Interview Jamaican Youth Activist Craig Dixon

This week we interview Jamaican Youth Activist Craig Dixon, 22. He was recently chosen to represent Jamaica at the Nkabom: Commonwealth Youth Leadership Programme in Kigali, Rwanda. He has an amazing drive for success as revealed in his life story as a child street vendor, who lived alone at age fourteen and managed, through remarkable acts of determination and self-sacrifice, to complete an honours degree in Public Relations and History at the University of the West Indies, Mona (2010). He is currently on internship with the Roving Caregivers Programme in Grenada.

Q: You have an amazing story of determination and will to succeed. Can you share your story with our readers on how you went from an illiterate school boy who sold products on the street to the being a youth activist and university student?
I am the second of four children born to Norma Evans. She was very young when she had her first child, unschooled and poverty-stricken. As a result she moved us around a lot, from one community to another – one house to another after numerous evictions due to non-payment of rental fees. At age fourteen, I moved into my fifteenth home, but this time I was alone. I was chased away from my home in Kendal, Hanover, by my grandmother after a fracas with one of my aunts. I took my paraphernalia and left…and wandered until I reached Pell River, a neighboring community in which I lived before. I went to an old man (now deceased) whom I had no biological tights with and asked if I could stay in his place – a one bedroom dwelling. I stayed there for three years.

I lived in Pell River for most of my life prior to that event, with my mother and three siblings. My mother did not have much but she tried her best to provide materially…she made innumerable and unbelievable sacrifices for us. She was shrewd and became wiser as she grew, but life was not easy. My mother worked as a domestic worker. Her remuneration could barely cover her transportations costs. We (the children) had to walk the expanse of our community to sell stuff (bars of soap, tin products, candles…) to make up. Sometimes we spent entire days in the sweltering heat digging turmeric, tending animals and gathering mangoes for sale. I went to Kendal Primary School, five miles away, I walked to school each day through a short-cut (cow pasture) because I could not afford to take a taxi. I was always wet to my neck in the mornings, literally. I was like a character from a fictional tale to most of my classmates, because I was always soaked, shoeless and normally had an excuse for having not done my home work. On my early days, I fetched water for the school canteen and they gave me free lunches. often I had no money for food except what I earned sporadically from Otaheite apples, mangoes and marble sales.

At grade five I could barely read. I decided to repeat grade six and enrolled in an after-school reading programme. I was the most outstanding graduate a year later, copping seven ‘most improved’ awards and a coveted scholarship from Prime Life Insurance Company – given to me by Mrs. Jennifer Baugh – our principal. I still had a lot to learn though, because I was not sufficiently stimulated as a child. I felt as if there was a lacuna in my brain.  

In late 2001 when I left Kendal for Pell River, I took an oath to myself – deciding to change the course of my family by graduating from a university and never to relive the events of my youth. For two years, beginning at about the end of seventh grade at Rusea’s, I had one pair of shoe and uniform or Khaki as we call it. By the first term of eighth grade there were two massive holes in shoes. This caused me much embarrassment, but each morning I stuffed them with fresh pieces of cardboard, prayed and left for school. I washed my uniform mid-week.

I woke up for school at 4 am every morning for three years. My mother (who at this point lived in Rock Spring, Hanover) could only afford to give me J$150 per day. With 120 for bus fare, I would have had to skip lunch. So each morning, I woke up very early, ate what I had, walked (most mornings) a mile to a taxi-stand where a taxi driver picked up hotel workers traveling from Pell River to Negril. Sometimes the driver met me on the road. He would take me to Green Island and I would get on a bus carrying hotel workers to Lucea – no charge to me. That is how I afforded lunch. I reached school at 6 am on average for three years until I got monetary assistance. Some of my classmates tried relentlessly to get to school before me – but each morning they woke me up and removed my cap form my head…but none understood why I was always so early.  This is only a synopsis of this phase of my journey.

I did not do very well at my CXCs. I was however a very active student. I was in numerous clubs. I debated for Rusea’s, played for the under-sixteen football team and was the Student of the Year in 2005. I left Pell River for Grange Hill after fifth form, enrolled in Rusea’s sixth form. Thereafter I was selected as Deputy Head-boy – I achieved five distinctions at CAPE and was the most successful student over all. I matriculated to UWI in 2007 and recently completed a degree in Public Relations and History.  

My experiences have prepared me for a life of activism especially in matters concerning young people and the disenfranchised. At the UWI I aligned myself with some amazing youth people such as Mark Foster, Patrina Pink, Leethan Grandison and Valdamir Wallace (Utech). Notably, Wallace, Pink, Grandison – a couple others- and I (our group is called Catalyst for Social Change) ‘rented’ Emancipation Park in January (19-21), and hosted a three day candle light vigil (dubbed ‘light a candle for Haiti’) held in honour of the victims of the Haitian earthquake. We collected clothing and food items on an old-time Jamaican cart pushed around New Kingston. These were donated to the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) to be sorted and shipped to Haiti. I have done other things of this nature and Nkabom/Rwanda was yet another (and a very important) step on this trajectory of change.  

