Carjacked in a foreign country, an experience that saw a gun placed at the head of her three-year-old daughter; raped by a colleague and having her father falsely accused and prevented from leaving Guyana for nine years are just some of the terrible experiences Cheryl Noel has had in her life, but instead of becoming bitter she is on a mission to help the younger generation.
Noel should have been someone who hated her country, after all, this is where her father dedicated most of his working life at the end of which he was almost destroyed when he was falsely accused in what she now describes as a “political scandal.” She should also hate deceased president Forbes Burnham, who was head of state at the time when Frank Noel was charged and prevented from leaving Guyana for nine years. Instead, she loves Guyana and while she feels passionate about what her father was forced to endure, she still believes that Burnham did some good for the country.
After years of working at the United Nations in various positions, which has seen her living and working in several countries, Noel has returned to Guyana and opened a business with a friend which she calls the ‘Green Space,’ but more importantly she has started working with teenagers and younger children.
She has commenced a mentoring programme at her alma mater, the Bishops’ High School. Noel can be described as a complex individual and during a sit down with the Sunday Stabroek she openly shared many facets of her life, stating that from an early childhood she was never afraid to speak.
The mother of one admitted to falling into depression and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, most of which was work related. As a result, even though she was making a good salary, she opted for early retirement because as she puts it “whatever time I have left on this earth I would rather be in my own country serving.”
She also spoke of never attending university, an issue she struggled with for years because even as she climbed professionally it was always at the back of her mind that she did not have a degree.
“It used to be a source of distress for me,” she readily admitted, adding that her father always encouraged her by pointing out all she would have accomplished.
Saying she attended the “university of life,” Noel shared that because her father was out of a job for years, her mother ill and her two older siblings married with their own families, she became the breadwinner of the family and this included helping her younger brother to attend college.
“You are the one, and I don’t regret that. By the time it came to my turn, I had a child and I was determined that she would go even if I had to eat grass,” Noel said speaking of her “wonderful daughter,” who is now an actress with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.
And while many of her former colleagues and friends may frown on her decision to move back to Guyana and some complain about the culture, Noel said she has worked in peacekeeping in many countries around the world and she understands the mindset of people who are under siege.
“It is about survival, so people become manipulative and it becomes a cultural norm. That is what I have noticed in my country. So, for those of us who have lived abroad, who lived in a developed country we don’t understand the psychology of this,” she said.
She continued that people learn to tell stories to make people feel sorry for them and do things that make someone feel compel to give to them. She said that’s the divide between those who left and those who stayed.
“But when you pay people a living wage, no one will have to beg for anything and people can keep their dignity,” she said passionately pointing out that there are persons with 15 subjects and who are university graduates but who are working as taxi drivers because that is what pays the bills.
“I came home to mentor, to transfer knowledge, having lived in several parts of the world. I am giving access to people to experiences that can move their agendas forward,” she said.
She is doing this by building relationships with young people where there is mutual respect and trust and apart from the mentoring of some teenagers at Bishops she also goes into schools and speak to children and assists the individual child when possible.
And as she looks at the state of government, Noel said it is about everyone wanting to be a star, but she advised that they do their jobs and history may or may not tell the story.
“That [people doing their jobs] is to me is what is lacking, if you don’t know how to do the job, get some advice from people who did it before. Create a country that you want your children to inherit, because they are not happy with what is happening,” she pointed out.
Reflecting on her migration in 1983, she said that it was a reluctant or better a “bawling” young girl who left after her family was devastated when her father was charged and was prevented from leaving the country for some nine years.
Frank Noel was then the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Trade and secretary to the Guyana State Corporation and he along with 23 others was charged with conspiring to defraud the government of $7.6 million.
For her the evidence was always there that her father had done nothing wrong, but she believes that because he had made a public comment against an initiative the then president was touting, he was punished. He was exonerated nine years later.
She was 18 at the time and she still remembers it like it was yesterday, as it was during that period that his wife had surgery for a brain tumor, but he was not allowed to leave the country. During that period as well, he was not allowed to work and according to his daughter he was not “allowed to do anything else” and many did not want to be associated with him.
He was finally permitted to travel in 1987, when his wife had a second brain surgery.
And even after all he endured, Noel said, her father was “ridiculously loyal to Burnham” and up to this day at the age of 89 he remains that way. She said her father was “a scapegoat because they knew he would not talk,” referring to information her father had but which he has never disclosed even after being prosecuted.
At the time, he believed that if he had communicated with the president it would have all gone away, but her mother never agreed because she was adamant that Burnham was the president and had to be aware of what was happening but did nothing.
“Long after he [Burnham] died, he was always like why he would do this to me, it was never this man was wrong,” Noel said describing how her father viewed the issue.
She pointed out that the case destroyed many families and eventually she was forced to leave Guyana after working for two years at the Caricom Secretariat.
While she was in the US on holiday, she was encouraged to write a test and she gained employed at the United Nations, but she was determined to return to Caricom since she was on vacation.
“I was bawling, but my father asked me if my boss [at Caricom] had gotten a job at the UN what would she have done,” Noel said adding that she reluctantly remained in a country which never felt like her home.
She believes her father’s insistence that she remain in the US was out of fear for her safety because as a young woman she was “recklessly fearless. I spoke my mind and he was terrified and he really did not want me in the country. It was hard to deal with his own fears and to have a daughter that spoke out. I would do things like if I was some place and Burnham turned up I would not stand, and it scared my father.”
She said while she admired much of what Burnham did for Guyana, she also knows what he did to her family. She is cordial to his children, who she knew from childhood, as she does not believe the ills of parents should be visited on their children.
Love for art
Apart from mentoring and her business, Noel has also opened an art gallery named ‘Rapsodia’ because of her love for art and being surrounded by art.
She laughingly said that if no art moves from gallery she will be happy even though that defeats the purpose of the gallery: to sell art.
“But for me money has never been the most important thing, I have always been able to survive. Even if I give away my last ten dollars I know I will eat tomorrow and I have never starved a day in my life,” she said.
She concedes that making money is important but for her it is not the most important thing in life as it does not guarantee happiness.
Now that the gallery is open, Noel said she is sharing art that she has encountered around the world and she hopes it helps to broaden the minds of local artists.
The gallery is located in the building at 61 Queen Street, that also houses the Green Space, which Noel operates with a friend. The business caters for weddings, tea parties and parties among other events. Security is of upmost importance and as a result Noel said it is not a walk-in business. She hopes they will soon find a place that is financially viable but at the same maintain a certain standard.
Noel has served in many positions in the UN which has seen her work in countries such as Cambodia, Yugoslavia, East Timor, Israel and Sudan and the experiences have not all been good. In fact, some have had long-lasting effects on her and have thrown her into depression.
While in Cambodia, she was carjacked, and a gun was placed to her daughter’s head and in that same country she was raped by a colleague.
“I now can talk about my experiences without crying but they have altered my state of my mind and I have had to suspend reality to deal what was in front of me,” she shared.
The art gallery is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 12 pm to 5 pm, while on weekend it is open by appointments. For more information persons can contact Noel on 619-1399.