Safari with the Hadzabe

By Adam Levin

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 3, September 1997.

Copyright © 1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

In the purple shadows of the Ngorongoro Crater, a stone's throw from where Mary Leakey stumbled across the three-million-year-old footprints of our ancient hominid relatives, the earth tumbles abruptly to the south, creaking out into the vast, craggy haze of heat and dust that is central Tanzania. For most of the year, the plains here crack with thirst and the lakes shrivel into bleak, silvery pads of spilt salt. Why anyone would want to haul a Land Rover over these agonizing roads would be beyond me, if not for the oasis of Chem-chem.

In Chem-chem, I am lost in time. Just as the afternoon sun makes green-gold umbrellas of the acacia trees, a monitor lizard the size of small crocodile emerges silently from the rushes. There is the icy trickle of an ancient spring, the turquoise flash of a kingfisher, the sway of vine curtains festooned from the boughs of primeval fig trees. If a tyrannosaurus rex come sauntering through the marshland at this moment, I'd barely blink.

A few decades ago, this Garden of Eden was thick with game. I imagine the Hadzabe people who lived here had little trouble sustaining an enviable life-style of hunting, gathering, sharing, chilling out, getting stoned, and chatting away in Clicklout, their click-based language. Their cupboard was well stashed. And the tedious concepts of time, a cash economy, the nuclear family, and the Victorian work ethic had yet to complicate the bliss of their simple existence. Like Adam and Eve, I guess. Pre-apple. Today Eden is not what it used to be. Like the !Kung and Khwe of the Kalahari, the North American Indians, and the Australian aborigines before them, the Hadzabe have begun surrendering their lands and their life-style to the pressures of more developed societies. Today, sombre Barabaig pastoralists herd their cattle along the paths of Chem-chem. Wasukuma, Iraqw, Niramba, Wachuga, and many more tribespeople have brought their hoes and their animals to this green garden. And so the remaining warm-blooded ingredients of a good Hadzabe lunch have fled to the dry, thorny forests below the Rift Valley escarpment and in the Yaeda Valley. Having no history of aggression, the Hadzabe simply retreated into the forest.

Today fewer than two thousand Hadzabe survive. With the Wadorobo and a few small groups of Pygmies, they constitute Africa's last surviving hunter-gatherers. (Those in the Kalahari are no longer able to live a traditional life-style.) Despite various efforts to conserve it, many believe that the Hadzabe's way of life may vanish from the face of the earth within a couple of generations. Of course, the mere thought of such ethnocide is a ghastly indictment of contemporary humanity. Imagine, just as we save the black rhino, a group of human beings slips into extinction.

I make my way through Chem-chem with James, a New York-based photographer who spent a month here last year.

We walk smack into Njegela and his wife, Mtenda, whose hand he has recently secured for a price of two baboons. Njegela is thirty-something, Mtenda in her late teens. Neither of them know for sure. Both wear chunky strings of plastic beads melted down from found plates and cups they had no other use for. Mtenda bears a symbolic scar on each cheek, and through a layer of grime I can make out the words "Fuji Photo" on Njegel's T-shirt. But as I am soon to learn, with Njegela it is always a Kodak moment. Besides anything else, the Hadzabe are a pretty cool crowd. Free from the treadmill of dull materialism, they enjoy a sense of spontaneity and vitality long forgotten by our own civilization. Njegela sits cross-legged next to me, takes my hand and begins to teach me a song. "Dinako akwe chaba e," he chants, his voice a deep, timeless drum. "Tatatao baa ko."

We proceed to the campsite where Mzee Mahmoud, the Swahili cook, hovers anxiously in front of the meal he has prepared. "Bwana, I learned to cook in Nairobi," he'd boasted earlier. "1964!" I figure our guests, as citizens of a pre-agricultural society, might forgive the sogginess of his vegetables. Mzee Mahmoud grins stiffly when we sit down to dine. In the eyes of most Tanzanians, the Hadzabe rank just above undomesticated animals on the social scale.

