Brandon Williams: Education, training 2012 IRHS grad’s Peace Corps mission in Guinea

Pictured are U.S. ambassador to Guinea, Dennis Hankins, Brandon Williams and a few of his ninth and 10th graders after a visit from the U.S. embassy.

ROXANA — No phone, no lights, no motorcar, not a single luxury.

That was the plight of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island.

Roxana native Brandon Williams is experiencing lack of modern luxuries in the western African country of Guinea.

Only he’s not a castaway. The 24-year-old Roxana resident is serving with the Peace Corps, approaching the final year of his 27-month service commitment prioritized on educating and training teaching.

“I don’t have electricity. I don’t have any running water,” says the 2012 Indian River High School graduate. “Some volunteers live in huts. I live in a house, a cement house.”

Mr. Williams is serving in the Foutah Djallon region of Guinea. “This region is known for cooler temperatures and beautiful mountains and waterfalls,” he said.

Mr. Williams shares the Peace Corps mission, which is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women;
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served;
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

“I am in the education sector, so my primary goal is teaching, but also helping teachers, training teachers to be more effective teachers. That is my primary goal,” said Mr. Williams.

Peace Corps volunteer Brandon Williams with his French and Pular language facilitator.

After graduating from IRHS, Mr. Williams went to the University of Delaware aiming for a career in medicine.

“The whole time I wanted to go to med school. Once I got to the university, I changed about halfway through because I didn’t want to work in one place my whole life,” he said. “I wanted to travel a lot. But med school was always like the goal.”

There was a change of pace based on his passion to be a traveling man.

“When at university, I studied for five years because I changed; I went from being a bio major to a double major in public policy and international relations. I was studying bio and doing med school for the first two years,” said Mr. Williams. “The reason that I went into medicine, it was more like a human rights perspective. I realized, too, that I didn’t want to focus just on health, I wanted more on like human rights in general. I wanted a little bit more flexibility.”

“Once I started volunteering at like Atlantic General (Hospital), I realized that I didn’t want to stay in one place my whole life,” he said.  “I think the biggest push really was a wanted to travel. That was the biggest thing.”

Embedded in that Peace Corps mission are efforts to empower girls through computer literacy. To make way for the computer lab, the old classroom underwent a facelift. “We closed the walls and repaired the roof,” said Mr. Williams.

“The computer lab is one of the secondary projects, developing the computer lab and empowering girls through computer literacy. And I want to do like a full training with my teachers on techniques for teaching,” said Mr. Williams, who returned to Guinea in early September after an August stay back in the states.

“Another thing,” Mr. Williams said, “is making reusable menstrual pads for the female students. Because over there, having your period is one of the reasons that the girls might not come to school, for maybe a week every month. The products over there, they are cheap from my perspective, but they are not very cheap from their perspective. So, we make reusable ones, and they are really cheap, like 50 cents. But you can use them the entire year. It has such an amazing effect.”

Female students garner specific attention through a new club just for girls.

“We have a big problem with students abandoning school, specifically girls. There are many reasons. The problem over there is called early marriage. You could have girls that are being married off at 15-16, or maybe even 14 years old,” said Mr. Williams. “So, through our girls’ club that is just starting this year at our school, we’re going to be talking about a lot of things like, early marriage, and things you can do to help yourself. Like communication techniques, talking to your parents … but also make those connections with the school so if there is a girl who is about to be married off, the principal or another professor can go and talk to the family, help out the family. In the girls’ club, we will also be talking reproductive health.”

Twice every trimester there will be special classes just for the girl students. “It is going to be a group of girls in this computer lab studying by themselves without that like fear or shame of being next to a boy. It does exist. Being in a group with just girls, they come out their shell a little bit more. They become more curious, and they are exploring a little bit more,” Mr. Williams said.

Some of Brandon Williams’ 10th graders drawing systems of the body in preparation for their national exams.

Guinea is not a rich country by any means.

“Guinea is one of the poorer countries. It can be a rough situation,” said Mr. Williams, who admits there was initial culture shock. “Definitely, when I first went to Burkina it was a huge shock, but now after having a couple trips under my belt, it wasn’t as bad. We were way out. We weren’t even close to a paved road or even close to having access to little shops to buy things. The way I am living now it’s almost almost like New York City compared to where I was.”

While there’s no electric service, there is solar power.

Upgrades are made to convert the old classroom into a computer lab.

“A lot of houses in Guinea, they have a lot of solar panels. So even if we don’t electricity, a lot of times we have solar power,” said Mr. Williams. “I don’t have it on my house. Usually, what I will do is, I will go to my friend’s, who has a little store, and he has solar panels. You can take your phone, your laptops there, and he’ll charge them for you. It’s really cool.”

“We have a pump right behind my house. Peace Corps won’t send you anywhere where there isn’t potable water accessible. It’s not dangerous,” said Mr. Williams. “There are two options for water. One, you can pump the water, and then Peace corps teaches us how to filter the water and bleach it, so it is safe to drink. The other option is they have water in little bags, like 400 milliliters. That is what I do. You have to pay for it. It is packaged.”

“There is a national road, and along that there is electricity. But because I am like 13 kilometers, or like nine miles off of that route, we don’t have lines going out to our community,” he said.

As a Peace Corps member, there is a monthly allowance.

