone speaking their frank minds.
Q: Before that the village meeting scene, I was not aware that Gilbert was Chief's son. William wants to attend the meeting too but he gets kicked out of it by his father [Laughter].
H: Yes, Gilbert is a designated heir to the village's leadership so he is given the privilege to attend the meeting. I thought it was clever for the film to point to the boy's privileged identity through that scene.
Q: Can we touch on a bit more personal dimension, in terms of resonances between Kamkwamba's experiences and your own?
H: Yes, well, I feel that William Kamkwamba had an orientation toward scientific inquiry and Western modes of thinking to start with, and possessed both an ability and a drive to look for opportunities and colleagues who could help him navigate through the complex processes of negotiating with his own society and culture. At Malawi I did observe some startling cases of the old traditions and these scientific, modern orientations co-existing-- some folks resisting blood tests because they believed that the samples might be used for occult purposes, for instance. Having said that, his father's contradictory behavior in the film-- wanting his son to go to school and “succeed,” and yet stick to traditional values of-- in the film, at least-- a farmer, deeply resonated with my own ambivalent feelings.
Q: As I have mentioned in my review, Chiwetel Ejiofor could have portrayed Trywell as his son's only or one of the few “supporters,” but I think he goes an extra mile to reject that kind of triumphalist characterization. Instead, he attempts to illustrate the difficulty, on the part of Trywell or someone like him, of adapting to a new world. In a conventional narrative, the obtuse and the unenlightened are either proven completely wrong at the end, or they get “enlightened” by the protagonists at the drop of their hats. This is not what happens in the film.
H: No, it's never that simple. I think colonial and postcolonial modernization of Malawi, mediated through the educational system of the British empire, has not really closed the gap between the “traditional” and the “modern” components of the nation. This is a bigger issue than merely a difference in wealth between upper and lower classes.
Q: I do not believe this type of dilemma was that different from the one that faced South Koreans, as late as in '80s. I believe many among democratic activists of my generation-- so-called the “386” generation, a term that I dislike but keep using, I plead guilty to that-- sometimes inadequately dealt with the gap between what they intellectually understood as “enlightenment” and “social revolution” as members of the elite classes and what the rural population actually wanted, during the former's encounters with the latter during a phase of agrarian activism (so-called nonghwal). For the farmers, “enlightenment” did not necessarily mean learning how a world capitalist system worked, but learning such "mundane" stuff as how to keep the book properly, how to get loans without being cheated, or even how to get better transportation, sometime as simple as learning to ride a bicycle better.
H: Oh, what you just said reminds me of the case studies in Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo's Poor Economics. During my sojourn there, one of the strategies for inducing Malawi children to go to schools was to hand out soaps to them.
Q: Tell me about that.
H: We did a brainstorm session with the local project assistants to figure out the reasons for the children dropping out from schools and expressing reluctance to attend them. I eventually learned that the reasons were quite diverse: sometimes they had to skip school because they were too poor, but at other times they were ostracized for being dirty, or not clothed well. Giving them bars of soap, change for buying clothes or sandals, or bags of salt or corn powder produced positive results in enhancing their “motivation.”
Q: I also feel that the kind of pat criticism directed to movies such as The Boy, to the tune of “Okay, so William Kamkwamba did make it, what about other children who had not have the kind of access to the knowledge he had?” really misses the point.
H: I think I understand where such criticisms come from, but yes, I do agree that there is no shortage of the "motivated" people, once the kind of hurdles and obstacles more specific to the lived experiences are addressed.
Q: Can you talk a bit about Gule Wamkulu? Have you watched them perform?
H: Yes, I did.
Q: Wow, tell me about that experience! [Laughter]
H: Well, not at a funeral. I watched them perform at the Kuti Wildlife Reserve in Salima, Malawi. They were introduced as Gypsy-like itinerant dancers. Looking at their interaction with the tourists, I was reminded of the Korean masked dance troupe, who uses humor and satire to entertain the audience. And they were awesome: until watching them perform, I had never realized a human body could be shaken with so much energy and vigor. And when they stamped their feet in rhythm, it was like an earthquake. But they demand money for their work, and from what I have observed, pretty on the nose, too.
Q: Well, why should it be otherwise?
H: Of course! [Laughter] In contrast to my first-hand experience, the Gule Wamkulu dancers in the film seem to function in similar ways to shamans and represent the tradition and community solidarity of Malawi. In the early part of the film, they disrupt the Christian funeral rites led by a pastor, and the attendees cannot help but turn their gaze toward them, despite their professed beliefs in the new religion of the missionaries. They also seem to symbolize the natural world being displaced by the introduction of Western civilization and industrialism, as hinted in the scene where a lone dancer with a baby doll mask mysteriously gazes at William. William Kamkwamba's autobiography refers to the Gule Wamkulu several times: he actually sponsored their dance at a community gathering raising awareness for HIV/AIDS at one point.