Njegela and Mtenda devour three helpings each. Afterwards, Mtenda glances curiously at the pot and, when accommodated, licks it clean. I reach for a cigarette, only to find that the few half-full boxes that were lying about have been emptied: Njegela has wrapped all the cigarettes in newspaper and stuffed them in his pockets. To the Hadzabe, the notion of personal ownership is culturally incomprehensible. Take off your T-shirt, and it's history.

Many travellers to the less developed world complain of persistent nagging and begging by the locals. I would hesitate to recommend to them a holiday in these parts. Aside from their bows and arrows, the Hadzabe own nothing and share everything. On the occasions when a Hadza is taken on as a labourer, his entire clan pitches up on payday; by the next morning, the earnest payee is penniless. Predictably, the concept of fixed employment enjoys limited appeal.

Njegela eyes a pair of my sneakers--the Diesels. I have another pair of shoes with me, and his are wearing through. Still, this pair was a rare indulgence, and I am still nauseated at the thought of their price tag. I grin politely at Njegela and roll on some Tabard. Mtenda is transfixed. Mosquito medicine, I explain. She reaches out both arms in excitement, strips off, and rubs the remaining contents of the bottle all over her. The malaria carriers will get a rare night's rest.

After dinner, Njegela escorts us up the hill to where a Hadzabe clan has recently pitched camp. Mtenda cannot contain her glee. "We're going to the camp of the Hadzabe," she yells every few metres. No matter how quickly I trundle through the thorns, I lag pitifully behind. "Forgot to tell you," James shouts from up front. "They walk kinda fast."

Suddenly, Mtenda is silent. She points to where a few small fires are burning on the hilltop. "Hadzabe!" she exclaims. The journey has taken little more than fifteen minutes and yet, with these last few steps, we traverse millennia. As we venture into the flicker of firelight, I psych myself for a chatty, al fresco evening with a late-Paleolithic theme.

Few peoples still live in harmony with nature. Their numbers are so minuscule, one easily forgets how fundamentally their life-styles differ from ours. Yet until very recently, their way of life has constituted our most persistent and successful adaptation to the environment. Peer back over the three million years of human evolution, and ninety-nine percent of our time on the planet has been spent hunting and gathering, relying on our cunning, cooperation, and intelligence, in lives defined by social and political fluidity. While developed societies thrive on order and regimentation, for the Hadzabe and others like them, looseness remains critical to survival. And so it is that tonight we make our way democratically from fire to fire, discussing our arrival with every man, woman, and child, dishing out cigarettes en route, like a mobile vending machine.

An Hadzabe elder named Salibongo is anxious about our visit. It takes a certain breed of wayward twentieth-century voyager to come in quest of Stone Age society. Undoubtedly, many visitors to Hadzaland have been as obscure and unconventional as the Hadzabe themselves. Recently, a middle-aged German apparently popped into the camp, stripped naked, and made himself at home. He had come to die in Africa, the story goes. After trying to ensconce himself between a sleeping couple one night, he was asked to leave. He refused. In the ensuing comic opera, one Hadzabe man was injured with the tip of an arrow and a local farmer with a shotgun was summoned. The deranged creep fled naked into the bush. I nod sympathetically at Salibongo. Try my best not to look like a psychopath.

Eventually, after a long clickety debate and the gift of a couple of blankets, everyone is assured of our good intentions. Salibongo invites us to dance. We hop frenetically in a circle. Clueless, I gasp, "Dinako akwe chaba e," and hope for the best. Afterward, everyone is so relaxed that we are invited to dinner. "How kind," I gush, glancing at the large tortoise currently crackling among the flames. "I'd adore to. But we've had such a lovely dinner down at the camp...."

