Saturday, February 21, 2009


I’m trying hard to preserve any hints of cultural shock. Those are the instances that stick with you – feeling absolutely uncomfortable, misaligned with another way of living and left to question which way, if either, is right. After living with a hunter-gatherer tribe for a week, I’m fairly convinced their way is right. Which is a hard notion to advocate for, and something I’m sure not many people could understand. And this is why I’m looking to remember any cultural shock in order to better understand an outsider perspective of this lifestyle, because after so many anthropology classes, digging for roots and eating fruits all day seemed perfectly normal.

The tribe we stayed with are called the Hadzabe. They occupy the Yaeda Valley, an area cut out along the Great Rift Valley adjacent to the Serengeti. We visited with a Safari company called Dorobo, the Maasai word for people without cattle, the name they applied to hunter-gatherer tribes they first encountered when moving into Tanzania so many hundreds of years ago. I was initially and still am extremely skeptical of how authentic of an experience one can have with a hunter-gatherer tribe in a trip led by a safari outfitter. I have things to say in their defense and things I don’t think they can defend against. The company is led by a trio of brothers born in Tanzania to Lutheran missionary parents. They’ve lived most of their lives in Tanzania, speak fluent Swahili, and thus do at least have an emic understanding of their country. A large portion of the profits of guiding tours into Hadzabe land goes to the Hadzabe community, who can choose to use the money in whichever way they deem best for the tribe. Most goes to funds for securing the land, which in the past century has been depleted nearly 90%, either by encroaching pastoralist tribes or government acquisition.

In direct conversation with the Hadzabe, at least individual members of the tribe do not view this tourism as a bad thing. One man who I grew close with throughout the week emphasized that it doesn’t change the culture, and that it brings the necessary cash to the community to help preserve their way of life. The dilemma is this: the Hadzabe need money to secure their land, but the influx of this cash comes through a clash of cultures. To say that white tourism doesn’t change the community is completely false. The group is growing accustomed to driving in trucks and putting up tents. Even cultural diffusion is taking place, with a spokesman for the group specifically telling us that they’ve learned many things from us Wazungu, most notably that women and men can fulfill the same roles within the society.

I think Dorobo does have the Hadza’s best interests in mind. That being said, I think it’s difficult to say how sustainable a thing these trips are. Perhaps the hunter-gathering lifestyle really can’t exist at all in a modern agricultural world, and this tourism is doing its best to slow but not preserve such an old and tested way of life. It’s something that I’m still wrestling with in my head, and really don’t think I can come to a conclusion unless I learn much more about both the tribe and the company.

This overview is brief, and the issue is further complicated by the fact that other safari outfitters are bringing Wazungu into Hadza land and fully exploiting the tribe. Add on to this the fact that the government sees the group as backwards and an embarrassment to Tanzania as a whole, and the future for the Hadza looks bleak. To elaborate further on these issues would be to delve too far into an academic subject, and I don’t think it’s something that you or I are very interested in at the moment. I can at least describe the trip is greater detail.

The first day began with a grueling 7-hour bus ride from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania. There we ate lunch, met up with Dorobo, and moved all our gear to two German military trucks from WWII, which though not the fastest mode of transportation, do have the ability to carry several tons up insane rocky inclines. Plus, the backs of them are fully open and provide a far more entertaining mode of travel than a stuffy coach.

Our first campsite was at the base of an enormous waterfall right along the edge of the Rift Valley. Most of us spent several hours just climbing up and down the rocks, and I even managed to swim without (I think) getting any infections or parasites. Really though, it was one of the prettier campsites I’ve ever stayed at. The waterfall contained so many layers to it, and the base of it ran into an old flood plain so that water ran into beach ran into thick forest we put up our tents. I wish only that the Internet were better here so that I could post pictures.

The next day consisted of what will probably be the most memorable drive of my entire life. After a beautiful two-hour hike up the edge of the Rift Valley, we got back in the trucks and proceeded to cross the hills that divide the Yaeda valley from the rest of the world. Imagine sharp, grassy drop offs as far as the eye can see. The sun hits some parts and reflects off of others, so that the result is a meshing checkerboard both of illuminated landscape and farms of maize, beans, vegetables and bananas. Throughout the two hours we traveled adjacent to rural homes without electricity or running water, in a landscape that back home would attract the wealthiest of homebuyers. It’s the type of thing that’s hard to describe even with it so vividly engrained in your head – a landscape so beautiful that the only thing you can say to each other is “Oh my God” and continue to gaze in wonder. We lunched at a beautiful lake nestled at the foot of one of the taller hills. There were men fishing on it and I was able to buy an absurdly large catfish (five pounds, at least) for the equivalent of about $4. We continued on until finally reaching out campsite where we get our first glimpse of the Hadza.

Which really wasn’t all that shocking or monumental as you’d imagine. Really, it’s a group of men and women who happen to get food in a different way than you do. Culturally, of course, there are big differences. But no more than you’d find between America and Saudi Arabia or France and China. Granted, this is a lifestyle I’ve studied for three years now, but the more time I spend here the more I’m able to understand that people are people are people.

I spent the first night with a few friends learning how to play one of their instruments called the zezi, a bit like a two stringed violin made out of wood, gourds, and steel strings. Imagine a very folky fiddle that wouldn’t sound out of place in an obscure pop bluegrass indie band and you have it. Zakio, the resident musician, could even play Frere Jacques, which we learned in Swahili and taught him to sing in French and English.

