Hunting with the waHadzabe: the experiential Tanzania

Hunting with the waHadzabe: the experiential Tanzania

Posted on July 01, 2016

 Jacqui Goodwin


It was never on my bucket list to accompany an aboriginal hunt, or in fact, a hunt of any kind; nor had I ever considered that my companions might actually catch and kill something. So it was with some anxiety that I set off, Active Africa traveller in tow, through the sparse bush, following a group of young waHadzabe men with bows and arrows and a team of skinny dogs as they went in search of food for their small community.

waHadzabe cultural touring

We were on an active safari in Tanzania, having just done the usual suspects of the northern circuit. The trip ended with a cultural visit to Lake Eyasi, a soda lake that makes the surrounding land inhospitable to wildlife and the predominant tourism activities are cultural visits to local communities such as the farming Datoga and the hunter-gatherer waHadzabe bushmen.

waHadzabe bushman, Tanzania

We arrived at the Hadza encampment before sunrise and were surprised to find that there were no shelters nearby. Literally ‘bush’men, the group of about ten men and four or five women and children slept in clearings amongst the low bushes. They were awake and sitting around a few small fires when we arrived. The men and boys were smoking marijuana and preparing their bows and arrows around the larger fire and the women and smaller children were huddled around a smaller fire a few paces away. They hardly glanced at us as we walked through the thicket with our guide. I became aware of the chill of the morning as we passed a group of small children huddled together, their chests rattling as they coughed through the smoke from the fire. No one acknowledged us as we waited in the dark while our guide chatted with the hunters. We decided to wander a little further into the bush, looking for signs of a camp.

Suddenly, the guide shouted. The hunt had started. We ran back the clearing where he was waving wildly for us to follow. The dogs were yipping and howling, young boys shouted objections as they were told to remain at the camp and the rest of the group disappeared into the darkness. We followed, a little startled at the suddenness of the departure. The ground rose immediately and the hunters disappeared up the slope. Our guide urged us to hurry and broke into a canter, but it was soon clear that we would not keep up with them. After a few shouts he slowed to a brisk walk, staying in touch with the hunters using clear, melodic whistles.

We had only gone a few hundred yards before we lost sight or sound of them, but within seconds we heard the whistled calls that our guide echoed in response.  We followed the excited yipping of the dogs into the bush and emerged in a clearing to find three hunters aiming their arrows high into the trees. A sudden shout and everyone ran deep into the bush…… moments later, one of the hunters emerged with a squirrel on the end of his arrow. He smiled briefly, tucked the animal into his belt, turned and ran off into the bush. We took off after him.

A little way further I saw a bright little woodpecker on a branch ahead of us. As I was pointing it out to my traveller, it suddenly dropped out of the tree and the same hunter ran up to it, picked up the blunt-ended arrow that had hit it, stuffed the bird into his belt with the squirrel and ran off, leaving us both speechless.

Hadza hunter with his catchFor another hour we followed the group through the naked Acacia, across dry river beds, into and out of dongas and over kopjes. Everything became quiet; the dogs stopped yipping and the shouts from ahead of us stopped. We came across a bush laden with deep red berries and the hunters were silently and quickly picking and eating as many berries as they could find. One of the younger men came over to me and dropped a few in my hand. He showed me how to separate the husky calyx from the fruit and I popped a few into my mouth. The berries had a pleasant sour flavour and I could understand the enthusiasm with which they were devouring the fruit. After a welcome 10 minute break, they stuffed handfuls into pouches around their waists and trotted off into the bush. We followed.  A little later, after much commotion a hunter emerged from the bush with a screaming young dik-dik that had been pierced through the middle by an arrow. My worst fear had been realised. This was exactly what I did not want to see. I must add that I am always conscious of the responsibility not to interfere and the need to respect cultures that may be different from my own, no matter how uncomfortable I may be. And with that in mind, I started to shout hysterically with my fingers in my ears and my eyes squeezed shut, “Kill it! Kill it!” Our guide, apparently as distressed as I, or possibly because of my reaction, quickly said something to the hunter and he disappeared back into the bush to dispatch the dik-dik, returning later with the animal hanging by its neck from his belt, next to the woodpecker and the squirrel. We followed in silence for the next hour.

After crossing a large, dry river bed we heard vervet monkeys in a large stand of trees ahead. My heart sank as the dogs became excited and the hunters shouted and broke into a sprint towards the trees. A 45-minute battle ensued with both hunters and dogs chasing monkeys, finally isolating one in a tree. How the arrow found its mark still eludes me, but the leader of the hunt emerged from the bush holding the monkey by an arm, proudly displaying his catch.

What followed still astounds and impresses me. The four young men collected branches, started a fire, butchered, cooked and ate the monkey within 30 minutes, while we stood and watched. As they started eating, the leader of the hunt walked over to us and offered us a piece of the liver, the prized organ meat that was reserved for him and the guests. My client politely declined and, once again aware of my responsibility and eager to make amends for my earlier performance, I took it and ate it. Barely warm, the meat was still raw and my ears started to throb and buzz. News of the Ebola epidemic had broken a week before and thoughts of primate-transmitted haemorrhagic diseases made my head swim.

waHadzabe hunters after the huntMercifully, the hunt was over and we started the trek back to the camp, arriving as the women and children were heading out to forage. The encounter ends with an opportunity to fire off a few arrows, clearly something that has been requested by tourists and travellers in the past. I think I would have preferred to have thanked and left, but I acknowledge the fascination that perhaps Western hunters and children would have with the bows and I gave it a try.

Before returning to the lodge, we stopped off at a Datoga village. Very little has been documented about the Datoga and they are vehemently antisocial. Traditionally warriors, they are now concerned with onion farming, but do share some traditions with the Maasai. Like the Hadza, the Datoga have resisted development and have been marginalised by the government.

While both were originally nomadic people, the Datoga and Hadza have formed semi-permanent communities in the Eyasi region and for all the usual political reasons, have had to resort to relying on tourism activities to sustain the communities. The short-term benefits are being realised, with cash income a new and exciting feature of exposure to outsiders. However, the communities are not able, or perhaps they are unwilling to curb the long-term impact of cultural tourism on their language, culture and traditions.

I will leave the discussion of responsible cultural tourism for another time; there is no doubt that life is changing for the people of this region, whether they try to resist it or not. Although at times it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic, I feel extremely privileged to have encountered these communities and to have caught a brief glimpse into their lives. The learning, much of it unintended, was far greater than I could have anticipated. It highlighted once again, the powerful educator that travel can be and the value of stepping out of the comfort of the ordinary.

Cultural visits to the Hadza and other communities can be included in a trip to Northern Tanzania. The lodge accommodation is comfortably basic by comparison with the premium lodges in the parks and the surroundings can be extremely dry and windy in the dry season. Ask us to include this experience in your Tanzania safari.

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