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Student Experiences

Student Discovers Roots and Connects Nations

While many Marriott School students take classes to learn research strategies, MPA student Jean Kapenda brings to graduate classes years of tried and tested real-world research from his extensive genealogy work.

Two massive volumes of African surnames in Ecuador compiled by Kapenda compose the world’s largest genealogical database of African Americans tracing their roots to a specific region in Africa.

“If people can find their roots, they can come to know their potential,” says Kapenda, who has traced more than thirty thousand people from the Pacific Coast of Ecuador back to the Congo.

Kapenda dug into electoral rolls, questioned Afro-Ecuadorians, and learned that slaves were brought to Ecuador’s African communities in the 1700s by Jesuits to work on sugar plantations. Since the Jesuits were celibate and slaves were owned by a congregation rather than an individual, slaves were able to maintain their African names, which have survived for more than three hundred years.

Kapenda’s discovery also helped determine the origin of thirteen skeletons found in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Boston scientist Bruce Jackson compared dna samples of Afro-Ecuadorians from Kapenda with dna samples of the Portsmouth remains to match the genetic patterns with those in the Congo, bridging people across the world.

Before entering the MPA program, Kapenda spent twenty-one years in Ecuador translating for oil companies and international government officials in French, English, and Spanish. He did simultaneous translation for the Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas, the Conference of the Ministers of Defense of the Americas, and the Ministries of Finance and Economy from Arab and Latin American countries, among other assignments.

“I miss the interaction I had with government officials,” Kapenda says. “It helped me to better understand government.”

Kapenda was born in 1960, the year the Congo declared its independence from Belgium. In 1965, Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power over Kapenda’s home region, creating a law requiring membership in the dictator’s political party from birth.

Fifteen years later, as a twenty-year-old student leader, Kapenda opposed the dictator’s regime and was kicked out of the University of Lubumbashi. Kapenda applied to other universities but was told he was blacklisted and turned down.

Kapenda went to Switzerland to attend a university, but he gained a different type of education when he accidentally took the wrong train and met some missionaries who invited him to church the next morning. He was baptized on 23 December 1984. He moved to Ecuador and continued his education at the Catholic University, earning a combined bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science. He met his wife, Marianita Flores, in his ward, and they were married 28 December 1987. They traveled three days by bus to be sealed in the Lima Peru Temple on 6 January 1988. They have two daughters.

With his international experience and translation work, Kapenda has become a man of many languages. He speaks fluent French, English, Spanish, Swahili, and Lingala. After his genealogical discovery Kapenda used his language abilities to create a Spanish-Lingala dictionary for the Afro-Ecuadorians who wanted to learn the Lingala language their ancestors spoke. Using $1,500 from unesco, Kapenda published 1,000 copies of his small-print dictionary, which was compacted to also include the genealogical information and history of the Afro-Ecuadorians.

With a dream to run for president of the Congo, Kapenda decided to attend the Marriott School. He and his family moved to Provo shortly after his daughter, Christie, was accepted to byu. Although well-grounded in the areas of language, government, and culture, Kapenda doesn’t believe hands-on learning in government positions always works best: “It’s more important to have a theoretical preparation and some background in government so that you can apply that knowledge in a better way.”