While in East Africa this past spring, I visited a unique tribe in Tanzania, the Hadza (or Hadzabe), well known to anthropologists and other social scientists. According to the National Geographic Society, the Hadza have been called “the cradle of mankind” as genetically they trace back to the first humans on earth. And now, they are among the last hunter-gatherers in the world. I was tagging along with a documentary film crew on this expedition. It took us about 10 hours driving from Arusha to the Hadza camp we were aiming for, a third of it driving off-roads. The first sign that we were finally approaching the “village” was seeing a few children running away from us.
The Hadza live in the Great Rift Valley, not far from the salty Lake Eyasi. Today, the Hadza number just under 1000. Though some have left to live near Mangola, the closest town to Hadzaland (and a few of them earn a little money by displaying their skills to tourists), there are still about 400 Hadza who subsist almost entirely in the traditional way: hunting animals, foraging for roots and fruit, harvesting honey. They own no land, do not grow crops, and have no domesticated animals such as cattle common among neighboring tribes. They set “camp” by building temporary huts in an area dominated by thorn bushes and acacia trees, and they move when the area does not provide them the food they need any longer. Our group set up our own “camp” for 5 days in a clearing near the huts that a group of Hadza was calling home.
Over the years, the Hadza have been under pressure from various governments to modernize their way of living, and have lost much of their land to other tribes who practice herding and agriculture or to safari hunters. Recently, however, with NGOs’ help, the Hadza have managed to acquire the land rights to a small portion of the land they used to call their own. This is a big victory for the tribe as it has allowed them to survive as true hunter-gatherers, something that most other hunter-gathering tribes like the Bushmen and the Pygmies have not been able to do. The challenges faced by the Hadza are beautifully captured in a fascinating 2015 documentary titled “The Hadza: The Last of the First.”
Close to 40 people were living in the village we were visiting, a relatively high number of Hadza to find in one place. The camp’s center point is a large beautiful baobab tree that has some land cleared in front of it and can provide a little shade during the day. As with other baobab trees, it is used to harvest honey or fruit, so the Hadza have inserted pointed sticks into the trunk to use as ladders. This tree is where the women and young children gather every day, and this is where I spent most of my time. Here the women nurse babies, crush seeds, cut tubers into pieces, or simply sit on the ground their legs extended in front of them, sometimes digging thorns out of one another with a knife’s tip. The women also thread beads to make jewelry, still an important part of their attire even though they mostly wear second-hand western clothes that they adapt to their needs. Children who are old enough participate in the chores, while the younger ones just play on the ground or climb on trees. When needed, the women go and fetch water, dig roots and tubers or pick up berries. Though their type of work reflects gender norms, men hunting and women gathering “women’s work” is seen as equally important, one of many things we can learn from the Hadza. The Hadza people are very egalitarian; they share everything. Childcare is also the responsibility of everyone. It is hard to know who is the mother of one particular baby. I saw one beautiful little girl carried by a different woman every day.
When old enough and not climbing a tree, children play a game with made-up balls that reminded me of petanque or bacce. They play this game multiple times a day, these balls being the only thing resembling a toy I saw while I was there.
The men and young boys adopted a nearby tree where they sit in the early morning around a fire. They stay there until they decide to go hunting or honey gathering. In the meantime, while smoking non-stop, they work on making arrows. Making a good arrow appears to be a task that requires considerable skill and time. They also make a potent poison with a local plant called the “desert rose,” which they used to kill the local wildlife.
At some point, Dofu, a man who appears to be in his mid-thirties (the Hadza do not keep track of time, so no one’s age is known with any certainty), decides that it is time to go hunting. Equipped with his bow and arrows, he leaves the camp walking thru the bushes at an impressive pace. While readying the bow for his shot, Dofu holds spare arrows between his legs; the Hadza do not seem to use a quiver. I try to follow along for a little while, but of course, I can’t keep up. (In my defense, I was wearing a compression boot as I had fractured a bone in my foot before the trip, but I doubt if I would have been able to keep up even with proper running shoes). A few hours later, I see Dofu walking toward the camp with a small hyrax (a small animal that looks a bit like a chubby rodent) attached to his belt. Within a matter of minutes, a fire was built at the camp, and everyone gathers around it. The small animal is very quickly cooked and shared among the tribe members. Every part of the animal is quickly and voraciously consumed, and everyone has a joyful time.
The next day, the Hadza enjoyed another of their favorite foods, the fruit that grows on the baobab tree. The baobab fruit, which I am told is amazingly nutritious, looks a bit like a coconut or a mango. It has a hard outer shell that one can break by stepping on it. Once opened, the pulp’s little bits can be eaten right away or crushed and made into a powder.
One day, the Hadza have other visitors. A few men from a neighboring tribe, the Datoga, come to the camp. The differences in their appearance are quite striking. Though the Hadza are friendly and peaceful, there has been tension between them and the animal-herding Datoga. The conflict arises because clearing the land for their goats and cattle destroys the berries and tubers that form a crucial part of the Hadza diet, and most importantly, the cattle also consume water, precious to everyone. This time the visit is short and civil. The Datoga sat with the men for a little while and then went on their way.
Spending a little time with the Hadza left me with much to ponder. One thing that stayed with me is how much they live in the present. If they need food, they find food in the forest, and they eat it. Nothing is kept, everything is shared, and nothing is wasted. The next time they are hungry (probably the next day), they repeat the same process. When they are fed, they sit around enjoying their bounty and their companionship. As I find myself constantly planning, thinking about what’s next for me, I feel I could benefit from being a little more “in” the moment, the Hadza way.
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P.S.S. Because you have read this very long post all the way to the end, you deserve a reward 🙂 Follows a few of my favorite portraits. And if you want, you can listen to the Hadza singing a song while dancing at night. I could not see them dancing as it was so dark out I could barely see my hands.