Tanzania’s Last Hunter-Gatherers: The Hadzabe Tribe of Lake Eyasi
Our early morning start is almost forgotten as I marvel at how a bumpy, thirty-minute drive from our comfortable hotel has brought me in contact with this enchanting, alien world.
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We stand on top of a rocky outcrop, maybe fifty metres high, and look out across the flatlands that stretch as far as we can see, towards the shores of Lake Eyasi. To our right, in the middle-distance, a small group of guinea-fowl scamper away into the bushes. My companions look longingly, fingering their wooden bows and arrows. But the quaint birds, which would make a tasty meal, are safely out of range.
The five boys in front of me turn around and I appraise them once again. Their skin is smooth and dark, their upper bodies partially covered by the skins of baboons – previous kills. Slim and athletic, no excess weight on them, they look to my ignorant eye to be between ten and twenty years old. But this is only a guess: here, out in the wilderness, two worlds have collided and my assumptions are based on my first-world, urban experience.
Tanzania – it’s not just the wildlife that’s fascinating
An encounter such as this, with some of the Hadzabe tribesmen, is a highlight of my Tanzanian safari. Yes, I came expecting animals, spectacular wildlife and Tanzania has not disappointed me at all. But this is a bonus, a thought-provoking meeting with people who live simply and off the land. Later, back in the Land Cruiser, I reflect on my own life with its excess of worldly goods that out here in the bush seem wholly unnecessary.
But for now, the first world and the third are going hunting - together!
The hunt begins
With bows held at shoulder-height, four of the Hadzabe youths fan out into a loose formation and silently enter the semi-scrub that surrounds their camp, which is made up of a handful of simple grass huts. The fifth and youngest boy hangs back, either to ‘look after’ me or perhaps out of curiosity. He is about ten years old and he turns occasionally to watch me, but his face shows no emotion. The older boys move quickly, and I struggle to keep up. But when I am motioned to slow down, I see that a small bird has settled on a treetop and one of the older boys is about to loose his arrow with a view to a kill. A softwhoosh accompanies the release, but a flutter of feathers heralds the bird’s escape. Arrows are all homemade, and so a miss means that the arrow has to be retrieved, or a replacement made. This is the duty of the youngest and our hunt is halted while he shins the tree to recover it. Mission successful, we proceed once again through the bush.
Two more failed attempts follow, before a shout announces that an arrow has at last hit home. Arriving at the scene, I can see that the winged victim is small, the size of a mere sparrow. Hitting something of that size is testament to the Hadzabe’s accuracy…but it will not provide lunch, that much is certain!
Time for lunch: fast food in fifteen minutes
Again, the youngest boy is called into action. Perhaps he is earning his rite of passage, for it is his job to de-feather the tiny bird and collect the wood with which the older ones will start a fire, using a stone and a spear to create the necessary spark. Once cooked, the ‘meal’ is shared, though I decline. The kill, de-feathering, cooking and eating have been accomplished in less than 15 minutes: unlike back home, there is no long cold-chain here. ‘You eat what you kill’ has never seemed a more appropriate mantra, though I am sure the boys would have preferred to have one of those elusive guinea-fowl, or the baboon or kudu which normally form the basis of their diet.
Culture and beliefs
Back at the camp, it’s time to learn more of these people, of whom less than 1500 now remain. The Hadzabe language is punctuated with a strange clicking noise which seems to come from the back of their throats. We learn that their shelters are basic, made from grass and wood, though in rainy times they seek shelter in caves. The sun and moons are their gods, and when the sun goes down, the god is ‘sleeping’; its ‘baby’ the moon takes over until, at dawn, the sun wakes up once more.
A simple, collective lifestyle
The Hadzabe are Tanzania’s last permitted hunters. As well as meat, animals yield up their skins to be used as clothes and adornments, while bird feathers are utilised in the arrows. The deadly desert rose provides the serum to poison-tip the arrows which bring down the larger animals. Nothing is wasted and everything is shared. While the men hunt, the women gather: their phenomenal knowledge of their environment is put to use as they collect arrowroot and wild fruits.
Before we leave, the tribeswomen perform a joyous song and dance as I ponder how long these captivating people can survive with a lifestyle that is so at odds with the rest of the world.
It’s a question I cannot answer. I can only hope.
Lake Eyasi is located in the Great Rift Valley, to the south of the Serengeti National Park and to the southwest of the Ngorongoro Crater. Eyasi is a salt lake and its water levels are subject to dramatic changes with the seasons: in years with little rainfall, the dry season can result in the lake almost disappearing. It can then become capable of being crossed on foot, a useful shortcut for the Hadzabe, Datooga and other tribesmen who live in the vicinity.
Getting You There?
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