As a child, I favored field trips to lesson plans. As a high school graduate, instead of heading off to a dorm room, I put it all in a bag and moved to a city where I could explore anonymously. I worked hard through my twenties as a digital nomad and beyond that function, traveled every moment that I could — to foreign countries, across state lines — even traveling down the street became in some way an adventure. I had been to a lot of places and had seen and done a lot of things. Few experiences, though, could prepare me to meet the Hadzabe’e (casually, the ‘Hadza‘) bushmen of East Africa.
Though I would never admit this to anyone, then or after until now; I was slightly terrified. Terrified — but why? The Hadza are people living in a community just like I am a person living in a community. They like the outdoors and I like the outdoors. In most ways, we share all of the commonalities of humanity, but with a few notable differences — for example, they eat raw baboon for breakfast and seek the blood of a kill for lunch. I like peanut butter and honey sandwiches.
You have probably heard of the Maasai tribe from the same part of East Africa, who wear purple and red dress and are bejeweled with wooden and bone lip-discs and heavy plugs in their ears. They are expert marketers in their own right and have learned how to modernize life to some extent in the bush, increasing their tribes financial wealth. You have probably not heard of the Hadza. There are less than 1,000 or so Hadza remaining and they are among the most primitive people on Earth —one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer tribes. Their native language is unlike any other, most closely related to Pygmy dialects, using clicking sounds. The motion of cheek sucking and lip puckering and tongue clicking has left far-reaching lines from the curls of their lips to their ears and temples leaving dimples as deep and long as an adult pinky finger. They live in the low-lying mountains that surround Lake Eyasi, but they might as well be from Saturn — as that’s where I felt like I was — in an alternate universe.
To find them, we ventured off road with a Maasai — so far off road that we were completely lost. A young boy ran out from the trees, and as soon as we realized that we were about to hit him, he hopped into the back of the ATV like an acrobat and guided us to the camp (for a small fee.) Aside from the directions that he was giving (clicking) to the guide and the sound of the transmission trudging its way through the mud, it was silent. We were sniffing each other out — the Americans, the Maasai guide and the young Hadza boy. In this jeep, faraway in the African bush, we were the aliens. Nobody blinked.
The Jeep arrived to the camp and there were about 30 people sitting in a group around a day-fire. Their backs were mostly turned and they swiveled to look, quite slowly and clearly unimpressed, they turned back around and resumed sharpening wooden arrows with carved wooden sticks. Any body-language expert might say that this was a bad sign. But we were not going to a housewarming party, after all, and eventually we began to feel welcome — particularly so after purchasing the entire stock of jewelry made by the women; the earnings to be traded in the village by the men for marijuana to smoke. They taught us the art of primitive archery, the method of turning plants and bush berries into poison for arrowheads. We captured their photographs and showed them the results on the display screen of our cameras — cameras that to them surely looked as we did, completely bizarre. It was obvious that some of the young children had probably not seen their own faces more than a few times in their lives.
To say that the Maasai people who live nearby in mud and reed huts with no electricity and very few possessions are sophisticates seems far-fetched. But in comparison of the Hadza warriors, it is not an overstatement. The Hadza have no possessions. They survive on the kills that they make and what they take from the land. They stay within their community their entire lives and as such, the size of it continues to diminish; as does their language. And they are not a warm people by nature. Our guide explained to us earlier that when a tribe-member is killed, they are left behind to be forgotten about and eaten by beasts. “The circle of life,” he said. “They are not evil or lacking empathy,” he explained. “Empathy is just not a common emotion in the bush.”
There is a third tribe in the area: the Totoga. Unlike the Maasai or the Hadza, they live entirely off of the Earth, never trading goods or allowing outsiders in for a visit. There really isn’t a stationary place to welcome people to, anyway. They sleep in the hollowed out stumps of giant trees, migrating from one area to the next when the rain doesn’t come and when food becomes scarce; or when the rain does come and floods out their homes inside the trees. They form no bonds with neighboring tribes and forge no bonds within their own; they eat one another when the rains don’t come. They are cannibals. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the African bush — kill or be killed.
These are the three major tribes in the region: the advanced, colorful Maasai; the hunter-gatherer Hadza bushmen; and the Totoga, also known as the “tree people,” who the Massai call “barbarians.” Respectively, this is the hierarchy, you can see, ordered by modernization. I was lucky to meet and interact with the Maasai and the Hadza, an experience organized carefully and researched long and hard to create. As for meeting the Totoga, I am down for any adventure… I’ll probably first need a few more experiences under my belt.