An indigenous ethnic group settled around Lake Eyasi, in the Rift Valley, and in the Serengeti Plateau, the Hadzabe Tribe are amongst the last hunter-gatherers on the planet, with less than 1,000 still alive today. Their way of life has changed little in the past thousands of years. No possession, no livestock, no permanent settlement – they simply live off their daily hunt and foraging. The Hadzabe also called the Hadza, are usually associated with the Khoisan due to the similarity in language with the click sounds but the tribes are not related. According to genetic tests that would link the Hadzabe to the earliest human traces, maybe in the same family tree than the Pygmies.
We stepped away from the jeep on that early morning, somewhere close to Chem Chem east of the Lake Eyasi, after hours of driving through backbreaking dirt roads. It was obvious that modernity had scarcely touched this part of the world. Barely clothes with short dik-dik hides or dusty pants, sandals made of old tires, and bare-threaded t-shirts, the members of the tribe were warming themselves around a weak fire.
The habitations were simple covers made of branches put together, no proper protection against any type of weather. As we were in the middle of the dry season, the Hadzabe prefer to stay outside at night. But the mood was high. The women were gathered around another fire, separated from the men, and were ready to gather roots, baobab fruits, and berries. The men on their end were busy preparing their bows and arrows and other hunting gears, or smoking local herbs.
Showing us their arrows, our guide explained to us the different sizes and usage, with a few points coated with poison to put the bigger animals to sleep. Bruno tried to start a fire with the traditional stick and stone but to no avail. His best efforts brought giggles and wide smiles from the hunters who apparently enjoyed the attempt.
On the Hunting Trail with the Hadzabe
Armed with bows, arrows, knives, and machetes, the group of five or six teens and young adults from 10 to 20 years old, trotted away in a well-balanced cadence. We followed suit through the large spiked acacia bushes and thick shrubs. Signs of the strengths of these spikes were noticeable on the bare back and arms of the hunters, all with visible scars though they did not seem to mind as they trailed further out. Truth be told, previous hunting accidents, knives, and animals encounters were the reasons behind these scars, not all due to the scary thorns. On our end, we appreciated our long pants and sleeves to save us from similar scars.
We tried hard to keep up as there are no trails, no signs to navigate and relied on the Hadzabe to lead us back. We reached an overlook by the river, where a couple of rare trees and baobabs stood above the shrubs. The hunters lifted their bows and had a shot at two small birds, the size of doves, perched high on the branches. But the chance was on the bird side. Arrows flew high and landed hard.
As they picked their arrows, the hunters carried on their search, running over the edge of the cliff. Not far below stood the river, where another group of women in colorful grabs washed clothes and filled containers with water. From the hunters and the group of women, we were the ecstatic witnesses of the traditional way of rural Africa – a scene probably untouched over hundreds of thousands of years.
Suddenly the hunters got excited and ran faster toward a corner of the cliff. With the dry season, animals tend to gather close to the water and the area proved to be a more fruitful hunting ground. As we made our way to reaching them, one hunter came back with what appeared to be a small golden mongoose on his arrow. The poor beast was hardly the size of half-a-arm and still squeamish. But how could we be sensitive and mindful of the little beast when five hungry men were about to share its small carcass.
But this was still a pitiful hunt and the hunters were definitely interested in more game. The day started to warm up and we had a hard time to follow the Hadzabe hunters around over the uneven rocky terrain. The patience and hunting skills of the hunters, however, paid off and we saw them successfully arrowed down two small birds.
And There Was Fire
We figured they would take these back to the village to share with the other members, but the hunters regrouped and grabbed high yellow grass by the handful. Putting the straws together, they began to scrape a small stick over a tiny blackened stone and soon, sparks and smoke originated from the exercise. In front of our own eyes, deep in the wild and remote part of Africa, the production of fire as it must have happened in the dawn of age.
The fire soon grew while the hunters skinned and plugged their games before they spiked and grilled them. One of he birds was kept aside, probably for later consumption or to share with the community. The meager meal of two red-faced mousebirds and a mongoose made the delights of the Hadza hunters though clearly they could have appreciated more of the same.
Mid afternoon came too fast and it was time to head back to the village. No longer trotting along, the hunters seem to be on a different mission, and we soon understood why. They were on the lookout for honey and honey did they find in the shape of a huge beehive. How the Hadzabe related to their environment came through as we learned that the Hadza work together with an African bird nicknamed the “honey guide”. Both the Hadza hunter and the honey guide bird communicate together through whistles until the bird guides the hunter to the tree hive. While the benefits for the hunter are clear, it is remarkable to note that the bird waits for the wax and the bees as its reward. The hunters managed to remove the upset bees by smoking them out, and left with the sweet prize. The honey would be either consumed by the tribe as it is the main part of their diet or exchange for other goods with other tribes. In any case, a valuable find that made the day hunt successful.
Ancestral Traditions in Danger
As we returned to the village, the Hadzabe women had gathered several fruits and berries for the day but their results were also the weak side. Between the hunt and the foraging, the result of the day was impressively little and certainly not enough to sustain the tribe. However, it is said Hadzabe do not encounter famine, being able to find substance regularly, even if on the scarce scale, as they spent half their days searching for food. The Hadzabe tribes move their camps to follow the game, and even more so when hunting big animals which body they can’t budge. Given their limited possession – a pot, a blanket or two – the camp can migrate quickly to accommodate the hunting needs.
By nature, Hadzabe hunter-gathers go at their tasks daily but the resources have diminished through to the development around them, and especially by the Datooga herders that clear the lands where Hadza traditional live. Dedicated lands have been granted to them by the Tanzanian government in an effort to preserve the traditional way of life. Today a portion of the village’s revenue come from the sale of small colorful bead bracelets, which we purchased as a reminder of our experience and to provide financial support.
That day was a unique view into traditional tribal life in Africa, in memorial way of life that only a few still sustain today. We were honored to have been the witness of these ancestral customs.