The early morning came way too soon as we gathered our gear and jumped in the vehicle for an hour and a half journey to visit the Hadzabe Tribe near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.
The road twisted and turned with lots of bumps as the headlights pierced the darkness, an occasional truck passed us in the opposite direction on the dusty, dark road. As the morning dawned, the road followed a single power line dotted with individual lights in front of homes that were barely 500 square feet. We made our first stop at the Lake Eyasi cultural tourism office to pickup our guide Michael, who was well versed in the ways of the Hadzabe.
Michael had decided to learn more about the Hadzabe culture as he was finishing school and made the decision that he must live with them to understand who they were. The Hadzabe tribe is small in relative terms, with just over 1,000 left in the world. However, only about 300 are hunter/gatherers, and their way of life is relatively unchanged in the last 10,000 years. They do not grow crops nor have livestock or even permanent structures for homes. Research has found that they originated from this area in the Rift Valley and genetic testing suggests the Hadzabe may be the primary root of the human family tree. Could this tribe be where we originated from?
Michaels initial introduction to the Hadza’s, as they are sometimes called, did not go well. Wary of outsiders, he tried to join three different tribes, and they did not trust him. After some introspection and soul searching, he tried a fourth time, bearing gifts to help gain the trust of the members and he was accepted. For the next ten months, he lived as the Hadza’s lived and learned their culture and way of life. He was full of knowledge and answered many questions as we spent our time with them.
Soon we were back on the road, and it eventually became more primitive, and the power lines and poles disappeared. Driving through deeper sand and no real road to guide us, other than a few other tire tracks, we finally arrived around 6:30 AM. With a short walk from the vehicle, I had no idea what to expect. A giant Baobab tree was off in the distance, and as we walked closer, we could see the skulls of Baboons and other trophies that marked the “Entrance” to the village. To our left was a large rock overhang with an area that men had built a fire that we climbed onto. Greeting them with “Mutanta”, they greeted us back warmly. I had this rush of comfort that enveloped me as I looked around and I said to myself, “Wow, I have just stepped back into time”. I was so excited, and all anxiety of what this visit would be like had disappeared.
Stepping Back in Time
As a photographer, I couldn’t wait to start taking photos but always wanted to have the scene unfold without having a viewfinder to my eye. Many times as a photographer, we miss what is right in front of us, because we are too “Focused” on capturing it. For once I wanted my brain to capture this, even if it was a short moment, but I also couldn’t wait to photograph this remarkable experience that I was living. As we walked up the rocks, the first scene we encountered were four men gathered around a fire, bows and arrows to our left and they stepped forward to greet us. Shaking our hands, we communicated the only word we knew in their language, “Mutana”. I looked directly into each one of their faces as I said this, searching for a commonality that we might both have. Their smiles and relaxed attitude towards us made the handshake and greeting a nice ice breaker.
It was time to greet the additional members of the tribe and we walked up to an area that was behind a big rock where a village elder was busy making arrows. This is a daily routine I am told and later as we joined them on the hunt, the arrows are always retrieved.
Short video of the arrow maker at work.
This scene to me was right out of something I had only seen illustrations of in history books, but here I saw this in person.
The arrows come in many different configurations, from a standard arrow with just a wooden tip, to those fitted with corncobs to the steel tipped poison arrows. Part of their diet are small birds, and the arrow tips with the corncobs allow them to be less accurate, and the blunt end allows them to have greater success when hunting these small birds.
I enjoyed watching the making of the arrows, and after I had got back home, I thought how wonderful it would have been to purchase one of these as something to remember the trip by. Luckily I was able to make a few small purchases later in the day to remember this trip by.
If you have done any research on the Hadzabe , you may know that this was the trip used in the movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. I had never seen the movie but did rent it before my trip to visit them. I also did a bit of research and watched others who had created youtube videos of their experience and learned that they also smoke marijuana as part of their culture. The can purchase marijuana or tobacco from local tribes such as they Datogas, in exchange for honey or money they make off of selling to visitors. Later in the day they had wooden pipes, they offered for sale, and even one made out of soapstone that was well used. I was tempted to buy that one just as a memento, but it was used and didn’t want to risk taking it through security on my travels back home.
Next, we were given a demonstration and shown how they make fire. Each one of us gave it a try, and we were all successful in starting some embers, and they got a kick out of watching us in our attempts. Another thing you may have learned about the Hadzabe, as they are known for a language that includes clicking. It seems when they were excited and happy or enjoying a meal; this was when they tend to click more with their communication. I don’t know if this is true or not, but this was my observation in the brief time I was around them.
The biggest challenge when creating fire was to have enough downward pressure and fast enough turning of the stick to heat up the wood below. This would then create small embers that were then put into dried animal dung and then with lots of coaxing of those embers by blowing on them; the fire would start. I can say with some confidence, that if I needed to create a fire with this technique, I could probably do so in a pinch.
Short video of Roxanne and the men starting a fire as well as the clicking sounds they make while talking.
We slowly worked our way down the hill to where the women and children were gathered around a fire that is slowly fading. As in many cultures, the men are the hunters, and the women are the gatherers, and this is true in the Hadzabe culture as well.
Short video of the women communicating
The sun was just starting to rise over the rocks as we greeted them and the little children playfully sang to themselves in a hushed voice.
One little boy was with big crocodile tears was crying, and I asked why he was doing so, and they said he was running and fell. I debated whether to take this photo of him crying, but I thought it would be a nice ice breaker to show him the photo afterwards. When he saw this photo on my camera, he smiled a little bit and then seemed to calm down. Later in the day after we arrived back from hunting, he was a happy little boy and everything seemed fine.
