From Nothing to Something: Commemorating my Papi Jayen Cuttaree

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My grandfather, Papi as I used to call him, was brought to the world in the most unfavorable way. Born in a small iron sheets house with a tailor father and a stay-at-home mother, he grew up squeezed on a single bed with seven other siblings. His family struggled so much to eat that his mother had to sacrifice his chick pet so that they could survive. After school, he waxed the local church’s floor for hours to earn a loaf that he shared with a starving classmate. Nonetheless, he had a dream: to use education as a golden ticket to escape poverty.

Three days ago, my team of six persons was awarded the Sub-Saharan Africa Winner from the Harvard Undergraduate Foreign Policy Initiative. I honored his legacy after being selected.

From an early age, I would learn about foreign policy through Papi’s personal stories: exclusive conversations with former president George W. Bush to Nelson Mandela whom he convinced to drink coconut water for the first time. Unfortunately, Papi passed away a few years ago but the heritage remains vivid to this day. To celebrate his 80th birthday today, I wish to share my introspection with you as his grandson; I was lucky to make a part of his life.

My grandfather remained humble at every birthday celebration. Don’t bring him a lot, gifts, restaurants, money... He insisted that the family have lunch at home and often eat gateaux piment in the loaf spread with butter, while I remember him sipping his tea like a dose of first-morning medicine. June 22 was a day my mom wanted to offer him an egg. Then my sister and I would perpetuate the tradition of gifting him an egg each year. We did this in order to remind him of his positive memories as a kid when eggs were so scarce that they would be consumed once a year.

After a long week, we liked to spend some time at the beach. We would then go to Belle Mare. After lunch when I heard the siren of the ice cream man, I rushed to him so we could go buy one even though he was asleep. At golden dusk, he liked to take my grandmother, my sister and me to the beach to collect hermit crabs near the rocks. He said we had to leave before high tide or I wouldn’t be able to put crabs in my blue bucket.

When I went to his house on Fridays after school, there was always a visitor sitting in the living room, often a politician or public figure. It was fascinating while I was eating a vanilla éclair to hear the little things they talked about. At night, we would listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s magic wafting in the living room, watch his favorite Hercule Poirot series. I would stay on his computer often at the age of 8 to code some computer programs, play Minecraft and run a YouTube channel. Sometimes I would see him upset as if the PC had some kind of virus. It was funny but a technician always needed to reassure him. These memories are the torch that open a new way.

Retiring, his goal was to transcend his humble environment to me. His greatest values were hard work, humility, public service and humour. He would always illustrate that what I consider a necessity today was for him a privilege; our Indian food; respecting others notwithstanding status in society, no matter which level; pay forward what I was given when I could, constantly giving without receiving. And always laughing to stay sane and keep the morale high.

Today, I am happy to see his legacy and values kept alive through the JKC Foundation and I invite children around the world to live a better life for themselves by taking action.

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