By Cat Bennett, Julia Simoes, Emery Younger and Annie Wilcox
Photo credit to Julia Simoes and Annie Wilcox
Jambo marafiki na familia! Last week, KSP Spring 2016 spent the week in Tanzania living with the Hadzabe. It was an enriching week, and we returned relatively unscathed. St. Lawrence uses a safari company called Dorobo Safaris, which is an ecotourism organization that works side by side with the Hadzabe to provide an authentic and educational experience. Throughout the week, we went hunting and gathering, climbed baobab trees, and did a number of other activities that the Hadza practice on a daily basis. We were able to not only learn about their culture, but engage in it.
The Hadza are a small ethnic community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. Currently, there are about 1200 left and 800 practicing their traditional culture. The best theoretical evidence for evolution suggests that the Hadza are the oldest people on Earth, having evolved into bipedal humans as long as 100,000 years ago. Most interestingly, their story of divinity aligns most closely with the theory of evolution. The Hadza believe that they evolved from baboons, where half decided to stay baboons and the other half evolved into bipedal humans with opposable thumbs. The Hadza believe that they evolved from baboons, where they were told by Haine (God) that they would be Hadzabe, and decided the others (the baboons) would remain as they were.The connection that they have with their ancestors is a powerful one that has allowed them to thrive in a harsh climate with no history of famine. Compared to other world cultures, this is a feat.
We arrived in the evening just before sunset. The evening passed quickly with dinner and small group discussions with the Hadza. After the brief introduction, we were ready for bed having driven all day. The following morning, we left our campsite to walk to a Hadzabe village about thirty minutes away. There were about twenty-five people living there. The Hadza usually break off into smaller groups about that size, but the communities aren’t steadfast, and a person can move to a new community if s/he feels like it. Because the Hadza have autonomy over themselves by the age of eight, and the skills to hunt and gather, they can easily leave one community for another.This personal freedom has both led to and been a result of their egalitarian, leaderless society. Everyone has an equal voice, the entire community makes decisions together and every person’s contribution matters. While there are gendered divisions of labor – the men hunt and the women gather – no task is seen as better than the other. They contribute equally and share equally
After greeting everyone in the village, we broke up into small groups again and visited the elders in their homes. The structures of the homes are made with thick branches and are covered with dry grass to keep the rain out. The houses are small, but are generally only used for sleeping. Because they are hunter-gatherers and live a nomadic lifestyle, the Hadza typically move every few months. This specific community had been in the same place for three years, however, because of the abundant wildlife in the area allowing them to easily find food. We met with an elder who answered questions about their lifestyle. We asked him about changes he has seen since he has been alive. He explained how his people stopped wearing skins years back and began wearing Western clothing. He also has seen the introduction of phones in recent years. A lot of these changes came after independence in Tanzania in 1961. After independence, the Hadza lost about 90% of their land causing insecurity and changes in their lifestyle. Other ethnic groups began to put pressure on the Hadza land boundaries. The Hadza rely on untouched land. The pastoral and agricultural communities were threatening this until, with the help of Dorobo, they secured a large portion for themselves. Regardless, their lifestyle is being threatened.
After meeting with the elder members of the community, we headed out to gather //ekwa tubers, a major source of water for the Hadzabe. The Hadza harvest four types of tubers, each found in specific environments and each highly rich in nutrients and minerals. Said “vegetables” are actually part of the root systems of native trees – to find them, one stamps a digging stick on the ground around an appropriate tree. A dull, short sound means that tubers are there, and on our excursion, we were able to find a number of large, moisture-filled //ekwa. To eat them, we simply peeled off the bark and cut the flesh into pieces – our mouths quickly filled with the surprising flavour of snow peas. It was fascinating to learn later on that the trees from which //ekwa originate (Grewia bicolor) are also the ones used to make digging sticks, arrows and ropes, as well as provide berries seasonally. A true all-purpose tree!!
Later, we watched the Hadza light a fire by moving a long, thin stick quickly downward on another piece of wood. This creates a spark, and in a short time, there were tubers roasting over a large fire. Per Hadza culture, the tubers were shared equally between everyone. We also gathered honey, a staple for the Hadzabe. The Hadza cut open a tree which had a small hive of stingless bees inside. The larger hives with stinging bees produce a much larger amount of honey, but were not ready to harvest at the time. A few tiring (for us) hours of gathering later, we headed back to our campsite for a highly anticipated lunch.
After a relaxing afternoon, mostly spent keeping out of the blazing Tanzanian sun, we met in the early evening meeting with the Hadza men. We split into small groups and had an opportunity to make traditional Hadza arrows. As a hunting-oriented culture, these arrows are necessary for the Hadza to collect their food, and they have perfected the making of such weapons. Before being carved into an arrow, the sticks are placed over the fire so that they can be stripped of their bark. Next, the ends of the arrows are carved to create room for both an aerodynamic feather at one end, and an arrowhead at the other. These arrows vary in intensity depending on their intended target. For example smaller, rounder arrows are meant for birds, whereas larger, poison-filled arrows are kept for bigger animals such as giraffes.
