Free spirits

When our Land Cruiser overheated Monday, Steve’s instant comment was, “It wouldn’t be a safari if there weren’t car trouble.” In fact, we’d already had some of that. In Uganda, as we set out on our chimp-tracking adventure, Robert’s car lost power. But he calmly got out, diagnosed the problem (a clogged fuel filter), turned it upside down (to somehow bypass it), and we drove on. On the way to our Kili hike, Manuel’s radiator boiled over just as we reached the parking lot, but he nonchalantly filled it up with cold water and got us home without incident. So when our Land Cruiser’s heat gauge shot into the red zone shortly after our departure from Tarangire National Park, my first thought was that a splash of water might fix things right up. But this turned out to be real trouble — a busted water pump.

That’s not fixable when you’re stuck on a narrow shoulder in the middle of Nowhere, Africa. Instead our driver/guide Frank’s solution was to call the Pristine Adventures office in Moshi and have a new vehicle sent out. This ultimately took almost 5 hours, during which we screwed around with adding water to the radiator (futile), ate our box lunches, and limped to a junction where Steve and I could sit at red plastic tables advertising Cocal-Cola and pull out our iPads. I felt cranky and annoyed, and with the hours slipping by, I suggested maybe we should change our itinerary; forego the grueling 3-hour journey to Lake Eyasi and skip our hunting session with the Hadza tribe, in lieu of going directly to Ngorongoro Crater. While Pristine dithered, I distracted myself by writing reviews of some of the hotels we’ve stayed at for Trip Advisor. Then I remembered I hadn’t yet read the National Geographic article about the Hadza. Steve read it back in December of 2009 and couldn’t stop talking about it then. When, planning this trip, I heard that it was possible to visit some of these people, I’d signed us up and brought along a copy of the article. But only when I finally read it yesterday did I recover my senses (and some of my good spirits). The article made it clear just how rare and extraordinary the Hadza are, worth driving through the night to meet, if necessary.

It wasn’t necessary, as it turned out. Once the new vehicle arrived, Frank drove hard and got us to our tented safari lodge on Lake Eyasi a good hour before sunset. The lodge was beautiful; the food excellent. We set our alarms for 5 a.m. and by 5:35 were driving off through the dark to pick up our local guide, a Datoga guy name Kastuli.

The reason Steve and I were so excited about meeting the Hadza is because they represent some of the last remaining true hunter-gathers on the planet. Last year when we were in Ethiopia, we visited stone-age tribes in the Omo Valley, but as exotic as they were, they stay in one place and subsist for the most part on food that they grow or trade. The lifestyle of the Hadza, in contrast, is the life that humans lived for 99% of their time on earth. Women gather fruit and seeds and edible roots and other plants, while the men hunt just about everything that moves. They throw up simple huts made of brush where the women and children sleep, but when the pickings get slim, they move on. According to the Geographic article, of the thousand or so who survive, only about 250 continue to live by hunting and gathering, remaining stubbornly disdainful of the government’s efforts to get their kids into school and their adults out of the bush and into 21st-century-style hovels. They love their lives, anthropologists attest and the Geographic reporter confirmed. They work only 4- 6 hours a day, spending the rest of the time napping, goofing around, making simple handicrafts out of porcupine quills, bone, and purchased beads (the women), and smoking tobacco and marijuana (mostly the men). “Marijuana is illegal in Tanzania, you know,” Kastuli said. “But the Hadza, they don’t care. They could be meeting the president of the country, and they would smoke.”

The proximity of the modern world has influenced them. Within the last dozen or so years, most have switched to wearing some Western clothes (rather than exclusively animal skins). Hadza men still skin their animals, but they do it with steel knives instead of the stone ones they used not long ago. And within the last few years, a few groups have begun welcoming foreign visitors. In exchange they receive some compensation (primarily social services such as medicine when they get sick) and the women get a chance to earn cash from selling some of their handicrafts.

This was what we had signed up for. It was billed as a chance to “hunt with the Hadza,” but for the first hour or so after we arrived, we just hung around. The three adult Hadza men were sitting by a fire, and as the sun rose, a handful of women and kids drifted into the clearing. Kastuli told us that at the moment, this group included about 16 individuals. Other groups scattered around the countryside might contain 20 or 25. But they’re all very small, and individuals or families often switch from one group to another. According to the Geographic, men and women tend to engage in “serial monogamy,” being with one partner for a while and then breaking up to team with someone else. Often the women initiate the breakups; they apparently endure little of the subservience or abuse so common elsewhere in the world.

Hadza women and children

Kastuli’s outgoing friendliness overrode his limited English. He speaks a certain amount of the weird clicky Hadza language too, and so he was chatting with the group members as well as with us. He learned that the men had recently killed a couple of kudu. Strips of dried meat from that outing were hanging on a line. About 7:20, Kastuli announced that it was time to go hunting, and I assumed the Hadza guys would basically give us a hunting demonstration — shooting some arrows, demonstrating a couple of stalking moves. But no! The the three of them took off, trailed by the group’s tribe of 10 scrappy mutts, and as we scrambled to keep up with them, it soon became clear that they were following a routine they’d practiced since childhood.

It’s hard to describe how much fun this was; what an adrenaline rush. I’d been slightly nervous about the possibility of stepping on one of the black mambos, adders, or other snakes that live in the bush here. Indeed, this particular Hadza group has tacked the skin of a two huge (15-foot long) pythons on a baobab tree in their little compound. We’d heard that one of those pythons had eaten one of the camp dogs and the Hadza had taken revenge by killing and eating it. But the ground where we were following the hunters was reasonably clear, and I was watching where I stepped.

A bigger challenge was to avoid being snagged by the millions of acacia thorns lining the pathways, and the biggest challenge was keeping up with the 3 hunters. Steve and I are reasonably fit, and the bushmen looked like they were just strolling briskly, but they moved so fast! They’re trim as gazelle; with muscled arms and legs that look like carved ebony. Sometimes they walked side by side, joking and chatting, but then they’d suddenly fan out, squatting, aiming, shooting. We kept falling behind them, but I think they were slowing their pace so we could catch them, and within minutes, they called out a report of their first kill. We found them under a huge acacia tree, poking sticks at a branch high overhead in an effort to dislodge one of their hand-made arrows one of them had sent clean through a quail. They got it down, and showed us the bird, still conscious, looking around with a bewildered expression on its face. The guy holding it twisted its neck, tucked it under his belt, and went back to the hunt.

A half hour later, when I suggested we had better start back, they had killed 4 more birds: a couple of doves, another quail, and a big plump hornbill. The Hadza acted like it was all the same to them, though Kastuli was a little disappointed they hadn’t bagged a bigger animal, a baboon, say, or small antelope. But we were thrilled at what we’d seen and at what followed. We hiked back to the clearing and at the campfire, they plucked the feathers from all the birds, stuck them on sticks, and roasted them. Then they shared them, even tasty bites for us. This is their way. Though they have almost no material possessions, they share what they hunt and gather. I find them paradoxical; a charming blend of communism and anarchy, with no leaders, no priests, no clocks or calendars. “Individual autonomy is the hallmark of the Hadza,” the Geographic article says. “No Hadza adult has authority over any other. None has more wealth; or, rather, they all have no wealth.” What they do have is what so many of the rest of us have lost: plenty of leisure, enough to eat (but not too much), strong and supportive communities. I don’t want to become a Hadza, but I salute them.


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