President of SMATT, Shermaine Wickham-Howe

“One of my greatest joys is hearing them call me ‘Mummy’…the hugs and the ‘love-up’…the fact that they are desirous of seeing you return home, their excitement when you come home.

“Even though my older son is abroad I would still send him funds. He has a safety net over there and that’s why I can be comfortable with him being there. He has his own apartment with friends and they work and I am proud of him, but I would call and ask: You OK? You eat? I not playing” I still want to make sure he has a little money in his hand.”

As Shermaine Wickham-Howe spoke to Sunday Guardian last week, her pride was apparent. It has been a long journey keeping food on the table and a roof over the heads of her two children, Neshawn, 24 and Zion, nine. Come what may, she vows that she will never stop—especially since there are many more women like her who keep seeking her help.

Wickham-Howe is the founder and president of the Single Mothers Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SMATT) which aims to provide care, support and edification to all single mothers so they are better able to nurture healthy, well-rounded children. Though the association has been in existence for nine years, it has seen its largest number of clients as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its Facebook page has garnered over 12,000 followers and even people abroad are sharing links to the page with their relatives in T&T.

A single mother herself, who has endured being kidnapped, loss of loved ones and financial struggles, Wickham-Howe finds it hard to turn them away. Helping to empower is her God-given vocation, she insisted.

“The passion of Single Mothers is the children of these mothers; to try to save them from going down a road of crime or being abused. I can’t hear someone is hungry and not do something.

“I always say SMATT is not about me. It’s about the mothers and doing God’s will. I feel like this is what God ordained me to do because I am a people person and my heart weakens when persons are in situations where I know they can be helped,” she said.

Wickham-Howe’s phone rings at all hours. Several nights ago, a mother of two small children called her after they were evicted and had nowhere to go. Men also approach the organisation. Within the last two weeks, someone in his early 20s contacted the association about a job at a public utility they had posted. Although he had been too late, she helped him by networking with others she knew.

“I have a 24-year-old son, so I didn’t want to leave this young man hanging,” she said.

Backed by other directors, Glen Bhagwansingh, Jacquie Burgess and Simone Chinapoo-Lewis, and volunteers from all walks of life, SMATT offers more than a handout. It promotes spiritual and psychological development and financial independence.

In fact, helping others to help themselves was the catalyst for establishing SMATT, Wickham-Howe recalled. Over ten years ago, she returned from living abroad to find her mother’s small wooden home dilapidated. Determined to not “leave her in that situation,” she tapped into material, plumbing and electrical grants from various government agencies for which her mother qualified. In three years, she built a two-bedroom house for her.

“Persons used to come and ask: How you got this? They wanted to know how to get through too. I saw a need to help the women in my community–men and women, but mostly the women with children–to give them the information as to where to go, what documents to carry, so they wouldn’t get the run-around that I got.”

Officially registered in 2017, Wickham-Howe said she started SMATT in 2012. It took her two years to do the initial paperwork, back and forth to POS with her then baby son (Zion) en tow.

“There was a burning passion on my heart to complete it,” she said.

“Only in March last year the Joint Select Committee recognised us as the official representation for Single Mothers of T&T; an organisation which enables single mothers to become aware of their rights.” Wickham-Howe’s tenacity most likely comes from her mother, Beatrice and grandmother, Lillian. The fourth of her mother’s five children, she spent her growing years in Kelly Village under the watch of the two ladies, who were also single mothers.

“I don’t think they were single mothers by choice, but they were very strong women.”

Her maternal grandparents had 12 children, with one having died at birth. Her grandfather passed away in his late 50s, but luckily her mother and some of her aunts and uncles were already young adults.

“I learned how to be strong and do stuff for myself from my mother and grandmother, after God. God first always. I wouldn’t depend on a man. Maybe that was wrong, but I saw that with them.”

She observed many times as the women awoke in the wee hours and dressed for work in the cane fields at Caroni 1975 Ltd. An uncle and her older brothers went too.

“I remember going to sleep on my grandmother’s bed sometimes and she would get up in the dark at two in the morning and they would tie their waists and put on tall boots and two sets of clothing and go.”

They would return by 10 or 11 am blackened from the burning of the cane and the morning sun, Wickham-Howe recalled.

“She did that ‘til she retired and got pension. She raised 11 children and built a house and parlour. If that isn’t strength, I don’t know what is.”