“It’s very basic. I get probably about $200 month. That is for food, of course, for the whole month and transportation. Right now, we are allowed to leave our site once a month to go to what is called a regional house. There, we meet up with other volunteers. We relax a little bit, share ideas. That is transportation there. And that is like $20,” said Mr. Williams. “So, we get a monthly allowance. It’s just for general expenses. We do get a little stipend every month if we want to eventually travel. We can save that. I usually go through it. I’m usually like begging for money …”

“I have $200 a month; that is the average salary for a teacher in Guinea. There are other teachers who make a lot less than that. I know teachers that are making maybe a $60 month,” said Mr. Williams. “This $200 is just for me. I don’t have a family. I don’t a bunch of kids to take care of. That is what they are expected to live on.”

“At end of your service, you get a readjustment allowance. It’s just to help people come back to states. Peace Corps has a lot of younger people. I have friends who have sold houses to come into Peace Corps, so currently they have no house to go back to,” he said. “By the end of service, we get maybe $8,000. It is just to help with transition back. I’ve heard from a lot of people that the hardest part of the service is leaving country who’ve called home for two years and coming back to the one that you called home for however many years you lived there. It definitely is not easy.”

One of the scenic waterfalls in that area of Guinea.

Mr. Williams recalls how his interest and passion for the Peace Corps came about while at UD. It is a program called buildOn, an initiative to empower U.S. urban youth to transform their neighborhoods and the world through intensive community service.

“My first semester after I changed my major, I was sitting in my very first public policy class, and this girl walked in and she announced this trip to go to Burkina Faso. They were raising money to build a brand-new school. There are a lot of organizations that do that. But the thing that was different about this one, it’s called buildOn,” said Mr. Williams. “I had just changed my major and didn’t have that much of a direction. I said, ‘OK, that’s amazing.’ I said I wanted to travel. This was a cool opportunity, so I did it.”

“By time I was a senior at UD … I eventually worked my way up in the organization, and I became the president of buildOn,” he said.

Prior to leaving for Peace Corps duty, Mr. Williams worked in Legislative Hall. “I was a legislative fellow. I worked in the House of Representatives for Delaware. I did that for six months. I worked for House Majority Caucus, which is the Democratic Caucus. I worked there for about six months, as a fellow,” Mr. Williams said. “I had really two roles. One, I did research for new legislation. And then I helped out with secretarial type work for running committee meetings.”

The son of Nova and Forrest Williams, Mr. Williams was active while a student at Indian River High School in Key Club, National Honor Society, Academic Challenge, band, including stage band and marching band.

“In the Key Club we did a lot of community service,” Mr. Williams said.

Fundraising

In Guinea, the goal of ongoing fundraising is to get 11 laptops. The funding will also be for a complete solar paneling system for the school, so it would charge all of the laptops, the printer, everything. It would also buy a printer and all furniture needed for the school in terms of the computer lab.

The total project goal is about $7,480.

“Even though this project is very focused on girls, everyone at the school would be learning computers, they would have a computer class, a two-hour computer class added to their weekly schedule every week,” Mr. Williams said. “So, every student at that school would be studying computers, which in Guinea that is not common at all. Even in the capital there is not many schools that have that available. They have it available, but it’s not free; they have to pay for it. We’re trying to make it more accessible.”

“Second part is we want to train teachers. In the states we’re used to playing around with computers. Kids start at like one and two years old now playing on iPads now,” said Mr. Williams. “There (in Guinea) it is very new. I have maybe one student who has a laptop and maybe 10 percent have ever like touched  a laptop. So, because of that I want to make sure the teachers are able to teach it after I’m gone.”

Mr. Williams will be writing curriculum and all lessons for the classes.

“During the second trimester, at least four of the teachers are going to watch me teach some classes, like shadowing. And they are also going to help teach, we’re going to co-teach those classes,” said Mr. Williams. “In the third trimester, the goal is for those teachers who have been shadowing, watching me teach, by the end, the goal is they will be able to completely teach the lessons all by themselves.”

Some of the school students.

Guinea school system

“At our school, total, we have 176 students. That is what we are predicting for next year. It is a smaller school in terms of girls; we are predicting to have around 70. The reason I said predicting is administratively in keeping track of things from, I guess, a secretarial point of view. It’s a little hard to keep track of everything. There is not a very good system.”

“For the education system in Guinea, it is actually the French education system. So, you have primary level and you take an exam to get into middle school. Primary school is grades 1–6, middle school is grades 7–10, and then you have the equivalent of high school — grades 11–12. From there you take an exam to go to university,” said Mr. Williams. “The thing about the system is that in France it works. In the French system, the idea is that not every student is going to pass through. Every student is not going to make it through the education system. If they don’t make it through the education system and make it to university, then they have the option to do like vocational training — a mechanic or something like that. In France that works, because those programs are available.”

“In Guinea, however, if a student doesn’t pass through the education system, then they are going to abandon school. If they abandon school, there is really not other options. There is a little bit of development happening right now in one of the towns near me. There is a program to study computers. And at the same place you can study to become … basically like a nurse. That is sort of the context that this project is working in.”

Different world

“It makes sharing a little bit hard. There are some things that like after a year you just get so used to, like early marriage. I don’t want to say you become ‘numb’ to it, but it becomes sort of like a normal part of society. It’s another part of Peace Corps, sharing our culture with them and sharing their culture with Americans.”

Future aspirations

“I don’t have anything definite. But, while I was home, I have sort of have an offer for a job, which is nice. I am hoping to come back and work with Delaware House of Representatives in Delaware. That would be ideal. I would love it. My two choices are going back to school or working. If I go to school, it will be most international policy, international development, something along those lines.”

Ten years from now?

“I’m not sure. I’d like to work with an NGO (non-governmental organization) abroad, or I’d love to work as a foreign service officer abroad, working in an embassy for the state department.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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