Around six o'clock one morning, I get a lift by Land Rover to the Hadzabe camp. Zairian soukous music blares from the car radio. As I open the door, a wizened, topless woman begins to dance. She rolls a joint, lights it, and passes it around the circle. Everyone, including her four-year-old granddaughter, takes a puff. Then everyone coughs like steam engines, especially Njegela.

The next morning, Njegela and two friends arrive at our camp. Gradually they work their way through a box of water colours. They paint cows and baboons and trees and people; and when they have filled two sketch pads, they begin to paint on their sandals. By afternoon, the visiting clan has swelled to fifteen and I am feeling twitchy. A full day is wasted. I look around me and register that I am the only person remotely bothered by this. With Mzee Mahmoud at the fire, there is no need to hunt or gather. There is no need to do anything. Guilt, it appears, is a product of more complicated societies. I resolve to do something useful. I sit for the next half-hour, carefully carving a ganja pipe from a piece of carrot. When finished, I pass it proudly to Njegela. He looks at me quizzically, then takes a large bite out of it.

The Hadzabe will eat anything that moves. Elephant, giraffe, lion--you name it. While women gather wild fruits and berries, the men hunt with bows and arrows, the tips of which are smeared with a poison so toxic it will kill you within minutes of entering your bloodstream. Only nowadays there are fewer and fewer animals to hunt. In this region, vast tracts of land have been set aside in the name of wildlife conservation. The Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti Reserves nearby are legendary as prime game-viewing destinations for international travellers. Other lands in the area are controlled by hunting companies and generate substantial revenue for the Tanzanian government. According to legislation, any Hadzabe found hunting here must be arrested and charged with poaching.

A few years ago Danieli Taiwashi, a respected Hadzabe elder, died in prison. Allegations of torture were substantiated when other Hadzabe were released from prison with broken bones. According to the German-based organisation Friends of Peoples Close to Nature (FPCN), which represents small groups of aboriginal people everywhere from East Africa to the Amazon, Hadzabe have not only been stalked and killed by white trophy-hunters, but in extreme cases hung in trees as bait.

FPCN would be a fairly radical thorn for any government to have in its side. Innocuous as it may sound to be "working for the rights of aboriginal peoples," anyone with a self-determination agenda within a state cannot hope but to inspire a messy hotbed of moral and ethical disputes. To complicate matters, Tanzania is home to more than 120 tribes. The relative harmony among them remains one of the few achievements of Julius Nyerere's rule. In addition, Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire form the country's troubled eastern border.

Decades ago, Nyerere called on the Hadzabe to come out of the bush, roll up their sleeves, and muck in for a doomed bout of African socialism. For the most part, the Hadzabe declined the invitation. Some, however, proceeded to take part in what must be one of history's odder experiments in tribal harmony. Nyerere created a series of ujamaa (or socialist) villages throughout Tanzania. The idea was to resettle individuals from various tribes and force them to live together. Step into Qangndeng, the ujamaa village on the edge of Chem-chem, and you're strolling through a bizarre ethnography textbook. There are low Iraqw huts, grassy Tatok shelters, brick huts with Islamic doors. But the homes have been built so far apart from each other, one can't be sure whether Qangndeng is a village at all.

As many as fifty tribes live in the province of Mangola today. Given this multi-cultural muddle, the likelihood of a small, cash-strapped, unorganised group of hunter-gatherers securing sovereignty seems thin. Yet, for FPCN, sovereignty is the only solution.

The organisation condemns police, legal, military, and educational activity on Hadzabe lands. And they are categorically opposed to all missionary work and to any development project advocating Westernisation or civilisation. Nowadays, Hartmut Heller, a self-appointed champion of the Hadzabe cause, concedes his pleasure when he hears the news of burnt-down churches.

