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Eckerd College hosts a royal celebration of its own

Published May 21, 2018

A day after England's royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, St. Petersburg hosted a royal celebration of its own.

Among the estimated 500 graduates to receive an Eckerd College diploma at Sunday's graduation ceremony held at Tropicana Field was Anna Noela Lokolo.

Known to her classmates as Noela, back home in her native Democratic Republic of Congo she is a princess, a legitimate title due to her bloodline leading the central African nation's Lokele Tribe for six generations.

Lokolo adorned her graduation gown with a sash bearing her nation's red, yellow and blue colors and draped a DRC flag over her back.

Then, following the ceremony, 23 family members who flew in for the occasion held a royal celebration outside the Trop.

Three local drummers performed rhythms traditional to the Lokele Tribe as her family danced and sang what Lokolo said were "warrior chants."

"This is how we celebrate with our ancestors," said Lokolo, whose great grandfather is current chief of her tribe. "If we were back home, I would also have opened a can of liquor and poured it on the floor, so my ancestors could have a drink. The drums are meant to wake them up, so they can dance and celebrate and rejoice with us."

RELATED: War refugee tries to emulate village chief father after trading Africa for Tampa Bay.

More than 30 nations were represented at the graduation, according to Eckerd spokesperson Robbyn Hopewell, but there was extra excitement surrounding Lokolo's culture.

"We were glad to host Noella's family and we were intrigued by what the drumming would look like," Hopewell said. "Staff expressed interest in seeing what that tradition would bring to the Eckerd tradition."

Uncomfortable with the attention it might have brought during her four years of college, Lokolo told only a few Eckerd friends of her royal roots. And those she did trust with the secret were made aware that her princess status is not on par with that of England's royal family.

"We are not like Coming to America," Lokolo said with a laugh, referencing the Eddie Murphy comedy about a powerful African prince who visits the United States in search of a bride.

The DRC has more than 400 tribes. And since it is common for families to have as many as ten children, Lokolo said she couldn't even guess how many others in her blood line — that includes numerous cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews — let alone her country, can call themselves princes and princesses.

As women, neither Lokolo nor her younger sister can lead the tribe, though her older brother can if he chooses to one day lobby to become the next chief. Still, her title comes with responsibility.

"My mother always reminds me I am royalty and royalty speak and act a certain way," Lokolo said.

While in the United States, a nation where few likely know about her tribe, she was even more careful to exude royal qualities even if she was not open about that part of her life.

"If people have a negative image of me, they will have a negative image of my tribe," Lokolo said.

She chose Eckerd on the recommendation of a teacher at her school in the DRC who also graduated from the college.

Lokolo earned a bachelor's degree in international relations and global affairs and next hopes to attend New York University to pursue a master's in that subject. Her goal is to battle the human rights violations occurring in her country plagued with disease and violence.

"Fortunately for me I was brought up with privilege," Lokolo said. "I am very passionate about being a voice for people without a voice."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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