Strong woman and astute leader…Simona Broomes is a ‘Special Person’
“Porkknockers’ Day will be coming up, but that is just a celebration, there is no scope for the porkknocker. That is a shame. As hard working people, they deserve more opportunities and respect.”
By Keeran Danny
Women’s desperate cries for help in Guyana’s male-dominated gold mining industry are now being heard – thanks to the Guyana Women Miners’ Organization (GWMO) headed by Simona Broomes, this week’s ‘Special Person’
After 26 years of witnessing and sometimes experiencing the hardship women endure in the industry, Broomes founded the GWMO. Her astute leadership and strong personality have kept the organization, with over 400 members from across Guyana, vocal and proactive.
Broomes, through the organization, has meaningfully challenged policy makers and effectively highlighted that that many ills such as human trafficking exist in Guyana’s “gold bush”. Vigilant members have helped to rescue and deter young girls from the jaws of sexual slavery.
This strength and bravery that allow her to champion women’s rights were inculcated in her at an early age by her St. Lucian parents. Simona was born on October 28, 1971, in Guyana, to John and Mariel Charles. Her father passed away several years ago. Mrs. Charles still lives in Bartica – the place that the family has fondly called home since their arrival in Guyana.
Simona has fond memories of her childhood in Bartica, “playing games, fetching water from the waterside” and even the constant teasing by children of Guyanese parentage. She related that because her parents were ‘Islander people’ she and her 14 siblings were taunted. But being strong-willed and confident of their identity, the teasing did not affect the Charles clan.
A smiling Broomes recalled that education was a priority in her family. She attended St. Anthony’s Primary School, which she reflects, aided her catholic upbringing.
She recalled that as a student, visits by the then President, Forbes Burnham, were highly anticipated. To her, this somehow motivated the Regional Democratic Council and school administrations to place emphasis on education.
“Whenever President Burnham visited communities, one of the first places he went was to the schools. Once he came to my school and the teacher gave me a list of things to tell him, and I ignored the list and told him all the things that bothered me. I told him about being choked up in the seat and the need for pencils and books.
“My teacher was signaling me to stop, but I didn’t because I wanted the President to know the things that bothered me. He called me up to the head table and assured that the school would get 300 pairs of desk and benches and pencils and books,” she proudly recounted.
Choosing a career path after secondary school was not difficult, since Simona knew that she was destined for the mining industry. A few years before completing Bartica Secondary, her mother had opened a fuel and grocery business in the interior, and this added to the teenager’s dream of owning a dredge.
At 17, her father saw her ability to manage a business and provided the capital. With $2,500 Simona bought raw gold, made jewellery, and went to St. Lucia to market her ornaments. The profit enabled her to make her dream a reality- she bought a four-inch dredge at Takutu, Bartica.
She related that she enjoyed every moment on that operation, especially respectfully commanding the reverence of her male workers. Dwelling at the campsite had become routine for the young lady, who had given up the comforts of electricity, family and a warm bed to be around strangers in challenging surroundings, and sleep in a hammock.
“At around five o’clock, because I knew night was near I would drop my netting over my hammock, check my torchlight batteries, fix my slippers, and turn over my boots. Most nights I pretended to fall asleep early and would listen to the men talk about their lives – that was the time I learnt the most about them.”
Those lessons taught in the quiet of the night, prepared Simona for her expansion in the mining industry. This growth essentially begun in Mahdia, with events leading to that development starting at the Parika Stelling.
“I was calling for the boat captain, whose name was Troy, and a young man come up to me so I was like you personal, you name Troy, and he said yes. Well I told him it was another Troy I was calling. Later the same day I saw him again when I was on my bridge in Bartica, and he asked for directions to the restaurant and I told him. He came back and we chatted for a while and told me about Mahdia.
“One of his friends, Compton, came to visit me after he left, and said that a boy name Troy Broomes like you and he send a letter for you…must write him back and so I did. But Compton changed the letter and told Troy to come see me and so he did. When we got to the bottom of it, it was all Compton’s doing. We went to a wedding together and soon hooked up,” she recalled with a smile.
The couple ventured into Mahdia where their partnership led to the ownership of a dredge and a shop. Mahdia became Simona’s second home as she was surrounded by other islanders.
Her union with Troy Broomes produced three children: Hector, Simona and Troy Jr. She noted that being pregnant did not keep her away from mining. She reflected on moments when her abdomen was so large it was pressing against the steering wheel of the truck.
Broomes stressed that mining in those days had more opportunities for small and medium scale miners.
“For instance, Porkknockers’ Day will be coming up, but that is just a celebration, there is no scope for the porkknocker. That is a shame. As hard working people, they deserve more opportunities and respect. Back in those days, porkknockers would have worked on State land and just had to pay a small tribute.”
She opined that even as the industry grows there should be certain provisions for porkknockers.
“Just the other day in Mahdia, porkknockers with detectors discovered hundreds of ounces of gold, and then people come put them off and work the area. Porkknockers are just being shifted out and shifted around.”
And while these injustices persist, women continue to be treated as lesser beings in the sector. The stigma of prostitution and abuse of women is worrisome. She recalled once several women were travelling on a boat and men at the landing did not want the women to disembark the boat, calling them whores.
“I jumped off the boat and told the women to come off, even if anyone of you is prostitutes y’all have a right. And the women came off,” she said emphatically.
“If a woman is sick on a camp and she is not with one of the men, the men don’t help her. It’s like they feel belittled to help another human being… when what that woman simply needs is a cup of tea, someone to fetch water for her to bathe, and some food.”
Since the creation of the GWMO, some men, and even women, who were exploiting females, have stopped the distasteful practice. But the challenge remains great when the policy makers are not on board, Broomes opined.
“While the mining sector has accepted the organization, unfortunately I believe at the policy level it is not quite accepted.”
She noted that the body had written to President Donald Ramotar, Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Robert Persaud and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) to have a seat on Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC)’s board. According to her, to date there has been no response.
However, during a meeting with Persaud, GWMO’s members were told that they could have a seat “without voting rights” on the board.
Broomes emphasized that the group finds that disrespectful since they would not be able to bring about the rightful changes needed for women.
“For months the organization requested a block of land, which is 1,200 acres, to create employment opportunities for women, but nothing has been done. Foreigners are coming into our country and accessing lands while women cannot.”
Broomes stressed that with the exposure of many social ills in the hinterland there is no relationship between GWMO and the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security.