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Jamaica's Youngest Government Advisor Is a 13-Year-Old Who Knows His Way Around a Computer and Comes From a Long Line of Mavericks

October 23, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KINGSTON, Jamaica — At first glance, the corner bedroom of the simple home in suburban New Kingston seems a typical teenager's space: wall posters of the Reggae Boyz, Jamaica's national soccer team; a girlfriend's portrait; a boom box; and a bedspread of suns, moons and stars.

But sprawled across the bed at the keyboard of his new Omega P-200, the boy in baggy shorts, T-shirt and dreadlocks is hard at work for his government, probing the universe of global technology for what's hot, what's not and what could provide a bridge to a better future for his Caribbean island nation.

He scours Web sites across the continents, samples the latest in game technology, joins in a global technology forum run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pores over computer magazines and technical journals and sends a constant stream of e-mail to his boss, whom he briefs in person every Monday at Jamaica's Ministry of Commerce and Technology.

His salary?

"Enough to take my girlfriend to the movies a couple times a month."

Meet Jamaica's technology consultant, Makonnen David Blake Hannah, the youngest government advisor in the nation's history, according to the Cabinet member who hired him.

Makonnen is 13 years old, and his appointment made headlines worldwide when the government announced it in July.

He's a whiz kid on the Web who has been hacking on computers since he was a toddler. He reads dozens of books and hundreds of magazines a year and speaks precise Oxford English, although he's never finished a semester of school. And last month, MIT selected him, along with 99 other gifted youngsters, to join in a "junior summit" at the university in November.

Indeed, Makonnen is the product of a pioneering family that is as unorthodox as his recent government posting--an appointment that shows not merely the many possibilities in this brave new era of global technology but also how a single family, through three generations, has made a difference.

In the 1940s, Makonnen's grandfather, Jamaican journalist Evon Blake, broke the color barrier in this former British colony when he defied all convention and jumped into the whites-only swimming pool at Kingston's Myrtle Bank Hotel.

And Makonnen's mother, Barbara Blake Hannah, a Rastafarian author, filmmaker and former senator who has home-tutored her only child since birth, shattered similar convention in 1968 when, according to her official biography, she became the first black television journalist in the United Kingdom.

For Phillip Paulwell, the commerce and technology minister who appointed Makonnen to the post, the move was not unlike those of Makonnen's mother and grandfather--a gesture of both symbolism and substance.

"For us, it's a question of survival, of getting our young people on board and having them teach us," Paulwell said. "Obviously, by his age, there was a message in Makonnen's appointment. But he already has helped me tremendously, keeping me informed on the latest trends in software and hardware development and keeping me in touch with the new generation."

In his weekly briefings so far, Paulwell said, Makonnen has advised him on the relative advantages of the latest line of wafer-thin laptops, which he is considering for his ministry, and on new software that makes Web searches faster and more efficient.

Although Makonnen has the official title of youth technology consultant and is considered a full-fledged member of the ministry staff, Paulwell said child-labor laws prevent him from putting the boy on the government's official payroll; the small salary is a stipend, he said.

Makonnen's appointment, Paulwell added, is part of a broader vision of survival for small nations such as Jamaica. It was one step in an ambitious plan to develop his largely impoverished country--which now is dependent on the Caribbean's fragile and competitive tourism market--as an offshore headquarters for software.

Last month, Paulwell unveiled another step in that quest. At a ceremony in Greenville, S.C., he chaired the launch of the Caribbean Institute of Technology, a joint venture between the U.S.-based software manufacturer Indusa, Furman University in Greenville, a university in Britain and two Jamaican institutes. Together, they plan to train Jamaicans to design state-of-the-art software at the Information Technology Center, a business that Indusa is establishing on the island in Montego Bay.

"The Information Age, driven by the breathtaking technological advances, now dictates that our survival can only be assured through development and investment in . . . knowledge-based industries," Paulwell said at the ceremony.

His new technology consultant put it more simply: "We really want to make Jamaica a power in information technology," Makonnen said, acknowledging his role in that process.

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