The next day was meant to give us a glimpse of the foraging aspect of Hadza culture, typically the domain of the women. We split of into groups and spent about an hour digging for roots and tubers. These are one of their staple foods, and are able to found even in intense drought. Between the tubers and the fruit of the Baobab trees, the Hadza literally never go hungry. Raw, the roots taste a bit like bean sprouts. Cooked, the way they are normally consumed, they taste a bit like hot bean sprouts. We also were able to sample during this time honey from a nearby Baobab. The men called a bird called the honey guide, which typically resides near where honey is located in a tree. The men can pick out the hives even when buried deep inside the branches and cut out the combs with axes. It’s all eaten whole – honey, wax, and sometimes even the bees if they’re stingless (they are apparently over 60 types of bees in the area.) I kid you not it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

That afternoon was spent making arrows. The hadza use a specific tree from which they cut down branches, skin them, and then heat over a fire and bend to near perfect straightness with their teeth. Given a nail and a hammer they can beat out several different kinds of arrows suited for specific animals. The arrows meant for bigger game (giraffes, elephants, rhinos) are fitted with a poison made from a local tree.

For sunrise, several friends and I decided to climb a rocky hill near our camp. Reaching halfway up was a really incredible view. We talked about sleeping there for the night until we realized we could climb even higher. We stumbled upon to false summits until we finally were able to climb a tree to get to a huge rock perched directly on the summit. It was really amazingly fun, swinging from branch to branch until you finally get one foot upon the rock and have to use your body weight to swing forward so as not to crash down. Then you take several steps toward the top and turn around. And then you see just where you are.

Standing on top of that rock felt like being in a movie or a new world all together. Imagine Little Foot and friends when they find the valley at the end of Land Before Time after trudging through a desolate landscape for so long. I have climbed a fair amount of mountains in my time, and seen my fair share of fantastic views. This outweighed every single one. As far as the eye can see was green, the valley stretching out for miles forwards and backwards and the mountains rising up on the left and right like spines. Dense trees in front of us gave way to green open plains in the background, where sunshine like god’s fingers was shining down through deep purple clouds. It sounds almost like hyperbole to go on, but after several minutes on top a rainbow appeared in front of us out of nowhere. It hadn’t even rained. So there we sat on a rich red rock, rainbow in front, dramatic sunshine in back, mountains on the side, and all around us the home of a people practicing a dying way of life, a landscape that looked lush to our eye but showed the promise of abundant food to them, and nowhere in sight was there a building, or road, or any man-made structure visible to the eye. I doubt I am soon to find any place to rival such a sight.

The following day we spent hiking to the other side of the valley to our next camp, along the way learning about different plants and animal tracks. Baobab fruits litter the ground there, and you just have to jump on one of their hard shells to have nearly a full meal at your fingertips. There, in the middle of the bush, was probably the farthest I’d ever been from civilization in my life. The nearest town with a hospital was an 8 hour drive away, and just to reach to access roads that we came in on was a several hour walk. We climbed up to our next camp on the ridge around 3:00, where you could see a large lake to the West and the boundary of hills that divide the valley from the Serengeti behind it.

The following day was hunting day. We left in small groups early in the morning with a pair of Hadza hunters. I was lucky enough to be paired with Moshi, according to many, one of the most skilled hunters in the group, and undeniably by all, the biggest pothead I’ve ever met. I’ve neglected to mention that the Hadza have a substantial trading business with neighboring areas in which they collect honey in return for tobacco and marijuana. Moshi seemed to have picked up the habit even more than the rest of the group, and from daybreak to dusk, if he had it, he was smoking it. Needless to say, he was hilarious. I couldn’t believe how much we saw in so little time. A parade of baboons, gazelle like animals called dikdiks, impala, and a slew of catchable birds. Unfortunately we were separated from Moshi after he went off after a group of impala, and so returned to camp empty handed around lunchtime only to find he’d snared a dikdik on the way home.

Another group had encountered a black mamba. Only the most dangerous snake in the world, with the ability to raise 2/3 of its body off the ground. At 8 feet long, the thing can look you in the eye and then go straight for your jugular. The hadza killed it with an arrow, chopped off its head, and brought it back to camp. Another group bagged a bird called a golden crested franklin. And somehow, when we showed up back to camp, the cook had bought a goat from a local pastoralist wandering through the area.

I ate part of every single one of the above listed animals. We watched as the goat was killed and dissected for food. They offered up part of the kidneys raw from the animal. They really didn’t taste too bad. The hadza consider its coagulated blood (collected from its neck as its throat is slit) mixed with fat from the intestines a delicacy. I tried it, and to be honest, that really wasn’t that bad either. Thank you dad, for making me try all foods when I was little, though I’m not sure that the roasted coagulated blood and fat of a recently slaughtered goat would typically apply. The black mamba we ate with butter and garlic, and the dikdik had meat in between goat and beef.

So that was our classroom for a week – rocky ledges overlooking the sunset on the Yaeda valley and the sweet grassy shade of Baobab trees. There is much more to discuss, particularly for the anthropologically inclined, but for now I’ll leave it to the sappy interesting stuff.

The next three weeks the group will be staying with urban families throughout Nairobi. If possible, I can upload pictures from there. I’m not going to bother to proofread this, and so I apologize for grammatical errors.

If anything important happens in America, can you please update me? I honestly have no idea about anything occurring back home.

No comments:

Post a Comment