It is not every day you find a woman willing to endure the back-breaking work of mixing cement and building blocks, or climbing to the top of a structure to build rafters but Cheryl knew it was her calling even though it took some time for her to answer.
In fact for years she did various other jobs ‒ worked as a conductress, a secretary at Parliament Building, and even as a weeder with the Guyana Sugar Corporation ‒ but eventually she did what she had to do.
She told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview that she comes from a family of masons and carpenters, and when she tied the knot it was to a carpenter.
And even though it took some years, it was therefore inevitable that at around the age of 34 she started to secure work as a mason and carpentry apprentice. She had left her home and was employed with a contractor, and during that time she described herself as an “all in one person because I did everything.” The contractor asked her if she wanted to “tag along with me” when she expressed the need to find employment in the field, and in the end she never regretted that she took up the offer.
During her work with the contractor he never allowed her to do jobs by herself, even though she was desperate to prove herself, and so she took the opportunity one day when he was away to ask the other men to allow her to tile a room. Upon her return the contractor knew immediately something was wrong and he asked who tiled the room.
“Right away he saw the faults and he asked, and when I said it was me he did not believe at first and then he showed me where I went wrong,” Cheryl recalled.
It was a good move for her, because at the end of that week her salary was raised and she started to do more “meaningful work” such as the laying of blocks. As she made a name for herself persons started to hire her to do small jobs, such as making septic tanks. She later left the field and worked with the Barama company, but Cheryl said her heart was in masonry and carpentry and upon her return to her marital home she and her husband started to work side by side for a while.
“I got lots of jobs building septic tanks; I did repairs to houses and sometimes I even had other people working along with me when I got jobs,” Cheryl said.
But her biggest job came unexpectedly, and it was one she was forced into because she was afraid that she would have spent some money she had in hand. That was the building of her home in Goed Fortuin, West Bank Demerara. Her husband had migrated in order to work, and he had sent some money to build the home. The plan was to work along with her father in the construction of the house. However, after the foundation was laid, her father, a certified boat builder, was called away to the North West to work with a large company and she was left alone.
“After he left I had this money and I did not want to spend it, and I just started doing the work piece by piece. As I received the cash from my husband, I did the work, cutting and tying the steel and everything,” Cheryl said.
She had an unlikely partner in the form of her sister Edith Allen, who knew nothing but learnt from observing her sister, and in the end she was a great help.
“I would say is myself and sister who built our home,” Cheryl said proudly.
But they did get some help, because after they had completed the lower half of the two-storey building her brother helped out with the upper flat, and when it was time to plaster the building she and her sister did the inside while her nephew and another person worked on the outside.
“The reason why they did the outside was because we would have had to climb very high and we were not too comfortable at that time.”
She said it was only recently they built a very stylish fence she described as being “beautiful,” and one that she “sit down and draw on a piece of paper.” She hopes that soon she will be able to get the building painted.
For Cheryl her work in the field has been “fascinating,” even as she recalls that many times persons looked at her in disbelief as she worked, especially when she was building her home. At one time she also worked as a mason in Barbados where her husband worked, and the men they worked with were amazed that she was doing construction.
“The only reason I stopped is because the blocks in Barbados are very heavy and it was difficult to fetch them, and my husband did not want me to continue to do it.”
And she was never disrespected by her male colleagues, whom she said always encouraged her and never allowed her to give up. The only black spot on her career was a contractor who initially promised to pay her the same salary as the men, but when it was time to pay recanted and wanted to pay her less. Not one to be easily pushed over Cheryl said she approached the man who had taken her to the contractor, and when she informed him he confronted the contractor whose excuse was that she was a woman.
“But even the men who were working with him started to quarrel and say I work as hard as them and should be paid the same salary,” Cheryl recounted, and eventually he paid her the salary they had bargained for.
Today as she looks back on her life the 56-year-old says she has no regrets, and while today she is not as active in the field as she was in past years, she still does small jobs and many persons would approach her for advice.
“I would do a day or two of work, but I cannot work continuously because to tile and make the blocks and so on is a lot of bending, and I know my back will pain so I don’t want to test it.”
Cheryl said she has enjoyed her life so far fully, and the only regret she has was not having any children. Maybe it is because of this that she can never hear a sad story and not try to help the person in need. She also never sees a woman being abused without becoming involved, even if it is at her own risk. She recalled once taking a rolling pin from a man who was using it to beat his wife, and turning it on him. Her many efforts to help the woman by visiting the various authorities were futile, as after years of abuse the woman was eventually killed.
However, she would continue to be friend, counsellor and even sometimes provide temporary shelter for those who are in need, because as she puts it, “Ah just have to help.”