“I try as a matter of principle to do at least one good deed every day and I see my reward…and we’re a happy contented family. I basically love people; I don’t know what it is to hate. Life is about making choices and we’ve made the right choices and we are happy.”
By Leon Suseran
There is a popular saying… “show me your friends and I will tell who you are”. This week’s
‘Special Person’ has close ties, both personally and professionally, with not one, not two but three of our previously featured ‘Special Persons’.
Clement Augustine Johnson has worked side by side etching his mark in Guyanese history and making his contribution to the trade union movement in this country with the likes of previously featured Donald Thom and Norman Semple, both of whom have been actively involved in the Trade Union movement here. He has shared the past years of his life with a woman who has made an indelible contribution to the health sector, veteran nurse, Brenda Johnson, who too was featured in June last year.
Johnson, who presently resides at Vryman’s Erven, New Amsterdam, undoubtedly has shared some of the best years of his life fighting for workers’ rights and ensuring their needs were being taken care of.
He was born on January 18, 1933 at Parika, Essequibo, to Colin Augustine Johnson and Julia Johnson, in one of the Portuguese shops which was managed by his father.
The shop was downstairs and the living quarters were upstairs. “The shop had one hundred glass windows, but we had to close one, because only the Government House at the time could have had one hundred windows,” he recalled. He left Parika at age four for the village at Henrietta, Essequibo where he resided with his mother and grandmother.
His grandparents did farming at an old sugar estate compound at La Belle Alliance. At age five, he started school at Anna Regina under headmaster of Mr. W. A. King. In 1940, his father left the shop in Parika, and opened his own business at Henrietta, Essequibo coast, which he operated for two years after which he was encouraged to join the British Guiana Postal Service (BGPS) as a postal agent.
Having transferred to Danielstown, young Clement also had to move with his father. In 1943, his father was transferred to Parika as a postal agent but the family did not follow him this time.
In 1944 young Clement moved to Georgetown to live with his sister who had recently got married and he attended the St. Mary’s R.C. School which was operated by Jesuit priests.
During that period, his mother left Essequibo and came to Parika where his father was, so as “a result of that I had to be traveling from Georgetown to Parika with trains”.
He continued this until 1947 when again his father was transferred to Sisters Village on the East Bank of Berbice.
Johnson later attended St Stanislaus College in 1950. He recalled that he was overaged when he went to that school “but due to my father being a good Catholic and so, I was able to get into that school”.
He wrote the Junior Joint Board in 1950 which he passed “and I came up [to Berbice] because I realized that my father was getting a stipend—and in those days you had to pay for education and it used to cost him a lot, but he figured I was his only son, he should try, so I came out of school and said I would have looked for a job.”
He applied to the Harvey Metal Company and Public Works Department in New Amsterdam. He received a reply from Public Works and decided to accept the offer since “working with government was a sure thing”. He worked as an Assistant Storekeeper under the engineer, Mervin Greave, a Guyana scholar. During this period, Johnson met the love of his life, Brenda Paul.
She was 20 and Johnson was 23. How they met each other proved to be quite an interesting story. Her mother used to work at the Guyana House (Government House) as a cook and she would go there to collect her mother’s salary. They would see each other from time to time. “So she would come for the mother’s wages and so on and she would come… we will talk and talking led to one thing and so on, and then we got married on September 15, 1956,” he recalled. As his wife was from the East Coast of Demerara, Johnson wanted to be close to her. He contemplated asking for a transfer. “We discussed before marriage that I should ask for the transfer, because we felt as young people, we must learn to be independent and don’t be dependent on mommy and daddy so we left since I asked for a transfer to work with the Public Works at Triumph. He was employed there from 1956 to 1959. Being a person who likes to be transferred to work in different locations, Johnson “was lucky to work at the Central Mechanical Workshop at Kingston as a Class II Clerk, until 1965”.
When asked if all the different job posts and transfers hindered their marriage and relationship in any way, Johnson replied in the negative. “Not at all! We are both outgoing people. She worked—after I left politics, she took it up—in 1978 when I came home for instance, Brenda was not at home, she was in Linden with Francis Farrier doing a drama workshop, so we trusted each other, unto now,” he said.
In 1959, he entered the trade union movement as a member if the National Union of Public Service Employees (NAPSE) and became a shop steward in 1959 under “President Bolton and Secretary Graham, very knowledgeable trade unionists”. He returned to the Ministry of Works in 1965 as a Class III Clerk from Georgetown and was engaged as a Senior Clerk in 1970, working on the New Amsterdam road approaches.
“During that time, the union established branches…60 branches across the country and I became a member of the New Amsterdam Administrative and Clerical Branch which was housed in Shoe Lane.”
