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Writer’s Lounge – Walmart And Exploito COVID-19 Ads, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


promotional image of book cover for the book, "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind"


In early 2011, I had the pleasure of hearing William Kamkwamba speak. His book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind [co-authored with Bryan Mealer], had been selected as the Tacoma Reads Together, a community-wide event where everyone reads the same book.

In 2019, Kamkwamba’s incredible story finally got the big screen treatment it deserved.

The film’s screenplay, written and directed by Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the story of how a teenaged boy, against incredible odds, brought something to his village in the African nation of Malawi that we often take for granted – irrigation and electricity.

From the very first frame, you are immersed in Malawian and African culture with a funeral procession. The mourners capture a unique blend of African tradition, Christian, and later, Muslim influence into the ceremony. This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film.

William (Maxwell Simba) is portrayed immediately as a fish out of water in this world. Mechanically minded, he is a natural tinkerer. This places him at odds with his traditionally-minded, not scholastically inclined farmer father Trywell, (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

To say that William had to fight for his education, the resources and knowledge to build his windmill is an understatement.  In a land still plagued by extreme poverty – the result of exploitation by outsiders (African and not), environmental destruction, no infrastructure, little in the means of education, and very little in the way of a local government, and tradition – it’s a challenge few in the West can imagine.

The state of the school’s library alone is enough to make any viewer truly appreciate the funding our own governments allocate to education and the arts.

The troubles begin with a monsoon during planting season, which washes out most of the seeds, leaving the rest to try and grow in unstable soil. Then, an extreme drought destroys what remains of the weak harvest. To make matters worse, the ruling government suppresses news of the famine, scarcely lifting a finger to aid the starving villagers.

The drought is a force that Trywell, the Kamkwamba family, and the village of Wimbe are ill-suited to handle. It’s also in this extreme backdrop that William studies what is referred to in the film as dynamo, or “green technology.” The ability to harness the wind to create power.

The rock of the family is William’s mother, Agnes (Aissa Maiga). On the brink of losing everything due to the famine and the central government’s inaction, Agnes channels the wisdom of her ancestors. Intellectual and supportive, her words of community are perhaps the most powerful of the entire film:

“We promised ourselves that we would never pray for rain…because we are modern people. [But] even when they prayed for rain, the ancestors survived, because they stayed together. When do we stay together?”

This point is emphasized near the climax, when William tells his father of the belief that the windmill will work to irrigate a starving land, but only with his help.  “It can work, if you help me.”

In the end, William can only accomplish his goal, and save Wimbe if all of Wimbe pitches in to help him. It’s a message we can surly use today.

The best part of the film, of course, is the end. As the propellers on the newly constructed windmill spin rapidly in the wind, as the battery connected to the windmill wines to life, and the water gurgles through the hose to quench the thirst of a bone-dry land, it puts a smile on your face and tears in your eyes.

It’s a story that shows just how far faith, community and ingenuity can go to bring people together, even in the most difficult situations

 The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is available on Netflix.

by Tiffany Elliott


Walmart And Exploito COVID-19 Ads

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the opportunistic instincts or all sorts of exploitative corporate advertising, now that stay at home orders are finding Americans spending considerably more time in front of their television sets. 

The gist of the majority of these advertisements featuring vapid sentimentalism , should appear to be nakedly cynical, but there is no way to overestimate the credulity of TV viewers, given the fact that 62 million of them voted for Donald Trump in 2016.  The Observer summarizes:

The tragedy ad template includes a few key stock phrases, images of empty streets, a montage of first responders, quarantined people in their kitchens, and stirring piano music. The message: We’re all in this together. 

If I were presenting awards for the most crass among them, I would have to hand that to Walmart and the runner up would be Amazon. 

Walmart, in one ad, “Here for You” from March 28, produced by Haworth Marketing, which is still airing, but curiously they are not featuring on their Youtube channel, President and CEO Doug McMillon, rhapsodizes about the Walmart employee in a lofty, and grandiose manner, some might accurately describe as doggerel. 

It includes McMillon reciting lines such as that he “has always seen their spark, humanity and dedication, but as the world faces new challenges, he sees heroes.”

McMillon may have always ‘seen’ these things, but it has never made much of an impression on him, given the fact that Walmart workers have been forced to fight vigorously for any meager pay increases they have ever received. 

