A couple of days ago, in the way that one does on the Internet, I stumbled into the extraordinary story of William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill from scrap and spare parts to provide electricity to his home. He was 14, living in an isolated village in a rural district of Malawi. He worked from plans he found in a library book, Using Energy, modifying them to make use of parts and materials he could scavenge. You can read about William here, or you can read his book, or watch his TED talk. He has become a celebrity. A documentary about him won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury award at SXSW in 2013. He built a second windmill to power drip irrigation for his village, went to school at Dartmouth, and returned to his village. He continues to work on irrigation and sustainable energy production using techniques that work well in a developing country. He has his own NGO.
It’s an inspiring story, and it showcases qualities for which I have enormous respect: intelligence, resourcefulness, practicality, and humility. But I can’t help wondering about the rest of the story. Does Mary Atwater, who wrote the eighth-grade science book that William used, know how much good her book has done? Did anybody send a few dollars to the library or school where he found it?
Information is funny. Even in print, it can end up anywhere, get used for purposes that its creators do not know about and could not anticipate. Mary Atwater was not trying to bring electricity to villages in Malawi. Macmillan, who published the book as a science textbook for eighth-graders, surely did not have the promotion of sustainable development in Africa as part of their business plan. The book moved quietly to Africa, and into William’s capable hands, maybe as part of an NGO-sponsored textbook-distribution project and maybe not; we don’t know. Textbooks are undramatic; they don’t talk much, and if you put them onstage for a TED talk they just sit there, waiting to be read, and they don’t say much about how they got there.
Here at the LII, we provide legal information to 30 million people each year, in 246 countries and territories. Malawi is one of them. Last year we got about 1700 visits from there, mostly from people interested in the explanations of American law that you can find on our site. And for nearly a decade, we have worked as advisors to AfricanLII, an umbrella organization that provides technology, expertise, and facilities to (among 10 or 12 others) the Malawi Legal Information Institute.
Yet we have very few stories to tell about the individuals that we help. Many are not served directly by us, but by those who use our materials to help others — such as the UNICEF offices in Kyrgyzstan, or the AARP program that helps the elderly with their taxes, or any of the thousands of legal-aid organizations or NGOs that make use of us to find and understand the law. Some, like MalawiLII, are helped indirectly by expertise that we share freely with others who do what we do. It’s hard for us to put up posters with dramatic pictures and stories. We get hints every now and then, and we can figure out some stuff from the 2 GB of logfile data we generate every day, but that’s about it. We put the books out there, and we hope that someone will pick them up and use what they find there to some good purpose. Often, that purpose is helping somebody else.
Legal information is quiet, and a little abstract. It is also vitally important. People who don’t have it can’t know their rights or responsibilities. They are vulnerable to corruption. They don’t know what they must do to protect their property or to sell their products in a new and unfamiliar place. When they have it, it changes their relationship with government and with the world at large.
For 23 years we’ve been placing legal-information tools into the hands of capable and curious people. I hope that’s something that you will want to help us with, and if you do, you can make a donation that will make those tools available to millions who will use them improve their own lives, or those of others.
As always, our thanks to those of you who have supported us in the past, and our best wishes to everyone for the holiday season.