Her grandmother would make pholourie, sweet mango and sell lunches at her little shop. Sometimes when her mother had no transport money for Wickham-Howe and her youngest brother to go to school at her beloved primary school, Tunapuna Government, their grandmother would take the money from her first sale of the day to ensure they went.

Her mother, Beatrice, who went on to work as a cleaner at the same school, also stressed education, she said.

Though Wickham-Howe is uncertain that she would have been able to do what her mother and grandmother did, she has pushed through many obstacles of her own.

She had to deal with separation and later, divorce from the father of her first son. To compound matters, she was kidnapped and robbed in 2010. Driven by the business sense she had picked up while running errands for owners of a popular company as a child and while working as a clerical assistant for one of their companies after completing secondary school, in 2008 Wickham-Howe had opened a small business in St Helena. Called “Event Memories”, the business specialised in photography for weddings and other events. Her business had been robbed twice before and she was followed home after one of her jobs one night.

She managed to escape from the trunk of the Suziki Swift she shared with her ex-husband, by pushing the back seat forward when the kidnappers left. During the ordeal, she could only think of leaving Neshawn behind and still has flashbacks when she sees others face trauma, she said.

While living in a common-law relationship she became pregnant with her second son, Zion. At two weeks old, the child had a bad reaction to baby powder and was having respiratory issues. She was invited to a prayer meeting by Shepherd House International of Diego Martin while spending a week sleeping on a chair at the Mt Hope hospital near her child and one night when he was back home and started having difficulty again, she took him to an outreach the church was having in her area. He has had no respiratory issues since and she still attends the church.

“Zion was the mega-blessing. God used him to buckle me down. I used to party Monday to Monday. I had that time in my life and if I had known better, I would have done better.”

Forced to close her business after Zion’s birth when there was no one to help after her assistant left, she spent the next four years struggling to keep her boys afloat. She was evicted from two apartments and moved into a one-room on the ground floor of her grandmother’s house, selling much of her furniture and enduring floods during the rainy season.

Tragedy would strike again, when Zion’s father, who had been ailing died when the child was four. Meanwhile, her older son would stay with his father at times. He would join him years later when his father moved abroad.

She was also deeply affected by the death of her grandmother–”her pillar”–during that time, and by the passing of her mother five years ago.

“But I didn’t give up. Between God and pushing, I made it out of that room. I re-built my business place right to the front of my grandmother’s property and expanded it for me and my son (Zion).

“One of my greatest prayers is to live to raise this child to be old enough to take care of himself,” she said.

Wickham-Howe was also able to work out a payment plan with a family to buy their vehicle which made it safer for her to attend church in the West and reach many of the women who need her.

SMATT is scheduled to formally launch a chapter in Tobago as soon as COVID restrictions permit. Describing herself as “an imperfect person that God decided to use,” she said she was happy to continue to carry the “mantle” as a defender and empowerer of single mothers.

Q&A with Shermaine Wickham-Howe

1. How did your mother help you to become a mother?

My mum was a cleaner at my primary school, Tunapuna Government Primary and what I will never forget is that from First Year, every single birthday, she would buy a cake for me to share with my classmates and I knew there were times she didn’t have money.

My mother didn’t just leave us at home, unschooled. She would make sure we had books. She would make sure we had something to eat even if we had nothing else. I will always remember that and I try to do the same; make sure my children have a roof, food and clean clothes.

My mother was strength.

2. What are some of the things you teach women?

Once you have a child you cannot depend on your mother, father, spouse. Realise that you are responsible for this child because God forbid, your mother passes away or your husband walks away, you have to do it on your own. And a lot of people have mental cases today because of that. Mental health issues are at an all-time high in T&T because of relationships between men and women. It’s important to develop ways of coping with real-life issues.

3. What advice do you have for mothers who feel like giving up, especially now?

Real mothers will do almost anything to make sure their children are safe and fed. I need them to understand that they need to reach out to God first and foremost because they cannot fix their present situation without God.

Secondly, they need to figure out the best way they can build a financial system, empower themselves. They can always come to SMATT for direction. Whatever talent you have, now is the time to use it. I don’t want people to misinterpret what I mean by talent. If you can sew, there is the SEED grant from the Ministry (of Social Development). If you can make pepper sauce, you could use the grant to buy a machine to grind the pepper, put a label on the bottles and sell. You can google things and gain financially. We help mothers register small businesses. We have counselling services. Seek the help and you can move forward from there.