Q: Anything else about the film that you have noticed you want to share?
H: I have visited Malawi during a wet season, so I have never experienced the wind the way it was depicted in the film. I felt that the wind was almost like a character in the film: the filmmakers did an excellent job of keeping it present throughout the feature, seguing into the climax where it is finally brought under control by Kamkwamba. In addition, the struggle between Annie and Agnes I strongly sympathized with, in the sense that even very loving and intimate relationships could be affected by material needs in such a circumstance they faced together as a family. One element that struck me as somewhat--- I don't want to say unrealistic, but perhaps overly idealistic-- is Trywell speechifying his political discontent and hitching a truck ride to another town for the explicit purpose of helping an opposition party candidate. I heard sometimes that the locals describe themselves as complaisant, compared to their neighbors in Mozambique and Tanzania. The flip side of it is that perhaps what looks to some outsiders as indifference to democratic agitation might be, for Malawians, an ingredient of political stability. Given the horrible political struggles taking place in another African nation such as Democratic Republic of Congo, maybe we should not be so quick to judge them for "not being politicized enough."
Q: The industrialized sector is represented by tobacco companies in the film. Near the end of the film, Trywell talks ruefully about how he could have been a tobacco farmer, producing tobacco that “looks like milk chocolate.”
H: Based on what I have seen, the critical positions in the tobacco companies were largely occupied by foreigners such as South Africans. Similar to the case of peanuts cultivated in Senegal, tobacco is a commercial crop that needs to be sold in the market in order to be exchanged for other necessities, including foodstuffs. There is always a concern whether the downturns in the international market for commercial crops such as peanut, coffee and tobacco would become burdens on the shoulders of African farmers. Actually, while I was staying there, I had a chance to meet the former President of the Koreans in Malawi Association, married to a tobacco company VIP.
H: There were about 200 Koreans living in Malawi at that time. The oldest generation among Korean residents included those who had settled there during '70s working for the national highway construction projects.
Q: What an amazing level of global reach. The '60s-'70s "national" history of Korea must be rewritten.
H: And the former President was very well-off. Her husband was indeed a South African, with their children going to colleges in Cape Town.
Q: Let's return our talk to William Kamkwamba, or more precisely, the resonance between his life and yours. I know there is no one correct answer to a question like this, but if we determine that, even if you are a beneficiary of Euro-American higher education, it is important that you still maintain a form of local connection, how would you reconcile the desire to help those who remain in your local areas to the yearning to reach out to the larger world? I know this question could be taken as a very personal one [Laughter].
H: Yes, well, it sounds very clichéd but I think solidarity and fighting together is the answer. [Laughter] Solidarity, as I interpret it, starts from finding, organizing and joining in with the like-minded people. But these days I also think a lot about self-preservation, trying not to push myself to the point that, if I happen to buckle from the outside pressure, I would then lose sight of my ideals. I think those who have gained new knowledge and insights should take care to communicate these things in the ways that make sense to those around them.
Q: Do you think William Kamkwamba has managed to resolve this dilemma?
H: Not necessarily. I think he still has many obstacles in the future to face, many hurdles to overcome. As he matures as a social person and a community leader, the issues that he will have to tackle will become bigger and more complex. How would, for instance, ESCOM, the dominant electricity company in Malawi, legally and politically respond to his initiative for self-producing electricity? In other words, we should be careful not to simply stop at the level of recognizing, wow, there is this very smart young person in Africa doing some great engineering work, and recognize that there are always more things to be done, more problems to be solved.
Q: Any final comment?
H: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a very inspiring and well-made film. I just wish that those who watch it, wherever they are, and whatever their backgrounds are, do not subscribe to the fantasy that the problems and the issues facing Kamkwamba, his community, Malawi and Africa were even partially resolved, when the movie ended. That is simply not true, as we have discussed above. William's story is far from finished yet. I sympathize with him, a brave and talented inventor-community-activist, but also see how tough his life could be from this point on.
Q: It will be a continued struggle with many issues, as your life is likely to be. So there is a feeling of solidarity in that sense between you two as well.
Q: Thank you so much Hyewon, it was amazingly inspiring to talk to you.
H: Thank you, Professor Kim, for providing this wonderful opportunity to reflect on my experience in Malawi!