Heller first came to Hadzaland some twenty years ago. He lived with the Hadzabe on and off for six years. "And the longer I stayed," he recalls, "the more fascinated I became with their way of life." From Heller's point of view, any compromises the Hadzabe might make with "the rotten civilised world" are as good as suicide. Given that the idea of permitting them to hunt in the game reserves has been rejected on the grounds that it sets a precedent for all tribes, the only possible solution would be the redefinition of traditional Hadzabe hunting grounds, now long settled by other tribes.

Where we come from, it is hard to comprehend the isolation that persists on this continent. Most of my Hadzabe friends have seen neither a town nor a television. Nor have they the same sense of time or geography as we do. Furthermore, they are the only Africans I have met who have no idea who Nelson Mandela is.

In recent years, the Tanzanian government has made sustained efforts to acculturate the Hadzabe. Part of this scheme has included kidnapping Hadzabe children and taking them to a boarding school in the nearby town of Endamaka, where they are prohibited from speaking their language and forced to learn Swahili. According to Heller, many Hadzabe girls have been raped by the teachers in this school.

Often, the children escape, living alone in the bush until they find a clan to join. As the Hadzabe reject no one, any clan will do. One such returnee, Ishingo, accompanies me to the vast mirage of a market that emerges in the clearing outside Chem-chem on the fifth day of each month.

What was barren, scrubby path yesterday, is today a highway of cattle, bicycles, and people. Already, the event is one of the more multi-cultural bashes I've attended. There are Barabaig warriors, naked but for their jewelry, scarifications, and blood-red cloths, some of which are accessorised with plastic hairbrushes dangling from metal chains. A Sukuma man wears a small goat around his neck. Another carries his snuff in a film container plugged neatly into a stretched earlobe. A black-veiled Iraqw woman brushing past me carries her morning's shopping: a briquette of cow-dung charcoal and the head of a goat.

As we walk, a brown-toothed minstrel appears. He weaves a haunting Swahili ballad on a violin he has made from calfskin and impala tendons. On the hide, the words "Welcome My Music" have been scrawled in blue ball-point pen. His song carries us to market.

The aisles of this primal supermarket stretch way out to the horizon. Spiky sandals cut from old car tyres are for sale. So are mounds of overpriced secondhand clothing, grass mats, carcasses, beads, Mike Tyson T-shirts, and a spattering of other cheap manufactured goods. A freshly slaughtered cow twitches in a puddle of blood at the edge of the clearing. Wary as they are of the crowd of people, most of the Hadzabe hover in the bushes around the market.

Ishingo refuses to go near the Tatok cattle auction, but time and time again escorts me past a stand where a few tacky gold watches dangle from a piece of string. Okay, I concede. I get your beaded buckskin bag; you get the watch. Ishingo is delighted. Though he has no idea how to tell time, he straps the deal proudly to his wrist. He looks kind of dull trotting off with the Taiwan Special instead of the bag, but then again, who am I to style Tanzania? I plonk in the shade of a baobab tree and down a mugful of vile, home-brewed beer.

Later that evening, the minstrel returns to our camp with a friend. The friend has drunk far too much beer and proceeds to complement the ensuing recital with a wild, Presleyesque routine of pelvic thrusts. We sing, we dance, we laugh, we trance, and all of a sudden we hear a series of shrieks and grunts from somewhere in the thick, dark swamp. Njegela leaps to his feet and grabs a spear. Ishingo takes my hand. Perhaps if I understood the word nguruwe at this stage, Ižd choose to stay behind. Given my poor Swahili, I find myself tiptoeing terrified through the swamp.

We clamber over fallen trees, wade thigh-deep in mud. The shrieking gets louder. A few moments ago I felt fully connected with my Hadzabe friends, but now, in the thick of the hunt, there are again millennia between us. In a flash, all three Hadzabe scramble up a tree. James and I are left staring at each other. We are bleak with fright.