Early the next morning, we had an opportunity to see these tools in action. Our hunting groups set out into the bush around 6:30 am. Each group was comprised of roughly 3 students and a Hadza guide. Walking into the wilderness, however, it is easy to see how the Hadza’s lifestyle is being threatened by external factors. As we travelled with our Hadza guide we not only saw giraffe and cheetah tracks, but also domesticated cow tracks. These tracks are left behind by pastoralists who once lived elsewhere in the Great Rift Valley, but have recently been pushed closer and closer to Hadza land. Since gaining independence, Tanzania’s population has grown from 10 million inhabitants to over 40 million. This rapid increase has reduced the amount of available land and caused pastoralist and agriculturalist groups to previously untouched areas.
Dorobo Safaris has worked hard to combat the rapid land loss that the Hadza face. Through the Dorobo Fund, which is supported both by individual donors and a portion of Dorobo’s profits, land certificates are being purchased on behalf of the Hadza. This provides the Hadzabe with a proof of ownership, and allows them to evict pastoralists or poachers who enter their property. Today the work of Dorobo has preserved an entire valley for the sole use of the Hadza.
During our hunting,we explored much of the Hadza’s pristine land. However, of the seven groups of hunters that trekked out on Wednesday, only one returned to camp with a kill. The successful group was led by a Hadza hunter named Moshi, which means smoke in Swahili. Roughly halfway into their journey, Moshi shot down a female Guinea Fowl. When he went to pick up the bird he realized that she had left behind 7 chicks. Each of the St. Lawrence students who accompanied Moshi was asked to place a few chicks in their pocket to bring them back to camp. At camp one of our Dorobo guides decided that he would take the chicks home with him and raise them to become adults. Throughout the day we played with the adorable chicks, until a few of the Hadza women saw the small birds and decided that they would be a great afternoon snack. Before we knew it, and despite some of our protests, the chicks were slaughtered and placed into the fire for the Hadza to enjoy. While at first this act seemed cruel to many of us, we soon recognized the viewpoint of the Hadza. As a nomadic group that is focused on an immediate return economy, the Hadza saw no reason to expend their energy in raising the chicks. When your society is constantly on the move with few personal possessions, it is difficult to justify the raising of a domesticated animal. For our group this experience of hunting was one of the most memorable, and a few students even decided to awake at 6:00 am the following morning to have another chance to hunt with Hadza.
Hadzabe culture, however, involves much more than finding food. In living with and learning from the Hadzabe, we were lucky enough to have two wazungu birthdays occur! Traditionally the Hadzabe do not (as best we could infer) celebrate birthdays on a yearly basis, simply because they do not have such a sense of time. When Maloba, for instance – a respected hunter and older member of the community – was asked his age, he responded, “Si jui” (I don’t know.”) Westerners, however, as I am sure readers can vouch for, hold birthdays in high esteem, and our guide extraordinaire, Mama Maggie, set up quite the celebration. Two cakes, a crate of bia (beer) and enough singing and dancing to overflow ones heart. Hadzabe dances, it seems, are communal in nature – none of the pairing-off that occurs at college parties. These ab-workout extravaganzas involve circles, conga-like lines, competitions and songs from all. As students and visitors, most of us stuck to the outside circle at first. With a little cajoling, however, soon we were making our way around the fire, chanting with every other step. A couple of us even had the opportunity to compete in what was undoubtedly the most hilarious and difficult dance in Tanzania – a type of frog-like, squatting movement around the fire.
The thing is, many stereotypes about hunter gatherers imply that such a culture just doesn’t have the time or energy for celebrations, dancing or fun in general. As someone interested in the efficacy and continuity of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, I have often been told that the reason Homo sapiens began utilizing agriculture was that the natural food supply was unreliable and ensuring a meal is hard work. The Hadzabe existence, however, disproves such ideas. During the week we were in Tanzania, singing, games, laughter and an all-around feeling of happiness was abound. For people like Moshi, Maria, Esther and Chaqua, songs can be heard while harvesting //ekwa, ‘Last Cardi’ is played while the moon rises, and celebrations take place with every large kill. Hunting and gathering takes, at most, half a day. The rest of the time, people are free to do whatever they like, whether that be beading jewelry (another important aspect of Hadza identity), putting together arrows, or sharpening their unique skills (we met a musical genius who constructs two-string violins out of gourds).
