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Robert Seltzer:

African prince prepares
– in San Antonio –
to lead a nation

NOTE: Compassion Radio interviewed African Tribal Prince, James Nyondo, recently. The story of his conversion from a hater to a follower of Jesus Christ inspired Compassion Radio listeners. These excerpts from an article by Robert Seltzer of the San Antonio (TX) Express-News is an interesting follow-up to that interview.

Web Posted: 05/15/2005 12:00 AM CDT
San Antonio Express-News

Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists five definitions for “democracy.”

But none of those definitions boasts the grandeur of the one James Nyondo carries in his heart and soul.

To Nyondo, “Democracy” means the future – the future of his beloved Malawi, a poor African nation.

Nyondo is a prince in his homeland, but he wants to become the president, so he has come to the United States to learn about our system.

An international business major at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Nyondo knows what many Americans do not: Democracy is not just a concept – it is a powerful force.

But is it powerful enough to overwhelm greed, corruption and, perhaps more important, tradition?

Nyondo thinks it is.

If he is wrong, his countrymen face a future as dismal as their past.

The guilt of privilege...

Nyondo knows about privilege. He knows about the comfort it brings, the security and freedom from want. But he also knows about the dark side of privilege – the guilt it inflicts when those around you are mired in poverty, their dreams crushed by the struggle to survive.

Dreams? Many of his countrymen have no dreams. Because they cannot see beyond today, they have no future, no hope for themselves or their children.

Nyondo is not one of them. He has a dream –- to create a better life for his people. And as a man of privilege, he believes he can fulfill it.

“If I have and others do not have, I cannot be happy,” he said. “You cannot be held hostage by the past.”

Than includes his own past, with a line of royal succession that goes back hundreds of years. His father is chief of the Lambya tribe, one of three tribes in Malawi. The groups are autonomous, so consumed by their own issues that they make our red state/blue state flare-ups look like afternoon tea parties.

“I don’t want to become chief,” he said, laughing. “I hope and pray my father has a long, happy life.”

Nyondo is ambitious, but his goal is to become president, not chief.

“We must educate our people, show them a better way,” Nyondo, who intends to run for office in 2009, said.

At 36, he is approaching the life expectancy of his countrymen. In Malawi, “Middle age” comes during adolescence. The life expectancy is 37 for men, 38 for women.

Poor and corrupt

Bordered by Tanzania on the north and Mozambique on the south, Malawi is a country of 12 million people, most of them living in poverty. The annual per-capita income is $158. Most of the people are farmers, and they work the land only six months a year, Nyondo said.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “But before you ask someone to move into a better house, you must know how to build a better house.”

A democratic country, with a president and a parliament elected by the people, Malawi is undermined by corruption, Nyondo says.

“In America, the politicians serve the people,” he said. “In Malawi, the people serve the politicians.”

Blueprint for future

Nyondo is a student, but his classroom is the entire country.

“He sees everything through the prism of Malawi,” Richard Gambitta, a UTSA political science professor who is mentoring the prince, said. “Now, each time he sees a comparison, I see a comparison, too. It’s like looking at the same mirror.”

Nyondo and his wife, Brenda, arrived here in 2002, lured by a system he sees as a vast blueprint for his own dreams.

“It is the most successful democracy in the world,” he said.

But why San Antonio?

“I met a pastor in South Africa, and he took a great interest in me,” Nyondo, who earned his law degree at the University of South Africa, said.

The pastor was Theo Womarans, who met Nyondo at an orphanage in Johannesburg.

“The conditions in the orphanage were terrible,” Womarans said. “But James was doing amazing things.

Two-way culture shock

While Americans have been gracious toward Nyondo, some say he has jarred their expectations.

“In Malawi, I would sometimes wear my traditional dress – a robe and loose pants, like pajama pants,” he said. “Here, I wear suits. I’m amused because people think I should be wearing weird clothes.”

From food to television, Nyondo and his wife have experienced the culture shock that afflicts every visitor to a foreign country.

If he condemns some aspects of the society, he does not condemn its framework – democracy. But the prince is not naïve. He knows democracy is chaotic, unwieldy, focused on the people, but not always devoted to them; he knows because he has visited the Legislature.

“The first time I took him to the Legislature, he was shocked at how rude people were,” Gambitta said. “People were walking around, talking, arguing, and no one was listening to the speaker on the floor. He was aghast. I told him it would be very painful for legislators to have to listen to each other for four, six, seven hours attentively.”

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, recently introduced Nyondo on the floor, recognizing him for his efforts to help his country.

“I love to see the legislators in action,” Nyondo said.

After the introduction, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, ushered the prince into his office across the corridor, showing him some artifacts he had bought during trips to Africa.

“I have to keep that here,” Ellis told Nyondo, pointing to a gourd on a shelf. “It has something to do with fertility, and my wife doesn’t want any more children.”

Partner in building

While he has learned about democracy, Nyondo arrived here with a strong foundation in democratic principles, most of which he learned on his own.

“In Malawi, women are disrespected, and for many years, I hated my father,” said Nyondo, who is the son of his father’s first wife. “I hated him because of the way he treated her. He has many women, many wives, but she was the first. She wanted to go to school, but she couldn’t. She was unhappy.”

In America, he sees fathers who play with their children, nurturing them while maintaining their roles as disciplinarians.

“I never played with my father,” Nyondo said. “His only concern was the tribe. He always told me, ‘You have to be a leader.’”

When I met Brenda in South Africa, she was the woman for me – the only woman,” he said. “I will not be like my father.”

Nyondo and his wife are quiet and reserved, but their voices surge with emotion and their eyes gleam with passion when they discuss their dreams for their homeland.

“We want to be builders,” Brenda said.

Will greatness unfold?

Nyondo, who is finishing his degree at UTSA, plans to study government at Harvard next year, after which he will return to his homeland.

“We have great hope for James,” Rodwell Munyenyembe, the speaker for the Malawi Parliament, said during a telephone interview. “He is doing what he must do to help his country. He is learning about democracy in America.”

Will Nyondo succeed?

“I’ve been fortunate, as a professor of almost 30 years, to see many students with greatness in them,” Gambitta said. “It’s always an intriguing question as to how that greatness will unfold. There are those of whom I am very proud because they have used their greatness to change the quality of the lives of thousands. James has the potential to affect millions – and millions who are in dire straits.”

Nyondo is so optimistic about his chances to become president that he is already considering his career beyond the presidency.

“I want to become a U.N. diplomat,” he said.

It is all about a simple work with nine letter, three syllables and five definitions – “democracy.”