Q: What was your experience like representing Jamaica in Rwanda?
 The experience was beyond superlatives. I believe that if we change Jamaica we can change the world. At some point the entire world looked at our island for some kind of inspiration and even today nations aspire to be like us in one way or another.  Jamaica was easily the most popular country represented in Rwanda. Everyone wanted to hear me speak ‘Jamaican’ and people from all tiers of society welcomed me and asked me to return. Some non-English speakers sung Bob’s songs better than I have ever done. It is only when one leaves Jamaica that one really begins to appreciate the beauty and might of the country.

Q: Rwanda is a country that has gone through a recent genocide. Did you see signs of this and was it discussed at the leadership conference?
Yes, a lot. The conference was about peace-building – respect and understanding among groups and nations. Rwanda was a fitting location because of its history of genocide, reconciliatory measures and steps that Rwandans have taken to preserve the events of 1994.  We did sessions on the history of Rwanda, conflict and peace-building in Rwanda; we visited a few genocide memorial sites including the Kigali Memorial Centre which is a facility of very high standard. We also went to a reconciliatory camp (Role Model Village) where Hutus and Tutsis live in harmony, the stories of forgiveness and revival and the collective will of the people to build their country are unlike anything I have ever seen before.

Q: Do you see any similarities of what happened in Rwanda to the brutality and crime in Jamaica and the Caribbean?
Yes. The war in Rwanda was an ethnic/political one. Its catastrophic climax resulted from years of preparation from Hutu extremists – both on the ground through military training of local militia men and political propaganda via various media outlets. Jamaica is known for a similar type of political tribalism that has caused half-a-century of bloodshed and continues to divide the country as we speak. The complex challenges that have emerged from this division present the highest hurdles that Jamaicans have to surmount today.
Q: What was your goal as the representative for Jamaica?
My goal was to share my anecdotes and experiences as a youth activist in Jamaica. To learn from others of creative ways to deal with conflicts and to share what I learnt with my countrymen. I also wanted to build international networks and establish friendships with like-minded individuals.

Q: How would you describe Rwandan people?
Affable, unselfish, diligent and always willing to learn something new – and everyone seemed so focused on what is best for their country.

Q: What do you see as the biggest issue with youth in Jamaica?
 This question has multifarious dimensions which makes it difficult to answer. But all things considered I think our young people need to be educated to dream and innovate. At the moment, most students who graduate from our high schools and universities are merely schooled and we ought to know the difference between ‘schooling’ and ‘educating’. Educated people understand themselves and the needs of the least among them… We have no recourse but to revolutionize how and what we teach, to research and redefine concepts like ‘literacy’ ‘intelligence’ and ‘reading’ and enhance the individual genius of each child. Our current educational systems make our youth diffident and ignorant and they are not fashioned to cater to the so-called ‘slow’ student, hence the frightening levels of illiteracy. We must devise practical solutions for these things and encourage our youth to think; only thinkers can dream and only dreamers can change the world.

Q: How do we solve this issue?
 By first accepting this as a problem and educating/persuading those who find it hard to fathom. Then we must engage the entire country in redefining the word ‘education’ to incorporate knowledge of self, our unique history and culture, our individual talents, skills and attributes, innovation and ownership studies, confidence building, activism…beginning at the pre-school, early childhood level. To be quite honest, there are many variables to this, but one sure way to begin the process of change is for inspirational leaders to emerge and wake-up the people, lift their consciousness and incite them to take heed of these things. I believe such ‘leaders’ are in the making and that this is the generation which will inspire epoch-making change in our nation.

Q: What projects are you working on?
I am a member of the Regional Nkabom Caucus (other countries: Antigua & Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, St. Kitts & Nevis and Canada) which has been commissioned by the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Youth Programme to ‘re-enact’ the activities of Nkabom (in Kigali) in a country in the region. We selected Jamaica. We are expected to host a regional week-long conference on Peace-building in the Caribbean for youths (18-25 yrs) who are committed to making a positive impact in their communities (in March 2011 – we are in the process of organizing this event but we need regional support and we have a far way to go).

Q: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Are you going to enter the political arena?
Uncertainty surrounds both question…but I do hope that I will be in a place where my words can shape policy on matters concerning the young and old alike. 

Q: What’s playing on your iPod/mp3 player right now?
Bob’s music, Lucky Dube, Peter Tosh… Fela Kuti, Gregory Isaacs… Times like These by Queen Ifrica –

Q: If you have a magic wand to change one thing about Jamaica what would it be?
I probably would wish that my magic wand disappear and the ‘magic wand ideology’ with it as well. There is such an ideology, known as the dependency syndrome in academic circles. The common people have this syndrome and look to the politicians while the politicians look to the international community for aid. We must teach our countrymen that ‘wands’ are only useful in fictions and fairy tales. The reality is that there is no wand, so people must learn to make real sacrifices on the road to self-sufficiency and stop depending on others to do, what they, with patience and sacrifice, can do for themselves.

Q: Thanks for your time do you have any closing thoughts?
I want to inform young people that they are not the sum of their circumstances; they are the sum of their character, their will-power and determination. Try to think less about where you are from and more about where you want to go. Know also that you have a ‘dream-right’ as much as you have a right to life and only those who gallantly pursue this ‘right’ will reap the fruitage of its benefits and be in a position to change the world or experience its resplendent wonders. Dream, dream, dream, change your strategy at times, but never give up on your dreams! Thank you –

About the author

Glen Benjamin

I strongly believe there are 3 sides to every story. Telling each side is the challenge.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that - Martin Luther King