Computer whiz kid to hold workshop here in August

By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
May 24, 2001

Sixteen-year-old Makonnen Blake-Hannah, adviser on youth and technology to Jamaica's Minister of Industry, Commerce and Technology has been given the green light to hold a workshop to teach information technology (IT) to local youths during the August holidays.

The home-schooled Makonnen, said to be the youngest government employee in the world, is currently on a one-week visit to Guyana. The National Democratic Institute in collaboration with the Carter Center made the visit possible.

Makonnen is accompanied by his mother Barbara Blake-Hannah, who is the director of TECHSCHOOL, a Jamaican cyberschool, which was established in 1998 and holds summer and Easter holiday workshops to teach technology to youths around the world.

The two-member Blake-Hannah team on Monday met Minister of Education, Dr Henry Jeffrey, to whom they indicated their interest in holding a TECHSCHOOL workshop in Guyana during the August. They said he responded positively.

Makonnen was appointed to the post of ministerial adviser at age 13, though because of his age he is not paid a salary but an honorarium. He told Stabroek News at the Guybernet office on Hadfield Street, Georgetown on Monday that he wanted to positively influence young people that a job in cyberspace could be financially rewarding and fun.

Makonnen was appointed a youth consultant after he provided music for the minister's website when those who built it and persons at the ministry could not do so.

While in Guyana he is expected to be part of a public forum on the role of IT in developing societies at the Main Street Plaza today. Yesterday he addressed students at the University of Guyana on the new trends in IT.

He was in Trinidad two years ago to attend the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce Annual Technology Expo and spoke at a youth forum and with high school students to show what they could do with information technology.

The young man said that he was interested in how Guyanese youths responded to IT, their sensitisation to the technology and what he could do "to help the kids here" to have access to the world, particularly Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean islands.

Asked about his duties, Makonnen said that apart from keeping the minister informed about what is going on in the world about youth and technology, he travels around Jamaica to show youths "what they can do with [IT] if they put their mind to it.?

Speaking about the computerisation of Jamaican schools, Makonnen said: "They [the students] are angry right now," because in the public schools they do not get to use computers till they reach the third form. They feel they should be introduced in the first form or even at the primary level.

The private sector, he said, has led the way in the computerisation of schools through the Jamaica Computer Society (JCS). The JSC has an education programme through which it donates computers to schools and teaches them to use it. "Jamaican children are becoming very used to the technology,? he said.

Asked about being home-schooled, Makonnen said: "You have to ask my mom," but added, "she did it in my best interest.? Makonnen feels that being home and self-taught "helped a great deal" as he has had more time to be "multi-talented" and become a rounded person. "It has had its advantages for me especially in my quest for knowledge because I have been able to do exactly what I want to do, how I want to do and learn whatever.? He is also an avid sports enthusiast who has played competitive football for one of Jamaica's leading football clubs.

Blake-Hannah, a journalist by profession, who sat through a part of the interview said that when Makonnen was two years old, she realised that he could recognise some letters of the alphabet and began to teach him the others. By age three he could read. The most difficult thing for him to read was the Bible, but at age six he began to read it.

She said that in Portland, where they lived when Makonnen attained school age, "there were no appropriate schools for kids of his age. The basic schools were more like holding pens where children sat and screamed until they got attention. I had no money at the time, anyway, to pay for my child to go to these expensive schools that did not teach my child to read." In spite of her teaching she said, "I hardly educated him. Please. Let me say, especially, when it comes to computers I have not taught him, except for `n' which means `no' and `y' which means `yes' on the keyboard.? He was introduced to the keyboard on her lap at the age of four.

She recalled that even before he reached 11, Makonnen would get on the computer after she came off at 8:00 pm and work until 4:00 am next day. Now, Makonnen does most of his schooling on the Internet.

Modest about her only child's achievements, Blake-Hannah said she was grateful to the Creator who answered her prayers for nine years before she conceived him at the age of 45. Praising God, she said that she had to talk about it because "the Father, Jah" said "we must testify."

At age 16, Makonnen's curriculum vitae includes creating a storyline and co-starring with Jamaican reggae star Freddie McGregor in Kids Paradise - The Great Lost Treasure Hunt -- a half-hour Jamaican television drama for children filmed at Bosco Bell in Ocho Rios and which was his brainchild. At age ten, he featured on Nickelodeon TV, Network, USA and at age 11, he starred in the second episode of Kids Paradise -- Shasta Runs Away. At 15, he was the only teenager not resident in the USA, who was invited to the inauguration of the conference centre of the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida.

At present he is focusing on work which includes jobs with the record label Mystic Urchin Music and some others. He is a producer and also writes songs for artistes and records them. Keen on the music, video, and filming industry, Makonnen said he promotes and maintains the website for leading Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton and his Gargamel Music Studio.

In the IT sphere, Makonnen said that he was involved in many businesses, including HQ Solutions which was basically a comprehensive IT business resource centre to build computer labs and set up websites. Among those they worked on were the labs at Immaculate Conception School and Alpha Academy. The business stopped after a year because some of his friends migrated.

At present he is involved in `Silicon Island' innovations, which he said was more of an information technology media house. The television show in this series called `silicon', he said, was about to be released in Jamaica and "we are planning on distributing internationally." He describes the show as a technology television programme that has a fusion of the Jamaican culture with "the Jamaican reggae and irie vibes" to get the youths motivated and into technology. It has used popular artistes and its objective is to teach Jamaicans and other Caribbean youths what is going on in the IT field. It is also aimed at telling young people that with a job in IT "they can have fun... it is easy to grasp and it gives us a voice, especially (through) networking."