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.
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“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.”Skip to next paragraph
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“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."