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.
"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.
"Of course, that will take a while. The first step is to knock down the Cable & Wireless," he added with a laugh, referring to Jamaica's monopoly telephone company, which advertises: "One voice. One vision. One future."
"It's a question of better choices, competition," Makonnen said. "With competition comes better quality. They're just sitting on their butts down there [at the telephone company] saying, 'We don't need faster lines, we don't need better technology.' But to survive in the future, we do.
"It's just better for people to have more choices."
In decades past, such talk from a government advisor--age aside--would have sharply provoked many in this nation, which has alternated between fervent socialist and capitalist regimes.
In relating the unconventional roots that produced him, Makonnen and his mother said he has been spared most of Jamaica's violent side--the result, his mother said, of a conscious decision to home-tutor the boy from birth.
She chose to raise her son alone; she and his father separated when the boy was born. In her son's earliest years, she said, she brought him to work, where he started playing on the computer keyboard at age 3.
"I would always have a word-processing machine in front of me, and you know children always imitate their parents," she said. "He could read at 3, and 4 is when he could first do 'yes' and 'no' on a computer, but he learned quickly from there.
"It's really not difficult for children. People think Makonnen is a genius, but I think he is proof that this is the best way to educate children."
Much of his education was nomadic as well. Hannah and her son lived in dozens of huts, houses, apartments, hotel rooms and even in a tent in a Rastafarian community on the outskirts of Kingston, the capital. They also lived for several months in New Jersey and Chicago.
Through it all, Hannah constantly provided her son with books--thousands of books ranging from "Winnie the Pooh" to Greek epics and encyclopedic world histories--and endless hours of grilling on multiplication tables. When the math grew too difficult for her, she found friends who tutored Makonnen at home.
Only once did Makonnen attend school--a two-month stint in a Kingston classroom when the boy was 7 years old that ended so bitterly that he now says, "I don't want to talk about it."
"His teacher could barely speak English," his mother recalled. "Makonnen was at least three years ahead of his class. It was pathetic. One day, he came out crying and said, 'Please, Mommy, don't make me stay here anymore.'
"The main problem, of course, is the government here cannot provide adequate education facilities now, and parents are fighting against the kind of education their children aren't getting."
In keeping with the principles of the Rastafarian religion--a minority sect born in Jamaica that views the late Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie as a divine savior--Makonnen has not cut Makonnen's hair since birth. But his mother added that she has imposed neither the hairstyle nor the religion on her son: "Rasta is not hair, it's here," she said, pointing to her heart. "Rasta is what you do."
Makonnen is in many ways just an average teenager. He spends hours on the phone with his girlfriend. He's an avid computer-game player; FIFA '98, the world soccer federation's latest game, is his current favorite. He plays real-life soccer every Saturday, and his immediate ambition is to win a spot on the Reggae Boyz national team in a few years.
Long-term goal: "To be phenomenally rich."
"Start a computer company, maybe, a private company that develops software," he said, when asked how he hopes to get that way.
"There was a time I wanted to be a movie star. That was my movie-star phase. Right now, I must say, I'm in my phenomenally rich phase."