A Morning of Hunting with the Tanzanian Hadzabe Tribe
It’s 05:30 in the morning and we are standing in front of our “hotel” in Mang’ola-Ghorofani waiting for the guide. It’s quite cold, so we are wearing three layers of clothes, and our headlamps are turned on because it feels like it’s midnight. There is no electricity in the village, so there are no street lamps or any other kind of artificial light illuminating the streets and houses. The sky is pitch-black because the moon and the milky way have already set below the horizon. Looking east I notice a very faint shimmer of light, which tells me that it’s at least an hour before sunrise.
Suddenly two bright lights appear in the distance. They are moving towards us and a moment later we hear the noise of motorcycle engines. It’s our guide and an additional driver who will take us to the Hadzabe tribe (also called Hadza) to spend half a day with them and to experience their way of life.
We hop on the backs of the motorbikes and we drive off at a brisk pace, way too fast for the uneven and unpaved paths we move on. We change direction several times, cross a wide but dry river bed and have to get off and walk several times otherwise the motorcycles would sink in the sandy ground. After about forty minutes we stop and the guide and the second driver turn off the engines. It’s still basically night, but I can make out the outlines of bushes, acacia trees and large baobabs.
The guide tells us we will soon make contact. After listening intensely for a minute he whistles softly and says a few words. Someone whistles back from the bushes. We then follow a narrow foot path and after a few turns we hear voices and see the light of a small fire. Five Hadzabe men are sitting around it and warming themselves.
We greet them and they greet us back warmly. I look at them and I cannot believe my eyes — these are real bushmen!! They are half naked, half covered in animal skins. A few of them have decorated their foreheads and necks with colorful beads and one guy (who seems to be the chief) is wearing a rather cool-looking cape made out of baboon skin.
Our guide explains to us that the Hadzabe are one of a handful of tribes still living according to their age-old traditions: during the day the men go out hunting while the women and children gather berries, wild potatoes and seeds. About 5-6 families form a nomadic tribe which moves to a new location every two months or so. Apparently during the rain season there is an abundance of animals and food while during the dry season life is more difficult.
We join the men around the fire and watch them prepare their bows and arrows for the morning hunt. One guy is examining his arrows, holding them for a few seconds over the fire then biting them firmly and twisting slightly. I guess he is straightening them.
I am then handed a bow and a set of arrows to look at. The bow is wooden, about one and a half meters tall and is decorated with beads, pieces of fur and skin. The arrows are about 70 cm long and each has a different tip. Some tips are made out of metal others out of wood. One arrow I find particularly interesting because it’s not pointed. Its tip is heavy, thick and round. Our guide explains that it’s for shooting birds and it’s made this way so it doesn’t ruin the meat by going through it. Another arrow has a black metal tip and the guide says I shouldn’t touch it because it’s covered with strong poison. Apparently it’s for larger animals like kudu and impala which would otherwise not be stopped by a single arrow. Katja asks where the Hadzabe take the gift from and guide says it’s plant-based and paralyzes a large animal within 15 minutes.
He then tells us about the language of the Hadzabe. It uses consonants, vowels and clicking sounds, and it’s completely different from Swahili. But he says that the Hadzabe used to live close to his village when he was a small boy and this way he learned their language and slowly gained their trust. And it was obvious to us that the Handzabe have accepted him as one of them.
Next we go to greet the women and children. They also sit around a fire, but a few meters away and separated by some bushes. The younger women are sitting on the ground, the older ones on thin animal skins. Smoking tobacco seems to be their morning occupation.
We’d only spent a few moments there when one of the Hadzabe men called out that the hunt is starting.
Katja and I were invited to join two men and about a dozen dogs. What followed were two and a half hours of walking, running, crawling through bushes and looking in the shrubs for birds, monkeys and larger animals.
The hunters carry only their bow and a set of arrows, and each time they shoot an arrow, they look precisely where it lands. Arrows are very valuable, so the hunters collect them after shooting and it’s a big disappointment if an arrow gets lost. A few times during the hunt the two men spent at least 5 minutes crawling in the thickest shrubs, looking for their arrows.
