Champagne Dreams, Jamaican Beer Pocket

AKA The Inspirational Resolve of Zanj Rracc

Criticism, not Congratulations

Some months ago a dear friend got an opportunity he has hankered after for a year: admission to the 2016 Masters in Media Management cohort at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden.  I am usually happy when my Beloveds excel, but I was ecstatic for him. For almost six years I have watched him incrementally improve an internet radio station he founded, pinching a salary of pennies to invest in software and equipment. I had also seen him slowly assemble a team of talented youth who share his vision of a media entity that educates and empowers staff and listeners to be agents in their own development. Now, he was accepted to one of Europe’s top technical universities, located in a city constantly compared to Silicon Valley. Grit gone good.

So when he was not one of the handful selected for a scholarship from KTH, and because at every Jamaican financial institution he is ineligible for the size loan he would need, I encouraged him to share his story and see if many mikkles could make a mukkle that would enable him to take up the offer. He was hesitant that anyone would be moved. I pushed back: It’s KTH, womb of Soundcloud, Skype and Prezi, and the media management program accepted only 15% of those who applied; fifty dollars from 200 amenable people could cover a semester, but at the very least, upon hearing about this achievement, people will say a kind word.

I was wrong. The Gleaner published an article about his achievement and his need. Reader comments compared him to a panhandler, and someone who wanted others to buy him a 2016 Audi. Zanj laughed at them—they vindicated his hesitation—but I was appalled by the criticisms, as well as the people who had penned them. The worst, “Youth of the future, Champagne taste on beer pocket book.”

One Jamaican friend was shocked by my shock. “Don’t you know Jamaicans support you at the finish line?” he asked, mentioning that even Usain Bolt has complained about that. I turned to my Rwandan sage-sister-counselor-friend. “Some people suffer from a dearth of imagination,” she soothed matter-of-factly. To them, all schools are equal and you simply go to the cheapest one. I heard her, but I was saddened that there were people who could not appreciate that a youth who aims high though he has few resources is a powerful national asset.

I also kept thinking about the million-dollar development conferences and meetings often organized to decipher and solve “boys’ underachievement in education” in the Caribbean”, and how low expectations fuel underachievement. The comments felt backward and, as someone on Twitter agreed, bitter.

Dream Killers and Carpets

Criticism, not Congratulations

Criticism, not Congratulations

Interestingly, just weeks before the Gleaner article, I had reconnected with some Beloveds from prep school. We sent hundreds of messages back and forth reminiscing on light topics like childhood crushes and teachers’ quirks. Occasionally a hard topic came up: Two days before the article we discussed the limitations Jamaican adults placed on our dreams when we were children. One friend said he once told a youth minister in his church that he wanted to be an actuary; the minister informed him that that was not likely to happen, but my friend could help him build the church instead. Friend is now an actuary. Another shared that he had wanted to become a marine biologist, and almost every teacher told him it was a silly thing to want to be.

Even as someone who has found many supportive people along life’s way, I, too, have experienced several Jamaicans who have tried to downsize my dreams, from childhood until now. One of the earliest was a religious education teacher who asked me “Why would you try to carpet the world when you could buy sandals for your feet?” Ironically, that occurred in the same class in which we had learnt that our mission in life was to “continue the life and work of Jesus Christ,” from a slim, pink hardcover text.

I have heard people subtly ask Zanj that carpet question: Why does he teach in the country’s prisons anyway? Why doesn’t he just migrate? Why would he use his stipend earned as a teacher to give stipends to the radio staff? One person labelled the latter “crazy”. My understanding is that Zanj is motivated to do these things because of the signal fire he sees in the minds denied quality primary or secondary education, now steeped in a Jamaican prison education; he also sees it burning in the talented, idle hands of the 33% of unemployed youth in the country.

Zanj’s champagne dream is, in fact, an overstanding of reality: Imbalance in one place is a threat to balance everywhere. When your neighbour is hungry, you are not safe. No matter how much technological advancement the world witnesses, in media and other fields, if the people at the bottom don’t benefit from it first and most profoundly, humanity is not moving forward. You have to be the change.

Support the Dream

People have also asked him why hasn’t he saved the tuition. At JD $125 to USD $1, the full expense of a KTH education is not something most young people working in Jamaica would ever be able to afford, no matter how ardently they save and sacrifice. This is especially true for youngsters like Zanj, with undergraduate student loans and a parent on a government pension. Regardless of this reality, I and his other friends, the Zanj Radio team, and his family and mentors have done all we can to help him take his passion to build a media solution, as well as his tech, music and political history savvy to KTH.

KTH’s media management program does not allow deferrals. Zanj will be fundraising for a few more days, in a final push to be able to take up his offer in September. At this point, he has adjusted his original fundraising goal—put together just enough to complete the first year, with the plan to generate the second year tuition via a part-time student job and full-time summer job, or scholarship.

It has been a slow campaign, and I and other friends have encouraged him to surrender and go enjoy the summer—we’ve caught the dream killer bug, perhaps. However, his deep desire and grit have kept him hoping some radical shift could happen in the last week before Indiegogo closes the campaign on July 2.

Observing Zanj hold on to this champagne dream, and realizing that he sees himself worthy of world-class opportunities though arising from a dearth of basic ones, has me convinced that, as amazing as KTH is, it is his mindset that will most propel his internet radio station into the future.

Please, if you can, support the campaign here.