It was still dark outside our tent when our 5.30am wakeup call came in the form of a voice softly calling “Jambo” (“hello”), followed by one of the staff carrying a tray of coffee, hot chocolate and biscuits. Thirty minutes later, we were seated in our Landcruiser and ready to head off to locate some of the remaining Hadzabe (had-za-bee) tribe to spend time understanding their lifestyle.
By the time the rising sun was just beginning to lighten the sky, we had stopped the vehicle in a patch of bush looking no different to any other patch we had driven past for the past 45 minutes. Our guide Hassan, though not Hadzabe himself, had grown up in the area of Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, caring for his father’s cattle; he had subsequently befriended many of the Hadzabe and learnt to communicate with them.
Stepping out of the vehicle, Hassan made a series of soft whistles and clicks. Within moments several Hadzabe males appeared from the surrounding bushes and set to work making a fire by rubbing sticks together. Very similar in appearance as well as lifestyle and language to the Southern African Bushman, the Hadzabe is a tribe that may well die out in the not-too-distant future; the current estimation of the size of the tribe is 500 people.
Being hunter-gatherers, they live entirely off the land. They sleep on skins on the ground and wear a mixture of skins and very worn Western garb; of the minimal possessions they own, a knife appears to be the most modern.
Sitting on small rocks around the fire, the men and young boys chattered constantly in a series of licks and spoken language which was totally incomprehensible to us. All the time they were busy building up the small fire, meanwhile taking flexible branches and fashioning arrows from them, some with pointed ends, and some flat to take metal arrowheads which they trade for.
These soon-to-be-arrows were placed into the fire at various points for a short time and then gripped between the teeth and rotated, with a clamping method used to straighten the arrow by eye. A young boy was making a bow with sinew, softening it in his mouth and using a combination of feet, hands, and teeth to hold the bow and rotate it, pulling the sinew tight and binding the bow gut string at either end. Feathers for flight were attached by a third man.
As the sky began to lighten, a few women and very young children emerged and took some fire from the men’s hearth to start their own a short distance away. They sat on antelope skins chatting and waiting, feeding the youngsters some roots cooked in the fire. The youngest was a little boy whose age they could not tell us; they do not mark age by years but rather by seasons. Boys stay at their mother’s hearth until they’re around five years old before moving to their father’s hearth and being schooled in the ways of hunting.
Back at the men’s hearth, in the growing light we could now see a vervet monkey that had been killed the previous evening and was draped in the branches of the tree we were crouched under. In short order, this monkey was taken down, the tail cut off and put aside, and then the entire animal minus tail tossed onto the fire to char the fur.
Being vegetarian and an animal lover, I had to step downwind to prevent myself retching at the smell and also to prevent myself from showing distress. I consoled myself that it really was for survival not for fun.
Gutting came next with economical movements, followed by sorting out gut for bow strings; edible pieces were shared, and the rest of the internal parts were given to several dogs lying quietly on the edges of the circle. A few more minutes of cooking the body on the fire and the animal was cut into pieces; everyone got something to eat and the person who actually killed it got the head – this being a delicacy. The skull was cracked open with a sickening thwack and the exposed brain politely offered to us. Fortunately, declining it did not cause offence.
Once this monkey had been dispatched and its bones tossed to the dogs, the men gathered up their bows and arrows and headed out into the bush to hunt. Tagging along behind, we did our best to not to make loud noises or get hooked on wicked thornbushes. At the same time as keeping an eye out for thorns that might snag us or roots and rocks that might trip us, we had to keep the hunters in sight, be aware of when they moved into stealth mode because of something they had seen and we hadn’t, and also avoid being on the receiving end of an arrow.
About an hour into the hunt, one of Tony’s shoes gave out and we had to cut the flapping sole away. Half an hour after that, the other one gave out! This was cause for hilarity on the part of the hunters, who pointed to their own rough black sandals made from car tyres to indicate their better quality.
Although the hunt had been initiated to follow up on a kudu (a type of antelope) that had been shot with a poisoned arrow on the previous day, they constantly stalked any other wildlife, pointing out the sporadic prints that we were following.
However, the route of the kudu seemed to head towards the perimeter of the nearby Ngorongoro Conservancy, within which no hunting is allowed. So the tracking of the kudu was abandoned, an indication of how restricted the Hadzabe lifestyle is now becoming. Heading back to camp with only two sparrow-sized birds that had been shot out of the trees, I couldn’t help feeling that the amount of energy that had been expended this morning far outweighed their intake; but that could have been due to the two not-so-nimble expats crashing through the undergrowth, trying to keep up and giving ample warning to all potential prey.
However, there didn’t appear to be any sense of disappointment, rather a sense of achievement with what they did bring back. Once back at the hearth, about three hours later, there was much discussion about their gains (a “bush baby” – a small primate – was also produced by another hunter) and again the animals were tossed onto the fire and shared amongst all.
As boys will be boys, an arrow-shooting competition soon developed. Much laughter ensued around the inability of Tony to hit the tree stump target, giving him a healthy respect for the young boy who had managed to bring down one of the two tiny birds that morning.
And so we left, to return to our comfortable lifestyle secure in the knowledge that it would take some major adjusting for us to be able to survive in the bush. As we parted company, neither side was envious or desirous of the other’s lifestyle. For although Tanzania has compulsory free primary education, the Hadzabe are renowned for running away from school after a few days.
This is an indication of the strength of their lifestyle, and their almost total rejection of conventional social values. While it is admirable to take a stance in this world, however, one that possibly ensures your ultimate extinction is questionable.
Getting there: Qatar Airways flies to Nairobi, Kenya, via Doha (around S$2,300 return). Precision Air (www.precisionairtz.com) flies to Mount Kilimanjaro Airport in Arusha,Tanzania (around US$490 return). Lake Eyasi is six hours’ drive southwest of Arusha.
Visa: Tanzanian visas are issued on arrival (US$50) but the form can be downloaded in advance. Visa expeditors can be arranged through good safari companies.
Vaccinations: Tanzanian authorities are erratic in their checking of vaccination certificates, but sometimes demand a current yellow fever vaccination.
Money: US dollars are readily used; small bills are good to have. Arusha has a number of money changers where you can get Tanzanian shilllings, but it’s not essential to have the local currency. Exchange rate: US$1 = TSH 1,580.
Accommodation: Arusha has everything from backpacker options to upmarket boutique hotels. Most are on the outskirts of the city and provide hired transport for getting to various tourist activities. River Tree Lodge (US$110 per person, B&B) and Onsea House (US$210 per person, full board; www.onseahouse.com) both have reasonably accurate reviews on TripAdvisor. At Lake Eyasi, the privately owned and run Kisema Ngeda Tented Camp (www.kisemangeda.com) is the only accommodation. This eco-friendly place must be booked ahead as it has only has seven tents.
Visiting the Hadzabe: Visits are arranged from Kisema Ngeda and cost US$30 per person including a guide. Our experience was part of a pre-booked 14-day safari, in a 4WD Landcruiser with driver, starting from Arusha. The city has a number of safari operators but some are dubious, so do your homework. All vehicles come with a driver; pricing depends on whether a vehicle is shared with other clients or is for sole use. We used Planet Africa Safaris: US$400-500 per person per day including full-board accommodation and driver (www.planetafricasafaris.com).
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