Poison Arrow Maker
Next, we were introduced to the man responsible for making the poison arrows. He uses a plant we call the Desert Rose, smearing a black tar onto the arrows that he derived from boiling the plant.
We were told that every part of this plant was poisonous and the plant contains a chemical called ouabain, which causes almost immediate respiratory failure at high doses. Though they don’t hunt elephants, a single arrow can take down an elephant in about 10 minutes, so it is very powerful.
Our guide Michael explaining to us about the Desert Rose plant.
As the men were getting ready to begin the hunt, we had a bit of time to explore the village. There were a couple of crudely made “Huts” where they slept, nothing much more than a few tree branches and some grass on the roof. I would imagine during the rainy season they probably use the rocks as shelter, but during the dry season, this would be more than adequate.
Hunting with the Hadzabe
The day was already beginning to get hot and around 6:45 AM it was time to begin the hunt, and we had no expectation what this would entail. Three of the men took off in search of their food, and there was no waiting for us to keep up. One of the things you have to keep in mind is that you are in Africa and there are wild animals everywhere including snakes, but we trusted that we were safe and we also had one of our Maasai Magic Safari guides Emmanuelle as well as Michael to insure we would not be put in a compromising situation.
For the next two and a half hours we followed them as the hunted for mostly birds. Now these birds were so small, that I was surprised that they were even a source of food for them, but their diet requires them to hunt every day so I don’t think they can be too particular about what they catch. Often they had to climb trees to retrieve their arrows and would continue to run as we gave chase. Thankfully we had water with us to help with the early morning heat.
Eating with the Hadzabe
After about two hours of hunting, it was time to prepare a meal, and the hunters found an area in a dry river bed that had a little wind to start the fire. One of the hunters fashioned a stick and straightened it out with his teeth to help start the fire.
Just like we had helped with earlier, the fire was started, and I couldn’t help but think about what we were all witnessing on this day. This was a daily ritual that these men have to do to survive. This was not something that is done strictly for tourists, but a way of life that depends on them to survive. We simply open a refrigerator door and grab something whereas here they have to hope that there is an opportunity for food to survive for the day. It’s a bit sobering when you look at their life that way and then look at how us westerners live as well.
Next came the preparation of the birds which was nothing more than plucking them.
They were then laid on the fire and cooked for about 4-5 minutes and then they were cleaned and eaten. I was surprised that there was a good amount of meat available to add some protein to their diets, even as small as these birds were. As they were eating and talking to each other, we could hear their clicking as well in their communication, and I’m still unsure if this was something done when they seemed excited or more animated.
Next, we were asked if we would like to taste the birds and everyone in our group agreed to do so. I was a bit hesitant to the idea in my mind, but when Robert gave it a try first, I thought why not? Not many people can say they have eaten with Hadzabe hunters. The taste was surprisingly good, but probably not something I would choose to eat on a regular basis. The Hadzas share the larger game that they kill with everyone in the group, and this is why there are usually no more than 25-30 in each group. Any more than that and it would be difficult to keep everyone fed.
We also ate some berries they had foraged and given us; that looked like a purple huckleberry with seeds I believe these are called Cordia’s. They are also known as snotty gobbles and glue berry. They were super sticky inside, and it was almost impossible to spit the seeds out. Almost like trying to do so with Elmer’s glue in your mouth. These were quite delicious, and we also tried another similar berry that was orange and tasted about the same. The Hadzas have resisted farming and raising livestock. Why would they when they can walk out their front door and pick wild berries or hunt?. They seem to live a day to day existence with little worry and little conflict. Conflict can be resolved by someone leaving the group to join another.
After breakfast, it was time to head back to the village, and by this time it was a bit more animated. The little boy who had been crying was now all smiles as he ate his berries and interacted with our group a bit more.
The village does offer some interesting things to purchase, and unlike many of the Maasai villages we have been to, there was no pressure to make a purchase. Emmanuelle and Roxanne negotiated with the members of some things she wanted to purchase and each one of us brought back some interesting things that I have not seen available to buy elsewhere in Tanzania.
We visited the village more and were able to take additional photos, and then we asked if we could get a photo with many members of the village. I pulled out my iPhone and started taking selfies, which I seldom do, not being much of a selfie photo taker. But I felt it was fun to have a bit of interaction and share the photos with them as well.
Our final photo was next to the large Baobab tree we had first seen when we arrived, and many of the tribe members gathered around to take the photo with us. After this photo, we were then treated to a dancing ceremony that a couple of our group participated in and then it was time to say our goodbyes.
A short video of the dance they performed for us
Looking back on this day, I am so happy we took the time to include this in our safari. You may have come to this story to learn more about the Hadzabe’s or perhaps as to whether you should meet them during your safari. I would say without questions; this is an experience that is not to be missed while visiting Tanzania. There are very few opportunities in this life where one can interact with people that are probably the closest thing to our ancestors in this world. As each year goes by and the more westernized things become, unfortunately, the Hadzabe may have no choice but to become part of what we call society. I will share one funny story, however, at one time some government officials tried to get the Hadzabe to go to school to get an education, but they resisted, even to the point of not sleeping indoors, as they were used to sleeping outside. The officials let them go back to their group, realizing it was not a good fit to have them integrate into modern culture.
Only time will tell how this all unfolds, however.
Join me on my next visit in November 2017
If you would like to join me on a trip of a lifetime which includes a visit to the Hadzabe’s, check out my upcoming tour to Tanzania on the Shutter Tours website.