The branch served the community in various ways, including “giving spectacles, bursaries to children medical expenses we paid for people—we had a large fund.”
“Many times we had to look after issues for people. As a young man, I used to be sent to the [New Amsterdam] hospital to settle disputes in the kitchens and the sewing rooms, because where you got plenty women there used to be problems,” he said jokingly.
In late 1968, there was the merger of the two main trade unions in the country, the Medical Employees Union (MEU) and Public Service Association (PSA) and the Public Service Union (PSU) was formed. He became an Executive Committee member and “from there I worked my way up”.
In 1978, he was involved in the Accounting Unit as Chief Clerk for the building of the Canje River Bridge. Johnson notably recalled that the massive concrete structure “was built ahead of schedule…at least three months ahead”. He vividly remembers instances whereby he had to turn back a lot of building materials that were destined to be used in the construction of the bridge. “We had a lab in the [Region] compound and a lab technician and they would send back stuff because if it [the materials] was not proper”.
Johnson stated that the best materials were sent back in those days for construction purposes and definitely for building the Canje River Bridge. He wonders today “how you could build roads now and you don’t have labs. You gotta test your soil; compaction and moisture content, everything you got to test”.
In 1981, Johnson and several other Guyanese as well as persons from various countries around the world left for Russia for over 10 months training in trade unionism at the International Higher Trade Union School in Moscow.
That was a very rewarding experience for him. “We did all aspects of trade union work because, you know at that time, we were talking about being socialist…”
“The Ethiopians, I found were a bit clannish—they would talk to you in English and if they wanted to say something that they did not want you to know, they would talk in Ethiopian.” Other pursuits
Then one night, he received a call from his good friend, Norman Semple—then President of the PSA, who recommended him for Administrative Officer (3rd in line) of the Kuru-Kuru College. Johnson held a family meeting during which he informed them of his new appointment. “It was challenging. When I went there, we had accommodation for 225 students. We were self- sufficient in poultry, eggs, milk, provisions and everything. During August, we would have the Commonwealth Students coming in, people from Mauritius coming in to do a six- week course.” After the college became “very politicized”, he retired in March 1988 as Secretary to the Board.
Having retired, Mr Johnson wanted to give back something to society. He applied for Justice of the Peace (JP) and Commissioner of Oaths in 1991. He is also a mediator and has dealt with several cases whereby they were settled before reaching the point of the parties having to go to court.
He returned to Berbice back to his family, after which Rockliffe Christie, a former employee of the Ministry of Public Works and friend asked him for some help to establish a television station in Berbice. “It took me eight years to decide.” He started working with the Christies’ TV station in September 1996.
He then wanted to do something for the pensioners in Berbice and started up the Berbice Branch of the Guyana Pensioners’ Association. A land was subsequently located in Vryman’s Erven, adjacent to the old Guyana Marketing Corporation. He applied to the Mayor & Town Council of New Amsterdam in 1991 for the land and received it as a “from a Deed of Gift free from the council.”
Johnson was granted $5M to build a pensioners’ building by former President Bharrat Jagdeo. However, he was given the royal runaround by the then Regional Administration of Region Six. The building was not built to the originally agreed- upon specification and was left incomplete. Frustrated by this, Johnson did not give up. He continuously pushed the authorities to account for the $5M given by the former president and finally a few months ago, the building was handed over to the pensioners and more money was found to complete it to specification.
No longer does Johnson have to hold the meetings of the Berbice Pensioners Association in the Lion’s Club Den in the town. He has big plans for the association including classes for early school-leavers, cooking classes, computer classes, sewing classes. He also plans to establish a small library as well as fun and games.
Looking back at his life, Johnson had some real good memories. He would never forget the courtship of his wife. “I had some very good in-laws and both of our parents were on the same wavelength and they got along very well and I enjoyed the political work I did in the 60s and 70s because I used to be in the rivers and creeks doing fan- out exercises, then later, I enjoyed my trade union work.”.
His typical day begins at 04:00 hrs, a custom from his days at the Kuru-Kuru College. He does light exercises and prays. He also would sign documents like Life Certificates, Deed Polls, Affidavits among other things. “I enjoy it and enjoy helping people. I try as a matter of principle to do at least one good deed every day and I see my reward…and we’re a happy contented family. I basically love people; I don’t know what it is to hate. Life is about making choices and we’ve made the right choices and we are happy.”
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson have brought forth four children: Clement, who resides in Guyana; Dr. Christopher, a Management Consultant in London; Ian, Project Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Organisation in Maryland, USA..also an Engineering Psychologist and Arla who is doing her Bachelor of Science Degree in Indiana, USA.
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