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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 12:01 GMT
Panther pursues his goals in Africa
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC correspondent in Arusha

A shotgun hangs next to the bed of Pete O'Neal in his home at Imbaseni village in northern Tanzania. It might come in useful one day if he needs to protect himself, not least because Imbaseni village is just a couple of miles from Arusha National Park and its prides of lions and herds of elephants.

Pete O'Neal
Clearing my name is important, as it will right a wrong. But I will not return to the States
Pete O'Neal
There's a certain irony here. It was because Pete O'Neal carried a gun like this one across state lines in the United States 30 years ago that he became one of the US's longest-serving political exiles.

Mr O'Neal, who was the Kansas City chairman of the African-American nationalist movement, the Black Panther Party, is still technically a fugitive from US law. He told BBC News Online that he will carry on the work of the Black Panthers from his adopted home in Tanzania, minus the guns and political rhetoric.

The tiny village of Imbaseni is located in the lush foothills between Mount Meru, and Mount Kilimanjaro. It would be difficult to find a greater contrast to 12th Street in Kansas City where he was brought up and where in 1968 he announced the formation of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panthers.

The Black Panthers were a social activist cum black nationalist movement which flourished in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its members were conspicuous by their guns, black berets, leather jackets and political posturing.

Charlotte and Pete O'Neal (right) in front of a mural at the UAACC
The O'Neals now run a community centre in Imbaseni
The movement advocated amongst other things free healthcare and proper housing for disadvantaged African-Americans as well as an end to police brutality.

Pete O'Neal, like his contemporaries did not mince his words. He once famously said he would shoot his way into the House of Representatives.

He is now a 63-year-old with greying dreadlocks and is greeted by the reverential "habari mzee" which means "hello, wise old man" in Kiswahili when he meets the people of Imbaseni on his daily walk around the village.

His controversial political past doesn't seem to bother the many local people I spoke to, although many would probably be surprised by the huge impact the Black Panthers had on the US domestic political scene of the early 1970s.

'True happiness'

In Tanzania, he has mellowed somewhat, but has few regrets about his outspoken views.

"I'm not going to apologise, because I think it was a reflection of the way we represented ourselves in that particular setting and at that time.

Pete O'Neal in 1969
O'Neal formed the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panthers
"Now, when I look back I must admit that there is something in me which is a little bit satisfied that I had the heart and determination to speak out publicly without fear, but deep down in my heart I know intellectually, that I could have expressed my views in a less extreme way."

Mr O'Neal and his wife Charlotte, also a former Black Panther, now run the United African Alliance Community Centre (UAACC) based in Imbaseni.

The charity offers a wide range of free classes for about 230 local people and has been involved in small development projects.

"We dug a bore hole here which means women no longer have to walk for up to eight kilometres to get water," he said.

"This is fulfilling and if you want to juxtapose this with my goals as a very young man in the States - when I thought that happiness came from expensive clothes and rings and big cars - that's nothing, this is true happiness, man."

UAACC has now trained over 2,000 young people using Tanzanian volunteer teachers. It is funded solely by donations made by friends and family in the US.

The centre is perhaps proof that an ideology born on the other side of the world can bear fruit elsewhere.

Indeed, a documentary maker from the US is about to finish making a film called A Panther in Africa about Mr O'Neal.

'I won't see 12th Street again'

It may seem a lifetime away from Kansas City, but for Pete O'Neal the work in Tanzania is an extension of the goals of the Black Panthers, but without the guns and rhetoric.

Water project
The UAACC is involved in development projects
"It's 100% a continuation of the work we were doing as members of the Black Panther Party without the politics - I never hesitate to tell people that. I am very proud of that history.

"We have taken it to another level by providing opportunities for education and enlightenment here in this setting. But it's the same spirit."

He is now attempting for the third time to have his gun-running conviction quashed.

A letter he received from the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam suggested that if he were to return to the US now it is possible he would be arrested.

He is, however, applying for Tanzanian citizenship and has no plans to return to the US.

"Clearing my name is important, as it will right a wrong. But I will not return to the States. I love Tanzania. I love the Tanzanian people and this is where I want to continue to work, grow and die. So I won't see 12th Street again."


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