The Union Recorder

March 6, 2013

Peace Corps changes life of local student

Vaishali Patel
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — Imagine living life for two years in a third world country without clean running water, being away from family and friends, facing a language barrier and trying to get well from a parasitic disease. Those were some of the challenges 26-year-old Brandon Avery faced during his experience as a girls education and empowerment volunteer in Togo, West Africa while with the Peace Corps.

A 2009 Georgia College graduate, Avery earned a degree in philosophy and a certificate in nonprofit management from the Nonprofit Student Leadership Alliance. He also served as a Baldwin High School YES (Youth Enrichment Services) program tutor.

“While I was working for the YES program, I learned about the Peace Corps and heard a lot of good things about it and how useful it could be,” Avery said. “After the application process, it took almost a year to get in. I had to pass a health clearance, background check and interviews. They then give you a host country and you have one week to accept or decline. I went in September 2010.”

During his two-month training period, Avery experienced culture shock while living with a host family and trying to perfect his French-speaking skills in order to integrate himself into the African culture and lifestyle.

“The language barrier was the biggest obstacle for a long time. It takes quite a while to feel truly comfortable and confident in the language. Getting sick was hard because for the most part you have to deal with it alone. If you get really sick then you can go to Peace Corps office in the capital and they will take care of you, but for most things you just have to take care of yourself,” he said. “The biggest [challenge] in the end turned out to just be isolation. The distance from friends and family is something that always hurts. You never get over that feeling of loneliness; you just learn how to carry it.”

Avery received around $280 each month in stipends to cover his living expenses, in which $20 covered his apartment rent and $5 for electricity.

“Food was also pretty cheap. If I ate street food I could get lunch for about 20 to 40 cents. Buying comfort food in the capital could get a little expensive, but was always worth it to get something that tastes like home,” he said. “I usually spent most of my money on traveling because the other volunteers were so far away. I was the only volunteer in a town in the mountains with about 6,000 people. I only had three people that lived within an hour’s travel time to where I lived. Everyone else was at least three hours away so we would spend a lot of our money on travel.”

Given the nickname ‘Tsome Nanyo,’ meaning tomorrow will be better, Avery’s efforts while in Togo included establishing seven Community Development Committees and a citizen self-governing effort, was affiliated with the German embassy, leading a survey team to evaluate the World Health Organization’s anti-malaria bed-net distribution campaign, and coordinating and facilitating gender equality training conferences in support of Togolese professional women.

“In my program, we were trying to change gender norms and the perception of women in society, and helping girls secure their education to have a good life and be successful. The big problem in African countries is that women’s rights aren’t where they should be. Girls don’t get to go to school as much, they get stuck at home taking care of the household, and they have no voting rights. In some parts of the country, polygamy is practiced,” Avery said. “One of the biggest things I did there was with a program called Men As Partners. We would host a three-day training session and invite men and women from various industries and backgrounds. The common training would be to train teachers on gender equality issues, specifically covering topics on sexual harassment, reproductive health and HIV health prevention. It was a bigger challenge than your typical volunteer assignment, but the reward is so much more powerful and greater because of the difficulty.”

When returning home in September 2012, Avery said America seemed “exactly the same and totally alien at the same time.”

“Coming home is overwhelming. It’s very difficult to describe reverse culture shock. Your whole world gets turned upside down. There is so much advertising and things in your face that we’ve become desensitized to. When you get home you’re not used to it anymore and you experience total sensory overload,” he said. “The emotional shock didn’t hit me until the next day after I got home. Arriving in the airport and driving home felt like walking through a dream. I couldn’t sleep for the first week. I would just wake up at 6 a.m. and wander around my house like it was this bizarre museum of my own life. Everything is so much easier to do when you get back; it’s astounding. I would laugh every time I turned on my sink and hot water would come out. It was wonderful how proud everyone was. The welcome I received was amazing.”

While Avery is in the midst of settling in and trying to figure out his academic path, he not only misses the individuals he worked with in Togo, but also appreciates life’s simple pleasures.

“I appreciate the simple things like air conditioning and running water; I didn’t have either one of those things. I had to use a rain catch cistern and I had to filter the water through my shirt. We also had blackouts from power outages two or three times a week and sometimes for a couple of days,” he said. “The best experience I had was being involved in a summer camp for handicapped boys. Seeing these very shy boys who had felt different their entire lives get a chance to be around lots of other people like them; it was a privilege to experience. I grew really attached to the kids in my group. You could see such a huge difference in just a few days time.”

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