We were up well before dawn, leaving our tents with lanterns in the pitch-dark early morning.
Here in the Lake Eyasi region of Tanzania, our tented lodge camp was an hour’s drive down a dirt road, from the nearest town or major paved road. And this morning, we were going even farther afield — to meet up with a local tribesman guide, who was going to take us to meet the Hadzabe.
The Hadzabe are an ancient tribe, with ways little changed from 10,000 years ago. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving camp every two to six weeks to follow the herds of animals which they hunt. They grow no food, raise no livestock, keep no land, buy no supplies, and live as far removed from the modern world as it’s just about possible to do today. They interact very little with others, only trading with the Datoga and Iraq, two other tribes in this region of East Africa.
They are some of the very last of any bush tribes left in Africa.
As we leave the camp in the rugged Land Rover with our driver and nature guide, Sam, we stop to pick up our tribesman guide — Qwarda, who is a member of the neighboring Datoga. We turned off the “main” dirt road onto a smaller one, which headed off among small villages and soon left all sign of civilization. We were in the bush, crossing dry riverbeds and passing the landmark, huge boabab trees that dot this landscape.
As the sun broke across the sky, we arrived at the place where Qwarda said a family of Hadzabe had last camped, and he left us to go talk to them and make sure it was still all right for him to bring us (apparently he had previously gained their permission as well). Ten minutes later he was back, beckoning us, and as we followed we stepped into a scene straight out of the Stone Age. I have been in some pretty remote villages and fairly primitive huts and living environments, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. Human existence at its most elemental, and perhaps noblest, form.
A group of males squatted on the rocks closest to us; the younger ones stoking a small fire while the elders carved wood arrows. Qwarda explained that this was how the day began — warming themselves with fire and preparing for the morning hunt, which would commence shortly. There were three elders who appeared over age 50, three young men probably in their twenties, and an adolescent boy of around 12.
Nearby, about 20 feet away, the women and children were grouped. “They stay separated during the day,” Qwarda explained, pointing out the nearby thatched huts that were the sleeping quarters. Four women, with four young children, squatted around their own fire, cooking and eating some sort of meat. From the impala head that was still wedged in the small tree next to them, I assumed it was impala meat from the last kill.
Bones of small animals littered the ground, and it was then that I noticed the huge boabab tree, around which the Hadzabe always make their camp. The tree had skulls attached to its trunk; Qwarda said that the Hadzabe always left the skulls of the game they killed and ate. These skulls were all those of baboons; soon, the impala skull would join them.
The Hadzabe men called to Qwarda, in their unique language that consists not only of words, but also of clicks. They are one of the few peoples in the world with a clicking language. Qwarda turned to us and said the hunt was beginning, and we were welcome to accompany them. Before Keith and I could barely say yes and wander over, the Hadzabe had sprinted off, and we were racing to keep up with them as they sprinted across the wilderness that they knew so well.
Spotting more impala tracks, the men followed that for a while, stopping to shoot at birds in bushes. The youngest member was the only one to make a successful shot, killing a bird. I asked Qwarda how old the boy was. After thinking about it for a minute and trading some words with the boy, he turned to me.
“They don’t really know,” Qwarda explained. “They do not keep track of birthdays or years. The only time they mark is the time of the rainy season.”
After the hunters lost the impala tracks, they turned their attention to the trees, exploring for those which would have wild honey. They examined branches for telltale signs, and began chopping at tree trunks and limbs. As soon as the honeycombs were revealed, the Hadzabe stuck their hands in and scooped up the honey greedily. They did this with three different trees; after finally getting their fill, they hollowed out a few gourds to scoop more honey into, and take back to camp.
Soon the Hadzabe indicated to Qwarda that it was time to head back to camp. They typically hunt in the morning from around 7-10 am, then again in the late afternoon from about 5-7. During this time the women are cooking, caring for the children, or gathering berries, roots and also honey.
After returning to camp and sitting with the women and children a bit longer, as well as watching the men demonstrate their bow and arrow target shooting skills, it was time to say goodbye. An incredible morning had passed, more interesting than most I had ever spent, in a way of life that has long ceased to exist for most of human civilization. But here, at the start of the Great Rift Valley which is known as the Cradle of Human Birth, is a people and existence from which we all sprung.
The Hadzabe way of life is also in danger of ceasing to exist. They are increasingly encroached upon by the outside world, the land from which they subsist taken over for agriculture and development by the thousands of acres each year. There are only an estimated 700 Hadzabe left in Africa, and those numbers have decreased from around 1,200 a mere five years ago.
It is a people, and a way of life, which sadly seems about to disappear.
What do the Hadzabe know about living, that the rest of us have forgotten?
Special thanks to African Scenic Safaris for setting up our visit and guides. All photos and video copyrighted by Shelley Seale.