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Jonathan Daniel was born into cruelty and poverty in Africa.
But if his beginning was unhappy, he hasnt let it linger.
See his art
Jonathan Daniel will give a presentation at 6 p.m. Feb. 9 during the Holly Springs Community Arts Festival. Tickets are $10 before Feb. 4. Call 919-567-4000 for more information.
People ask: Whats the secret? Whats Jonathan like behind the closed doors of his Holly Springs home?
And his wife of 16 years tells them: You dont see a version of him that I dont see every minute of every day.
The 47-year-old man is earnest and focused, Robin Daniel said, whether hes roiling up an auditorium of middle-school students during a presentation or bending metal wire into another intricate piece of art.
Today he is father to a 4-year-old, and his craft has gained regional fame. Early next month, Daniel will headline the first Holly Springs Community Arts Festival.
But theres a part of him thats not obvious in his exuberance.
It starts with the story of his name.
Born into cruelty
Daniel was known in youth as Penga Penga, or Crazy Crazy, a moniker he shared with the British plantation owner who kept his family in wage slavery.
He grew up in the former U.K. colony of Rhodesia, in present-day Zimbabwe. His parents were illiterate and hopelessly indebted to the farm. Their country was wrestling for and with its new independence.
And Daniel himself was born in staggeringly cruel circumstances, he said. On the day of his birth, Daniels mother was beaten near to death by the tobacco farms owner, who thought she wasnt working hard enough, Daniel recalled.
The woman was bloodied so badly that the other farmhands began to prepare her body for burial, she later told her son. But from the savage beating by the plantation owner came the miracle: The mother-to-be awakened and the boy who would become Jonathan Daniel emerged, according to the family story.
As tradition dictated, the Rhodesians gave the baby a name to mark the occasion: Penga Penga, the same as they called their cruel overlord, Daniel said. He wouldnt learn the meaning of the name until he was 12 years old.
As a young man, he said, the newly learned story of his mothers near-death piled onto years of poverty and institutionalized racism. He took his new name, Jonathan Daniel, and a jaded new outlook on life.
I became the bitter, angry child, Daniel said, leaning back on the couch in his garage workshop. ... I was very, very prejudiced. I could not look a white man in the eyes.
No time for sorrow
Daniels son is growing up a world away from where his father did. The boy named Penga lived illiterate and unschooled until his teenage years.
His son, Tembo, will likely attend the Wake County Public School System, whose greatest challenges are busing and growth.
But that success can come with its own curse. When hes putting on art demonstrations in Wake schools, Daniel sees kids paralyzed by comfort.
I come in with the poverty streak of thinking, Daniel said. You think youve got it worse, listen to me. And if I could come out from what I was under, imagine you, who have already started well off, imagine what you could do.
As a child, the former garden boy taught himself to bend metal into rudimentary toys. He believes the practice of a craft emboldened him and, years later, set the stage for an unexpected livelihood.
His toy-making hobby took off in Florida, where Daniel moved in his 20s with the help of missionaries and friends. The young man was in school to become an aircraft mechanic, but he found his metal-wire creations came into quick demand once he showed them off.
Twenty years later, his workshop walls are lined with his handiwork, all made with metal and bare hands. The smallest metal lizard might take two hours of wrapping and bending. The wheel of his life-sized motorcycle took 30 hours.
For Daniel, art is the anchor for dreams that constantly tug at him. Each twist of the metal wire, he hopes, is a step closer toward a big break: Hes convinced that the most elaborate of his work could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions to the right buyer.
How do I get my name out there to those people with the money? he asked, sifting through his dozens of completed pieces. I want them to watch with me. Let me show you what Im going to do with that money.
What hell do, he said, is reinvigorate his homeland.
Today, Daniel is among the few living men who worked on the farms of his youth, he said.
Most went to an early grave, but his family survived intact, including eight younger siblings.
He credits this success to the missionaries and foreigners who opened the door to the United States.
To continue their work, Daniel has long sent thousands of dollars annually back to Zimbabwe, he said. He and his wife run a nonprofit that schools and supports orphans and widows in a country where the poverty rate runs above 70 percent.
In some years, the charity has fed up to 2,500 people annually.
The Daniels have taken a half-dozen trips to Zimbabwe in recent years, and Robin Daniel went herself one summer.
I always thought I loved Zimbabwe because I loved my husband. But now my heart is connected there, said the nurse-in-training.
The economic downturn hurt the nonprofits finances, Jonathan Daniel said, and the group has scaled back operations in the face of new Zimbabwe government rules.
But theyre hoping now to regroup, with a focus on building infrastructure, from wells to schoolhouses. Daniel believes it must be black people who spearhead these changes; he thinks that colonial atrocities have prejudiced many black Africans against white faces.
If I had money, I could mobilize something bigger, he said. We could challenge with something very simple. ... Were going to go to your village and were going to start with your school. We can make a change in Africa, and then start taking that model everywhere.
Given a chance, Daniel spools out even bigger dreams.
He hopes to start an exchange program, trading students between Africa and the United States. He wants to build a model village in the Triangle, done in the style of his fathers Chikunda roots. And while theyre at it, he and his wife have been ramping up an organic chicken farm in Holly Springs, which can host 1,600 hens at once.
Daniels prone to over-ambition, maybe, and to forgetting his appointments. Thats why his wife takes the managerial role, reminding him where hes supposed to be each day.
In return, Robin Daniel said, he puts some lift in the world.
You cant rain on his parade, she said. Hes too busy leading the parade to recognize theres a cloudy sky.