‘No work is degrading once it is honest work’

Winifred Charles (Adrian Narine photos)

Den Amstel’s ‘Matriarch’ imparts wisdom

WITH the motto, “No work is degrading once it is honest work” embedded in her mind, 91- year- old Winifred Charles has managed to remain humble and realised her dream of becoming a school teacher.

Winifred Charles is a resident of Den Amstel and is described as the matriarch of the village given her wisdom, “straight-up” personality and friendly disposition. She is the ideal person to chat with about the olden days as compared to today.

In an interview with the Pepperpot Magazine, Charles said that despite her age she is very much active.She does her own cooking and just about everything else, but cannot read as much as she would like to, given her health issues.

She suffered a stroke last year but thankfully, she can still walk on her own— though she needs to use a cane; she is also a diabetic and has hypertension problems too.

She told the Pepperpot Magazine that last year, she underwent two eye surgeries, so she had to give up reading extensively but still reads, since she likes “to be in the know.”

Back in the days
Giving a history of her yesteryear days, Charles said she attended the Blankenburg Primary School and couldn’t pursue a career as a teacher, because of financial and other circumstances.

“I wanted to be a teacher, but I hadn’t a responsible father and my mother was sick; she was diagnosed with diabetes but she tried with me,” Charles said.

She told the Pepperpot Magazine that Alleyne’s High School on Regent Street started in Hague, West Coast Demerara, at the A.M.E Zion Church and it was $12.00 per term.

She explained that after she passed the primary level, the head teacher gave her a letter to take home, but she didn’t know what it contained.

“I went home and handed the letter to my father but when he opened it he said ‘Sorry girl, I can’t afford’; then I knew I had passed, but he told me I am bright and I should try to attend high school,” she said.

Charles, who was somewhat disappointed, handed back the letter to the head teacher who told her “what a pity, [your father] didn’t even try.”

Winifred Charles’s house

Charles continued, “Anyway, a teacher by the name of Ivy Jackson, always taught us in school that no work is degrading once it is honest work.” From then, Charles accepted the motto and started doing domestic work because of her financial situation.
“At age 17, the first place I worked was in 1943 as a live-in maid at Echibillar Villas, Campbellville and when I came back I was at home I had a nephew, who was academically challenged so I used to have a class. Then, children from the village used to come to my ‘bottom house’ classes with their little bench and so on. One day, Miss Avril Merriman came through the street and saw me teaching these children and though I had a lot of patience with them and insisted I become a teacher,” Charles said.

As time went by, one day, Charles was at home when she received a call that a ward maid was needed at the then West Demerara Hospital and she accepted the job.

Dream come true
Charles related that her dream of becoming a real teacher was realised when she was offered to start a school for children in the community, since the Cornelia Ida School was overcrowded.

Some of the plaques that were gifted to Winifred Charles for her service to the community displayed in her home

The senior citizen told the Pepperpot Magazine that permission was given for her to start the school and 27 children were identified within the village to attend in September, 1943.

However, the morning she was supposed to start teaching she had to attend the funeral service of her late headmaster, so she sent her ‘goddaughter’ to open the school and was told only seven children showed up.

“I had an old teacher Miss Taylor, who taught us in school but she had retired; as such, she gave me a nice little easel with a blackboard to use and I gladly accepted the gift,” she said.

The classes went on and more pupils came to school and when Charles ended her teaching career they had a total of 27 children.

Meanwhile, when asked how she felt about the youths of today as compared with her days, she related that things are very different these days as they relates to our young people.

“The youths in this village, I don’t know what to say but I blame the parents. When we were children my parents separated and we didn’t know what it was like to lie in bed till 05:00hrs. We had to get up early and walk about a mile to Hague backlands to buy bitter cassava for mommy to make cassava bread and still get back in time to finish household chores and get to school on time,” Charles said.

The Den Amstel resident related that then no matter how tired their mother was, she always checked their books to see what they did in school every day and even though she wasn’t every educated she assisted with homework.

“But these days, children dress in shoes and socks, return home from school, dump their books and walk all over the place until night, but in my time that would never happen in our house. The other thing is a set of ‘big young people’ at home watching television all day and getting food up to date. Back then if you didn’t work you couldn’t eat and that’s my policy up to today,” she said.

She told the Pepperpot Magazine that she took in a nephew who was abandoned by his father at Kurupung and she got him into church and he grew up to be an affable young man.

Charles added that one day he came to her to ask her opinion about changing his hairstyle to a braided hairstyle and she told him it was not appropriate if he was seeking an office job.

Charles stated that he took her advice and later he wanted to ‘rear birds,’ but she advised him that “Only lazy men do that” and he relented.

“Back then when you bathe at 17:30hrs you could not come out the house and had to take up your books using a ‘flambo’ lamp and complete your homework before it goes out,” she said.

This elderly woman said she got things on her own by rearing pigs, goats and sheep. Having struggled as a child to overcome financial difficulties, she managed to accomplish a lot after her husband passed away 21 years ago.