Guest Lecture series...
“Rituals and Spirituality to Bond Our Communities”
Presented by Mama Charlotte Hill O’Neal
Sept. 19, 2006
Before marrying Pete O’Neal, Charlotte Hill gave black history presentations at local community centers, churches, and schools in Kansas City, where she was born. Her marriage to Pete, her life as a Black Panther in the U.S. during the late 1960s, and that early speaking experience gave her the knowledge and spirit she would take with her into a new life in Africa. To avoid the FBI, the couple moved in 1970 to Algiers, then on to Tanzania, where they made a home and a life. While Charlotte has visited the U.S. over the years, Pete cannot because of being wanted by the government. Such an unlikely and adventurous beginning to the young marriage only served to spur the O’Neals to a greater appreciation for community and the bonds people form with a community.
They bought, or rather leased from the Tanzanian government for 99 years, enough land to homestead. They learned to garden, dairy farm, raise livestock, and build their own structures. The local village admired them and they respected the villagers. As the elders sent youngsters to apprentice with the O’Neals, they developed a community center, which rapidly expanded. The United African Alliance Community Center now has space for a multitude of educational projects. In a land where education is seen as a privilege rather than a right, hundreds of people are regularly served. Foreign visitors often contribute to the project, as, for example, when one group donated solar panels to provide electricity where kerosene lamps had previously been in use. Volunteers with special knowledge to contribute are welcomed into the community and the community center.
O’Neal said that around age 40 she began opening up to the value of rituals for the self and for bonding with others. Now she shares and performs rituals from all over the world, adapting them to her own needs and the needs of the community. She keeps spiritual ritual objects in her “ancestor corner,” along with photographs, water, soil, and flowers. The ancestor corner is a space within the home set aside to remember and commune with those who came before and who are highly respected. A libation—pouring liquid on soil—invokes the blessings of the ancestors or acts as an offering to them. O’Neal, who uses a gourd for her libations, recommended making any ritual fit yourself. It should come from your own heart and own experience. “Take from all rituals,” she said, “and use what feels right.”Among the tools of ritual are bundles of leaves for touching people, noise making (“shout it out!”), beads, body markings, and calling out the name of the ancestor being honored or invoked. O’Neal, saying “go where the spirit carries you,” recommended that rituals not be scripted.
She tried to show a video of community-building work in Tanzania, but was thwarted by a video machine that refused to cooperate. The video, titled Rasta Cool, was made by the Brothers of Peace to illustrate honor and service to the community.
When asked about hip hop in Africa, she replied that hip hop culture in Tanzania deals with gender positively and teaches about history. There’s no money to made in hip hop there, but it is empowering when the artists take it back to its roots and give voice to the people. (She added that she’s actually embarrassed by the “bling” and violence of American hip hop.) Arusha, she said, is the “Mecca” of positive hip hop while Dar es Salaam has “beefing” and tribal hip hop going on across the continent. She said, with pride, that “Tupak is Geronimo’s godson—a Panther cub.”
O’Neal, at 55, has felt the empowerment of being an elder. Her passion in life is to build bridges. She has made a success of following her passion, through her art, her teaching, and her community. “The challenge of today, ” she said, “is greater than that of the ‘60s. We’ve got to find a new way to deal with things.”