In all, we are not trying to romanticize the Hadzabe culture, and perhaps the idea of regular celebrations does that. The reality is, however, that the Hadzabe are well able to both provide for themselves all their basic needs and more. They have no history of starvation, they work less than any agriculturalists I’ve ever met, and their fun encompasses everyone. When you live in a society where food is readily available, sharing is obligatory and egalitarianism is inherent, why not have a little fun?
Our last full day with the Hadza began at a leisurely pace, setting the tone for the day. With breakfast not being served until 9:00 a.m., we had time to sleep in a bit and get a cup of coffee (or three) in us before the day’s activities began. First on the agenda was climbing the Baobab tree that stood tall and wide in the center of our campsite. Its presence had been taunting us all week, just asking to be climbed, and finally the time had come. We watched from the ground as two Hadza men quickly worked their way up the trunk, pegging it as they went with wooden holds they had handmade earlier that morning. After testing the strength of each peg by climbing up and down the tree in what seemed like a matter of seconds, the Hadza deemed it safe for our clumsy attempts at ascent. Having been warned that using old pegs is considered bad luck, we were eager to discover just what baobab-climbing entailed.
One at a time we ventured up, making sure to keep the instructed three points of contact with the pegs at all times. Once making it to the top, we were able to release our sweaty palms from the holds, rest on a branch, and take it all in – the process, the climb, the view. It was nice knowing we were able to experience one more part of the Hadza lifestyle, gaining a stronger sense for what their day-to-day lives entail.
After a relaxing afternoon of reading and catching up on some much needed journaling, we split up into four discussion groups, each with about six of us students, five Hadza, and one Dorobo guide to serve as a translator. Each group focused on a different topic, ranging from education to tourism. It was during this time that we were able to have a dialogue in which we could hear directly from the Hadza about the issues they are facing that we had learned about prior to and during our trip. This was an invaluable experience because it informed our understanding of these issues in a way that never would have been attainable by simply reading or talking about them in a classroom. They explained the balance that needs to be found between educating their youth in a formal system and maintaining their culture and population in a traditional sense. This will allow them to strengthen their voice when it comes to tackling issues such as their land rights, which will ultimately allow them to strengthen their cultural community.
As the discussion groups came to a close, a few of us made our way over to the outdoor kitchen area where many of the Hadza had assembled. When we got closer, we saw that six of the Hadza men were playing some sort of card game in which they would throw (and I mean throw) down their cards and sporadically yell in excitement. Being lovers of a good card game ourselves, we asked to join, and sat down as they made room for us in their circle. We learned the game was called “Last Cardi” and thanks to their encouragement and patience, we were quickly able to pick up on the rules, realizing it resembled our game of Uno or Crazy Eights. Leading by example, they taught us the proper technique for playing each card, and some of the words for the suits (Diamonds = Kisu – the Kiswahili word for knife). As each turn passed, our smiles grew. The whole group laughed when someone had to “draw 4,” one of the Hadza men Shakwa kept sneaking a peak at our poorly hidden hands and would respond with a sly giggle when we caught him, and we celebrated like crazy when one of us finally won the game.
We had already begun reliving our many rounds of “Last Cardi” as we returned to our tents to wash for dinner. Something that we typically approached as a simple pastime had been made infinitely more fun because we were able to share that time with new people. We were able to connect, and joke, and enjoy each other’s company regardless of any cultural differences between us. The Hadza reminded us that despite coming from entirely distinct places, and practicing varying lifestyles, all it takes is a game of cards to find some common ground.
Our day ended on the rock that stood like a hill near our campsite. This was our place to retire to in the evenings after the fire by which we ate dinner had died down. Our nights here were some of my favorite times, not just because of the clear, star-filled sky that lay above us, but because it became our common ground. The rock was a place where we as students and the Hadza could physically come together. Despite our language and cultural barriers, we could find a way to communicate. Although we were only able to share our names, our likes and dislikes, there was such a vivid feeling of excitement when we had been working towards explaining something in our broken Swahili, and they finally understood us and were able to respond.
It was on this last night, after the Hadza returned to their fire, that we started to reflect on all that we had learned from our week. Going into this experience, the differences were expected. It can be anticipated that a hunter-gatherer community in Northern Tanzania goes about their everyday life differently than 22 college students from the North Country. During our days with the Hadza, they shared with us their value for self-sufficiency and independence, while also emphasizing the importance of remaining a close community dedicated to sharing and equality. We also experienced the purest embodiment of the phrase “live in the moment.” That saying has never made more sense then when going for a morning walk to find tubers to eat for that day’s lunch, or cooking eight Guinea Foul chicks because people are hungry for an afternoon snack, or playing an hour of cards because it’s still too hot to go hunting for dinner and some entertainment is desired. However, amongst these practical differences, we were able to connect with the Hadza on a human level. From that connection we gained an immense respect for how they live.