A volunteer called Melenin
19 November 2007
by Paul H. Williams
Kingston, Jamaica: He's proud of his jet-black skin and his African heritage. He is a Rastafarian who embraces unity and oneness. But, this 24-year-old native of White Horses, St. Thomas, is more than that. He is a super volunteer who goes by the very unusual name, 'Melenin'. Such is Omar Ryan, a recent recipient of the Governor-General Youth Award for Excellence in Volunteerism.
But he is also known as 'African', a name that dates back to his afrocentricity of high school days. But, there was another artiste called 'African'.
"I didn't want to have the same name as another person and because I didn't want to lose the essence of who and what I truly represent, that is, black people and blackness, I said I want Melanin," he explained. Melanin is a dark brown or black pigment in the skin, hair, eyes, et cetera, and Omar Ryan has an abundance of it.
What was even more convincing is that the word starts with 'M', the same letter that begins the name of great men, such as Marcus, Marley and Mandela.
Proud of blackness
Ryan: "I think it goes along with my identity, not only the physical, but how I think as a person." He adopted it, changing the 'a' to 'e', and as the melanin in his skin, it has stuck. As he proudly spoke about his black heritage and his black skin he rubbed his palms together and said with a smile, ''Mi love it." But what he obviously doesn't love is the prevalence of skin bleaching among black youths in this country, in 2007.
He said, "First thing, you need to accept yourself, who you are, and you need to know the detriment of doing things like that. We need to know where we are coming from as a people, because I think it really is an identity crisis ... ramification from slavery ... it is still the perception in society that 'nutten black nuh good'." This negative perception, he said, could be eradicated if black-consciousness and black history are inserted into the primary school curriculum.
It's all about "being proud of your blackness, and being confident about it, speaking about it and flaunting it". Yet, his own awareness of self and heritage has not made him selfish and self-centred. He's using it for the benefit of the communities with which he's associated.
Ryan: "We have to know how we live as a people, and things that are good for us. For example, communal living. That's a part of our (African) tradition ... which is missing, especially from the Western world, where we have got so individualistic, people just focus on (their) achievement. I think we need to focus more on the community and how we are going to develop as a community."
With this strong belief in community development, he has given his service to his district of White Horses, in St. Thomas, and to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus, where he's a final-year student, residing in Taylor Hall.
The block on which he lives in Taylor Hall is named Roosters; but this 'Rooster', unlike the ones that go around with chest high, crowing loudly and flapping their wings, and do nothing, Melanin is quite involved as a volunteer. Ryan says: "It's out of the natural love for my people. I am driven by a lot of things, I am driven by poverty, and in St. Thomas, there is a lot of it."
In White Horses, he has participated in the Upliftment Jamaica programme in the capacity of assistant concert coordinator, and is now trying to revamp the Cottage Pen, St. Thomas, youth group. The August Town mentorship programme has benefited from his participation as mentor and then coordinator. Under his stewardship, it was extended to Mona Common, where he has spearheaded an adult community development programme, which will continue come January.
In summer this year, he had a programme for children living in the environs of the UWI. All of this involvement is preparing him for the bigger picture of serving the nation, and by extension the African diaspora in the Caribbean.
His contribution will come through lecturing, writing and politics. Already involved in student politics and leadership, he's the current chairman of Taylor Hall. Before that, he was the external affairs chairperson. Look out for him, perhaps the first dreadlocked parliamentarian.
Academia and politics, therefore, will give him a platform from which he can bring positive changes to the Caribbean "so that (he) can have a real knowledge of (his) people and as a 'Caribbeanist', study what is happening in the Caribbean, which is a part of the (African) diaspora".
He wants to create a sustainable development model because "when you look at sustainable development it would really have to be economical, political, technical, environmental, cultural, etc., not just the three factors that people normally focus on, social, political and economical.
So in order to be better informed and more effective, Melenin did not sit and depend on his layman philosophy of development. He has gone further.
"I want to establish myself as an authority in the field first, and that is why I am studying Africa and African Diaspora Studies ... For a people to be really developed they have to be grounded in their culture. And I think we are not grounded in our culture, because slavery and other things have diminished our culture ..."
But, there is nothing diminutive about his outlook on life. He has big dreams, with volunteerism being a major factor. It is not financially rewarding, but along the way he has picked up a few awards for his contribution to humanity. These include being named the 2006-7 Taylorite of the Year, the 2007 Governor-General Youth Award, a certificate for performance in service from the University of the West Indies, and numerous certificates of commendation.
Every aspect of Melenin's life seems to link one to the other, with the common thread being his commitment to service. This is how he summed it up: "I see myself with the ability to change; I am a part of the change, talking about make change. I see myself as part of that positive change, and I have this personal philosophy that says: 'You see it, you do it.' So, I do not wait on another person to get involved."