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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.