Lake Eyasi: Learning to hunt with an ancient tribe

The Hadzabe of northern Tanzania have sustained an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle for at least 10,000 years.
By Gaia Vince May 20, 2010 Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page

LAKE EYASI, NORTHERN TANZANIA: The Hadzabe people have nothing; no animals, no land, just the clothes on their backs. And, crucially, the skills and resourcefulness to produce everything they need from their environment. 

We travel 4 hours west from the city of Arusha to the 1000 sq. km Lake Eyasi in northern Tanzania to meet this ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers. There are now less than 400 Hadzabe left.

We find them sitting in gender-segregated groups, with the men playing small lute-like stringed instruments and applying a poisonous tree resin to their metal arrow-heads. They light a small fire by rapidly twisting a hardwood twig into a softwood stick from the local commiphora tree. It soon smoulders and, intrigued, I have a go too. It’s surprisingly difficult, but with their help, I get it to smoke eventually.

THE HADZABE BUSHMEN LIVE in groups of about 15 people and speak a unique language of clicks that is very different from other click languages elsewhere in Africa. The tribe is believed to have been living in this remote area for at least 10,000 years, but their ancestral range has been shrinking as their land is swallowed up by farmers, government-designated conservation areas and private game reserves. Indigenous rights organisations are legally challenging the government to provide a hunting area for the Hadzabe, but so far nothing has been done.

Hadzabe tribe (Photo: Gaia Vince)

The Hadzabe tribe is resourceful enough to live completely off their land in northern Tanzania (Photo: Nick Pattinson)

Most groups are highly secretive and flee approach because they fear it means people are trying to capture them and move them on, as has happened so often in the past. But a relationship has developed between a couple of Hadzabe groups and a local Eyasi Datoga village, and Edward, a local Datogan, introduces us to one of these groups and acts as translator.

More than half of Hadzabe children die before the age of five, usually from malaria, but also from other treatable diseases. A large proportion of women die giving birth, too, either hemorrhaging or succumbing to any of the other dangers out here, including sleeping sickness transmitted by tsetse flies. Edward’s village is trying to get Hadzabe women to hospital during labour, and children to schools, but it’s a struggle. Among the many problems is the fact that the tribal people are culturally scared of buildings – “Being under a roof is thought to be fatal and so children only stay in school a month or so, and women are scared of giving birth in a hospital and refuse to come,” Edward explains. The Hadzabe live in simple twig and skin shelters, under a tree canopy or in caves.

THE FIVE MEN AND BOYS of the group stand as one and begin to walk off, carrying bows and arrows. One of the men, with a head decoration made from baboon fur, is clearly the leader. He carries the longest, most decorated bow, the string of which is made from giraffe tendons. We follow the group, trotting and sometimes running to keep up as they search the tree foliage and bushes for animal prey. A bushbaby (galago — a small nocturnal primate) is spotted and there is excitement as the men take aim and fire arrows into the branches. I hold my breath. I’m not sure I want to eat anything with ‘baby’ in its name.

To my secret relief, the galago gets away and we move on. The thorny bushes grab at us as we hurry past, snagging our clothes and ensnaring our hair. The Hadzabe are all barefoot. We pass trees and shrubs that provide supplementary food here, including sour, juicy tamarind berries and plants whose roots can be crushed for juice or eaten for medicine and vitamins. Honey is gathered from the baobab trees. The tribe has a largely vegetarian diet, eating mainly honey and fruit which is predominantly gathered by women. But meat is currently plentiful here, now that the rains have arrived. The tribe mostly eats small creatures like birds and rodents, but a baboon is a good grab. Sometimes, a buffalo “strays from the reserve”, we are told, which makes a delicious and longer-lasting feast.

Ahead, the men have spotted something in the trees. They surround it with their bows taught, arrows poised. This time they are successful. One of the boys climbs a tree to retrieve the arrow and a small bird speared halfway down it, its wings still fluttering pitifully. One of the men pulls the bird off the arrow, sticks its tiny head in his mouth and bites its neck to sever its spine. Then the kill is stuffed into his belt and we continue onwards.

An hour or so later, two birds and a squirrel have been added to the belt and we make our way back to the camp, where the creatures are cooked on a fire and the meal shared by all. The women join us but eat separately, several metres away. After the meal we leave the group as we found them, sitting on the ground, peacefully strumming their instruments.

Gaia Vince is an Australian journalist who is travelling around the world reporting on the effects of climate change and sending regular dispatches to Australian Geographic. She writes for the BBC, New Scientist and The Guardian. Find her blog at wanderinggaia.com.

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