Ishingo leaps from the tree. A scramble, a last crazed grunt, then silence. Carefully, I sweep a torch-beam across the dead nguruwe, the spear impaled tidily in its chest. Wild pig is one of the more dangerous animals to hunt. When cornered, it often panics and attacks. With its thick, sharp tusks, it is perfectly capable of goring a messy hole through your shin and maiming or killing you. Ishingo looks like he's just run a marathon. He removes the spear, then takes my hand and fastens it around a stiff, warm hock. It is time to bring home the bacon.

It would probably have been easier to drag a grand piano through the swamp. We haul the pig across ditches, through thorns, and through slush, but the dearly departed remains downright uncooperative. She weighs a ton. She slips by her tail. She gets her head lodged in the roots of a tree. I try not to connect with the task at hand. On dry ground, Ishingo hacks the animal apart with a panga. He skewers the bloody chunks onto a stake, and we trudge up the hill to the Hadzabe camp. It is now one in the morning and a tad too reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. We wake the clan, who are truly delighted and feast until it is almost daybreak. I can neither speak nor eat. My Diesels, I notice, are stained with the pig's blood.

The modern world has found a variety of uses for leftover hunter-gatherers. Time and again, they have taken up urban positions as bums, criminals, or alcoholics. It appears that the freedom and fluidity they have known stand them in poor stead for contemporary urban experience. Without structure and the hard realities of the bush to balance things out, their innate decadence seems to engulf them. Time and again, they have been marginalised, misunderstood, and humiliated. It is as though we cannot find a place for them.

On my last day in Chem-chem, I bump into Ishingo. He looks utterly miserable. He reaches into his shorts pocket and hauls out the now strapless watch. Yesterday, he explains, he went hunting. When he flexed his bow, the cheap strap shattered and most of the pieces were lost in the surrounding scrub. It is a month until the next market. Trivial as the incident seems, it is a poignant metaphor for the bigger problems the Hadzabe are facing. Even time, the most fundamental cog in the development machine, somehow proves incompatible with their life-styles. Too rigid perhaps, or just too foreign. "Shida," Ishingo says gloomily. Problem. I offer him a blue Woolies T-shirt, which he happily pulls over his vest. He has no cupboard, I remember.

Part of the problem in assisting the Hadzabe, the chubby Spanish priest in a nearby mission explains, is that their society lacks structure and organisation. Elders enjoy some respect. But the Hadzabe, unbound by the duties of sedentary life, have no use for leaders or hierarchies. "If we want to offer them something," Padre Miguel shrugs, throwing up his arms. "Who would we give it to? It's just take, take, take with the Hadzabe. The way they live, it's as though they speak another language. We can't even start a dialogue with them."

Ishingo and I sit together for a long time. James, by this stage, has thrown himself fully into the experience. He has bought spears and provisions at the market and embarked on a ten-day hunting safari with Njegela and friends. A part of me longs to be with them. After all, as Padre Miguel snorts, "It's not a bad life, is it? I know a lot of people who wouldn't mind living like the Hadzabe do."

Perhaps. No mortgage. No bosses. Fresh food and loads of leisure time. Provided, of course, that Hartmut or some magician can pull off a miracle deal with the rotten civilised world.

"So, what are you going to do?" I ask Ishingo. "Do you want to go back to school?" It strikes me that, for all the opinions I've heard, I still haven't really ascertained what the Hadzabe want for themselves.

"Ndio," Ishingo finally answers. Yes.

"And after you've been to school?"

"Well, I'll come back here," he says.

"And hunt in the forest?"

"Ndio," he says, nodding profusely.

"But Ishingo, there aren't enough animals left, are there?"

He sighs, and it is if all the riddles of humanity, conservation, and development are written into that sigh. And all the tragedy and inevitability too.

"So what are you going to do?" I ask again.

"Shida," he says, gazing cluelessly into the future. We shake hands warmly, and he treads off among the acacia trees. I watch until he is only a faint blue speck of Woolies cotton against the green.


Adam Levin is a freelance travel-writer located in Johannesburg.

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