By Neil Marks
Unassuming. Humble. Charming.
But make no mistake, Dawn Hastings Williams is no ordinary woman. A proud Akawaio woman of the Upper Mazaruni in Region Seven, she is now Minister of State, easily making her the country’s most powerful woman in government.
She heads the super-ministry that is the Ministry of the Presidency. She is answerable for matters such as defence, the emerging giant oil and gas sector, and a multiplicity of other portfolios, ranging from the public service to youth development.
Why, under her are four Ministers of Government. And add to that the fact that she is now the boss of the man who previously held her portfolio – Joseph Harmon – who now serves as Director-General of the Ministry. Harmon was forced to give up the job after the country’s highest courts upheld a constitutional ban against persons with dual citizenship from holding a seat in the National Assembly.
In her responsibility lies the very image of the presidency and she could not be found wanting in realising the power she now holds.
But she is up to the task. And that’s no surprise. Life has taught her the need to stare challenges in the face and conquer them.
Dawn was born at Kako in the Upper Mazaruni to parents Yattie and Sydney Hastings.
Legend has it that the village was named after a handsome Akawaio man who captured the hearts of many women, but he attracted the ire of the village men and he was slain, and his liver removed and thrown into the river. The fragmented pieces of his liver are thought to be the red rocks that inhabit the river bed.
“When I was small you could dive to the bottom of the river and find some of those stones.”
For her, school was the local church. With a tiny population, there were no individual classrooms for the different grades, so the school functioned with one teacher teaching “all of the subjects” to “all of the students” in essentially the same class.
Though her Mother Tongue is Akawaio, English was taught in school and she would be scolded – both at home and at school – for speaking her language. The reason? She remembers the teacher saying that there was no exam that could be written in Akawaio, so she needed to be able to write and speak English in order to move ahead. The explanation sounded plausible to her and she accepted it.
Because her family were Christians, Dawn did not have to undertake the traditional rites girls would be required to observe once they become a “young lady” but she was definitely given instructions on how to behave in a disciplined and responsible way. She remembers particularly being told to rise early in the morning lest she becomes lazy and slow.
After writing exams in what is now Grade Six, she gained a scholarship to study in at the Central High School in Georgetown. She took the boat up the river and boarded a plane for her first trip to the capital city –without her parents, without her friends, and to very strange surroundings and a very different people.
She was accustomed to everyone greeting a polite “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon” as they passed each other – but not so in Georgetown. And then, there was the language. She was only familiar with the Akawaio and English languages but never had she heard Creole spoken. It was one of the first challenges she faced moving to the city.
At the time, there were no hostels to house hinterland students, and so Dawn and a group of others were placed at a house with a guardian (Ismay Duncan,) that she became very fond of, giving her the nickname May May.
While she adjusted to her new surroundings and progressed well in school, when she was age 14 Dawn received news that her mother passed away. Cervical cancer. Yattie Hastings was only 30.
That was the end of school for Dawn. She dropped out and returned to the village to care for her other siblings, the youngest being just two-years-old, while her father worked the farms.
Those in the village proved to be true neighbours – ensuring that they had something to eat and were taken care of when her father was off working. Her grandmother, under whose guidance the family now lived, soon passed away.
What would now happen to Dawn and her siblings? Various relatives offered to take in the children – one would go to this one, the other to that one. But Dawn nor her siblings wanted that fate. She decided to become the woman of the house and shoulder the responsibility.
“It was really difficult for me, but thank God everything worked out.”
But even so, her father insisted that she had to do something to support the family financially. But in Kako, there were few jobs. The choice was between becoming a health worker of a teacher. At age 17, she decided on teaching. But since she did not complete high school, she had to settle with being an aid to the teacher at the school.
But though she was classified as an “aid” she also was given the responsibility to teach. She hated it. Though some of the students were a few years younger, they all looked the same age. After some time, she got over the intimidation.
A year later, a school was finally built in Kako. The District Education Officer at the time, Mr Romeo McAdam noticed her diligence and industriousness. When he learnt that she had not completed formal schooling, he offered her an opportunity to still be trained and gain entry to the teacher’s training college.
“Do you like to read?” she remembers him asking her. She did like to read. So he sent up textbooks and urged her to try to read them.
“I read and I was entered in the exams, I was successful.”
At the age of 18, she still wasn’t hired as a teacher yet, still aiding the teacher at the school.
In 1992, she was enrolled at the teacher’s training college at Turkeyen.
She spent two years there in Primary Education, majoring in Science. She returned and taught for two years until she was ready to pursue her degree.
While in Georgetown, she was attached to the Redeemer Primary School, where now Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally was the headteacher.
Upon graduating, she was appointed headteacher at the Jawalla Primary School.
Later, she was asked to be the acting District Education Officer and even though she was eligible to be appointed to the substantive post, she was not. She decided to return to the Jawalla Primary School.
From an early age, Dawn was surrounding by politics. Her family were staunch supporters of the People’s National Congress (PNC).
She loved attending political meetings, especially since it meant a trip up the Kako River to Kamarang. She was intrigued by the way the people spoke passionately about what they wanted to see for their villages. For the people of Kato, the clamouring was for a school.
It was at one of those political meetings when she was not yet 10 that Dawn had her first ride in a helicopter. Prime Minister Forbes Burnham was visiting Kamarang and once he observed how curious the children, including Dawn, were about the “yellow helicopter” he came in, he told the pilot to give them a quick ride. It was a moment she will never forget!
Later, President Desmond Hoyte, who succeeded Burnham on his death in 1985, had also observed Dawn when he visited to commission the school at Kako. He invited her to meet with him on one of her trips to Georgetown. She agreed and he offered her to contest for an executive post in the party. She declined.
Later, when a vacancy in the National Assembly opened, she was asked to serve as a Member of Parliament. She asked the party to give her two weeks to decide. They didn’t want to wait so long. Dawn nervously agreed.
As she began to serve in the National Assembly, she gradually understood the role and made sure she made her students understand. Whenever she would make a presentation during a sitting of the National Assembly, she would take a video recording of it to show her students to inspire them to reach out to serve in public life.
While later in her life Dawn got into contact with linguists and studied her native language a bit further, her hope is to one day become very versed in the Akawaio tongue.
“I am very humbled, being a woman and an Indigenous,” she said of her appointment as Minister of State.
“I am happy that I can be a role model for young Indigenous.
“If you’re committed and determined, then there is nothing that can stop you.”