The hunt was mildly successful. After two and a half hours the two Hadzabe had only hit two small birds, but it was getting hot rapidly, so around 09:30 they stopped in the shadow of a larger bush and gathered some dry grass and the dried droppings of an animal. One of them made a small pile which he then covered with thin dry twigs while the other used his knife to make a small hole in a wooden stick and to sharpen the tip of a second one. With everything prepared, one of the hunters laid his knife on the ground then held the stick with the hole firmly. The other one placed the stick with the pointed tip in the hole and between his palms, then started rubbing them quickly back and forth.
Through the rotation the sticks quickly heated up and smoke appeared in the air. After about 3-4 minutes a tiny pile of glowing wood shavings was collected on the knife’s blade, which one of the men quickly dropped in the middle the pile of grass and sticks.
After a few minutes of blowing air into the smoking pile the first flames appeared. The procedure is utterly impossible for a modern person, but in the hands of the Hadzabe it looked quite simple and took no longer than 5 minutes.
Now the two men started plucking the feathers from their two birds, which seemed to take only a few seconds. Then the birds were put on the fire and quickly roasted. The men ate the meat and the dogs got the heads and the insides.
After this quick meal, we headed back to the camp.
There we learned that two days ago the men had killed an impala, so the tribe had plenty of food. The remaining antelope meat was hung out for drying while the chief was busy spreading out and drying the skin of the antelope.
Before going back to the civilization Katja and I practiced a bit with the bows and enjoyed some Hadzabe folk songs.
The tour was an amazing experience, one which we’ll cherish for a long time. It let us experience first-hand the life of earlier hunters and gatherers, and even though our morning with the Hadzabe was more romantic than anything else, it was clear to us that the life of these people is hard and devoid of any modern luxury. Here in the bush there is no electricity, no radio, no music (other than self-made) and there are no doctors. Many babies die from malaria before reaching their first birthday.
But the Hadzabe are not totally isolated. From time to time they see tourists as part of these guided tours and they also trade with other tribes. They exchange animal meat for metal arrow heads, medicine, shoes and knives.
Do you want to do this tour yourself?
What I described above was an organized tour (part of Tanzania’s cultural tourism program), and even though Katja and always I prefer to find our own way, here we had to ask for outside help. There are no road signs in Mang’ola and except for a handful of guides no one here speaks a word of English. So after several failed attempts to find the way to the Hadzabe tribe on our own we called the phone number listed in our guide book.
The tour guide appeared 30 minutes later and explained to us that we’ll have to pay 90 USD (for being in Mang’ola, for the cultural program and for his fee) plus 40000 TZS for the two motor bikes. Katja and I are normally very suspicious of such tourist programs since more often than not they are just a big joke and you don’t see anything authentic, but in this case we are happy to report that we had a great experience.
If you want to repeat this tour be prepared for two very rough and dusty days. The start is in Karatu, a small town located about 120 km northwest of Arusha. Make sure that all your electronic devices are fully charged, then take one of the two hopelessly packed Land Rovers to Mang’ola (5000 TZS for 50 km of dusty unpaved road, the cars leave between 1 and 2 pm from the bus station). Spend the night in the guest house in Mang’ola (6000 TZS) or the one in Ghorofani (10000 TZS) and pray that they have some rice and beans for dinner (2000 TZS).
Call the Lake Eyasi Cultural Tourism Program (+255 782 175 099) and arrange for the guide to pick you up no later than 6 am on the next morning. After the Hadzabe hunters you can also visit the Datoga blacksmiths before catching the Land Rover at 1 or 2 pm back to Karatu.
In Karatu look for the very clean, but also very simple Paris Guest House (8000 TZS).
If you want to bring a present to the Hadzabe, they mostly need arrow heads, tobacco, shoes and baby clothing.
PS: 5000 TZS = 3 USD = 2,22 EUR.