Any gains they have experienced, have been realized by their efforts, together with other underpaid retail and food workers, within workers’ advocacy orgs such as Fight for $15



The Observer observes that In March, the retailer saw sales skyrocket 20% compared with the same period in 2019, a year that saw the company take in $20.569 billion in operating income.  

Former Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, recently told the executive board of Walmart, in one meeting, on behalf of their workers:       

“Despite the incredible wealth of its owners, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages, wages that are so low that many of them are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing to service. Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country.”

The facts are on Senator Sanders’ side.  CEO Doug McMillon made $22 million in 2019; the company’s top six executives made a combined $112 million. McMillon, sometimes dubbed, “McMillion”, makes approximately 1,100 times the pay of the average Walmart employee.  The recently announced $2 per hour wage increase is temporary and will be pulled away from these workers after Labor Day (ironically).

Are any of these pay increases linked to anything other than economic necessity? Catherine Fisk, a U.C. Berkeley labor law professor, demurred:

“Companies are simply having a hard time getting people to work and they do what economics tells us should happen, which is, as employers become more desperate for workers, they’re willing to pay more.” 

It’s one thing for a company like Uber, to tell you in an ad, “Thank you for not riding with us right now,” and quite another for the people who made their company run, who are not receiving income and at the same time, because they are “independent contractors”, not eligible to receive unemployment in many states that are refusing to implement the provision in the first stimulus bill that proved funding for benefits. 

Amazon, which is also a target of labor action designed to light a fire under Jeff Bezos, whose Whole Foods employees are also rebelling, announced on their website that, “Someone diagnosed with COVID-19 will receive up to two weeks of paid time off—this is in addition to their other paid and unpaid time off options.”

Although they present themselves as beneficent, there is medically, nothing that insures that a person who tests positive for COVID-19 will fully recover in two weeks.

Bezos is on record, telling Congress and state governments they should raise the minimum wage, himself has to be shamed with adverse public relations in order to increase pay.

Hamilton Nolan, writing in Splinter News, noted that:

“To give 250,000 full-time warehouse workers a dollar an hour raise would cost $500 million a year. If Jeff Bezos funded that directly out of his own pocket, he would be in danger of running out of money in only 300 years.”

While the likes of Walmart and Amazon, are going for cloying, but hollow – others, especially in the automobile industry are just silly and insulting.

Typical of that genre is Toyota, whose ad, “We’re here to help”, is a thinly veiled sales pitch having nothing whatever to do with any community involvement. 

In the ad, their familiar commercial spokesperson, “Jan”, described by the marketing firm as “the trusted face of Toyota for instant recognizability”, in her customary Red pullover and Black slacks, tells viewers, “We know how important it is to have a safe, reliable vehicle right now, so Toyota is here to help. For your piece of mind, Toyota’s service centers are open. If you need to replace your vehicle ….”.

The ad then pivots to an invitation to take advantage of Toyota’s financing plans of up to 84 months. 

A couple of things stand out. One, is that while the ad attempts to insinuate that service centers remain open because Toyota is high-minded and altruistic, the basic fact is that Toyota is under a contractual obligation to service their customer’s vehicles that are under warranty and since they are legally obligated to maintain a service department, the fact that you might need an oil change or new brake pads is coincidental to that.

And since the service department is open – might as well see if we can carney bark anyone into foolishly committing themselves to a long term purchase contract they may not even be able to maintain payments on.  Thanks for a favor that is anything but a favor.

Burger King, for it’s part, says it is “thinking of me” and I, for my part, have joked with friends that I don’t actually want Burger King, it’s employees or its creepy mascot, to do so.

image of Burger King sign with text

On the other end of the scale, in terms of effectiveness and a semblance of substance, is Frito Lay, whose coronavirus themed commercial, titled, “It’s About People”, ad least puts some money out on the table and commits itself to spending more of its profits to ease the disruption, including providing meals for children who used to receive them at school.

Regardless of your overall impression of the parent company, Pepsi – Frito Lay at least came up with something that feels meaningful.

Despite that, the preponderance of the ads with these ubiquitous themes, are pretentious, patently insincere and tiresome.  Just stop it already.

by Richard Cameron

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