The Hadzabe Tribe are amongst the last hunter-gatherers on the planet. With less than 1,000 still alive today, the indigenous ethnic group lives around Lake Eyasi, the Rift Valley, and the Serengeti Plateau. Their way of life 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. This association is due to the similarity in a 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. After hours of driving through backbreaking dirt roads, we reached somewhere close to Chem Chem east of the Lake Eyasi. It was obvious that modernity had scarcely touched this part of the world. Barely clothed with short dik-dik hides or dusty pants. Sandals were made of old tires. The members of the tribe gathered around a weak fire, their bare-threaded t-shirts barely keeping them warm.
The habitations were basic. Branches put together, with no proper protection against any weather. During the dry season, the Hadzabe prefer to stay outside at night. But with the cool morning temperatures, the women sat around another fire, away from the men. The women’s tasks would be 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 the arrows, our guide explained the different sizes and usage. Poison coats a few arrow points 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. They did not seem to mind as they trailed further out.
Truth be told, previous hunting accidents, knives, and animals encounters caused these scars, not 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 witnessed 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, a more fruitful hunting ground. One hunter came back with 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. We had a hard time following the Hadzabe hunters around over the uneven rocky terrain. The patience and hunting skills of the hunters, however, paid off as they 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. However, 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. Soon, sparks and smoke appeared. In front of our own eyes, deep in the wild and remote part of Africa, we saw the production of fire as it must have happened since the dawn of age.
The fire soon grew while the hunters skinned and plugged their games before they spiked and grilled them. One of the 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 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 massive beehive. How the Hadzabe related to their environment is surprising. They 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 Hadzabe will either eat the honey, 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 but with weak results. Between the hunt and the foraging, the result was impressively little and 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 limited scale.
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. The resources, however, have diminished through to the development around them, and especially by the Datooga herders clearing the lands where Hadza traditional live. Dedicated lands have been granted to them by the Tanzanian government to preserve the traditional way of life. Today a portion of the village’s revenue comes from the sale of small colorful bead bracelets. 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.