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Opinion: documentary shows only boys can be heros in Malawi

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On Wednesday, the Spring Sustainability Series brought a documentary titled William and the Windmill to The Athena along with a panel discussion following the showing.  It is odd that a sustainability group chose this film, which places emphasis on the human environments in Malawi and human well-being. William and the Windmill the documentary tells the story of a boy in Malawi who, upon losing the ability to pay his school dues, is forced to drop out.

Without his education complete, William Kamkwamba creates a windmill from scratch.  This windmill is able to save William’s family from a famine because he used it to power an irrigation system. These famines are resultant of climate change, which presents a daunting reality for the westerners who view this film, and must realize that they share some significant causality in William’s story. Additionally, William was afforded the time to work on his project while the women in this Malawian community were not.

Yet so much of the film focused on William’s adaptation to western norms. A critically-minded person cannot help but feel like this is a big, white American pat on the back. The back-patting felt complete with the massive ego-trip about the comforts and advancements of American society—told through the story of an rural African popping his western cherry.

But the American ego-satisfaction can be overlooked when so much awe and inspiration is owed to this incredible individual, who now has Hollywood knocking on his door and asking for his story.

What cannot be overlooked is a lasting comment made by Dr. Wangui of Ohio University—which left a deeper impact than William’s own story in the documentary. She spoke to the feminist perspective within the context of a Malawian culture.  Only a ‘William’ could have built that windmill because women are not afforded the leisure time to construct their own projects in Malawi. When Dr. Wangui’s concerns are realized, it becomes clear that problems across the globe—like famine—are steeping in a pot full of deeper, human problems that inhibit real progress. That is, if one equates meaningful equality with progress at all.

Academics like Dr. Wangui force us to realize that individuals like William, while they are incredible human beings, they are still resigned to sway in the same historical tides as everyone else. Their position within the tides of history makes and has already made all the difference in the opportunities of human life.

Gender has permeations deep within human problems, which are easily overlooked when issues like famine are widespread among the impoverished rural communities of the world—where climate change is having an immediate negative effect. If William were born a woman, there would have been no chance for him to save his family.

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