Tanzania takes the edge off an old Black Panther
After 38 years in the bush of Tanzania, former Black Panther leader Pete O'Neal has shed his belligerent revolutionary fervor and today spends his time working with disadvantaged African children.
Courtesy of Peter O'Neal
On Pete O’Neal’s bookshelf, in his tin-roof bungalow in the Mount Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, is a collection of Lonely Planet travel books to Australia, Southeast Asia, Brazil, and other countries. He looks at the tomes wistfully: as an exile in East Africa for the past 38 years, he’s never been to any of these places.
Mr. O’Neal was the founder and leader of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther party, and cannot return to the United States without facing a prison sentence for a federal gun conviction. The fake passport that he once used to travel the world has expired, virtually trapping him in this country.
But after nearly four decades in the bush, O’Neal has since shed his belligerent revolutionary fervor.
In lieu of political posturing, he now spends his time reading to orphans, teaching local youth, and running an exchange program for disadvantaged African American children. His neighbors call him “Mzee,” or Elder.
He was charged in 1969 with transporting a gun across state lines – an accusation he denies – and faced up to 15 years in US prison. Instead, he jumped bail in January 1970 and fled with his wife Charlotte on fake passports to Sweden.
After a short stint leading the international office of the Black Panthers in Algiers, they arrived in Tanzania, where President Julius Nyerere, then one of the world's most prominent socialist leaders, promised him a haven. O’Neal, during a recent interview at his rural compound in Imbaseni, recalls: “They told me, don't get into any trouble, do something productive, and you're welcome to stay here."
As an exile in East Africa for the past 38 years, that’s what he has tried to do.
Continuing mission of Black Panthers
Arriving in Africa with two young children, O’Neal had to learn how to make his own bricks to build a home, farm, and survive next to a national park teeming with wild buffaloes, elephants, and – perhaps most dangerous of all – mosquitoes. By his count, he’s had malaria more than 15 times. Now 70 years old, he limps through his compound, recovering from recent surgery performed by a volunteer doctor.
It’s the hard life in Tanzania that took the edge out of his attitude, he says.
“I came here with practically no money,” he explains. “We had to learn how to work, how to farm, how to support ourselves. Here you either work or you fall through the cracks – Tanzania gives no quarter.”
In time, he tried to get back to the spirit of community service he first learned as a Black Panther, which he says was more important than the political violence in the 1960s and '70s for which the group is remembered.
“Don't, don't, don't link violence automatically to the Black Panther Party,” O’Neal exclaims. "The jewel in the crown for the Black Panther Party was always the community projects.”
“That was the best thing I ever did in my life,” he says, “and for the 40 years that I've lived in Africa, I've tried to continue that."
Founding a community center
In 1991, he created the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) on a 4-acre plot of land about 20 kilometers from Arusha, Tanzania’s launching point for wildlife safaris. The organization relies on a group of American volunteers to give education services, teaching English, computers, empowerment through the arts, music, HIV-awareness, and film classes to Tanzanians.
When O’Neal first arrived, the compound was wild bush. Now it is cluttered with a computer lab, music studio, radio station, basketball court, vegetable garden, and a horse corral. The loud classes and civil rights-themed murals that adorn the walls give it the feel of a backpacker hostel.
He also invites disadvantaged African Americans from Kansas City to participate, and runs an orphanage for local children.
On a recent day in July, 12 scraggly children aged 4 to 14 lay sleeping curled on a floor around a napping O’Neal. These were his kids: some of the 21 children he and his wife adopted since 2000, whose parents were either too poor to pay school fees or had died from HIV or malaria.
The youngest, a wily 4-year-old named Joshua Emmanuel, first came to Imbaseni when he was 2-years-old. His single mother was traveling around Tanzania begging for food at the time, says Mwajabu Sadiki, a Tanzanian woman who volunteers at the center.
Ms. Sadiki first met Pete when she was 15, and says she volunteers at the center to pay back what she first learned there.
“I learned everything here: how to speak English, design, computers, sewing, even yoga,” Sadiki says. “Now I teach it all to the kids.”
O’Neal says he hopes the American volunteers take away something as well.
Ashley Zwerin came to UAACC as an exchange student from Stony Brook University. Of all the things she experienced in Tanzania, “UAACC was by far the most influential, and life-changing for me,” she says.
Ms. Zwerin returned to the United States and redoubled her community service efforts, she says, and helped raise thousands of dollars to support O’Neal’s programs.
Focused on Tanzania
Through his interactions with the volunteers and Satellite TV, O’Neal keeps up with new ideas. He says he is impressed with how far race relations in the US has progressed, and never expected Barack Obama's presidential victory.
“In a weird sense, it made me almost proud as an American to think that something like that could happen in the country that I thought was the epitome of racism,” he says.
So if the warrant for his arrest was canceled, would he return?
A long pause reveals his wariness.
“I'd be scared to death, but I'd love to see the land of my birth, to drink from the well that produced me,” he says. “But citizenship doesn't interest me like is used to anymore.”
He has long since stopped trying to overturn his conviction, and recently gave up efforts to acquire Tanzanian citizenship.
“I would much rather just focus on the things I want to do," he says, "and that's the community work that we're doing here."