Study Abroad Swahili
By: Steve Grove (justin) 2013.10.04
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The Study abroad Swahili was part of the reasons coming to Africa. And as the sun sits high in the sky as Sitotee saunters over to my hut,
his bow and arrows in hand. "Let's go," he says in Swahili and immediately
my heart jumps. I have been waiting for this moment ever since I arrived
here five days ago, in the Lake Eyasi Basin of northern Tanzania. When
I came to live with the Wahadza, one of the last hunter/gatherer societies
in the world, as a part of an independent study project through the
School for International Training (SIT), I expected their life to be
a day-to-day struggle, always on the run in search for food. But so
far, we have yet to hunt. Today is different. They have run out of meat.
It's time to find more.
I scurry into my grass hut to get ready. The women helped me build
the dwelling a few days ago, and it's become "my spot" in the small
village. It is constructed out of branches from a mkokoma tree and some
dried grass gathered a few miles from the village. Like any bona fide
Wahadza dwelling, it is domed in shape -- like half of an egg -- and
about the size of a Geo Metro. Perfect for keeping a few personal items,
and sleeping in during rainy season, and not much else. The Wahadza
prefer to sleep outside on grass mats they weave from palm branches.
That is if weather permits, and it usually does. I pick up a few essentials;
a water bottle, some iodine pills, my Swiss Army knife, and the bow
and arrows that Sitotee and his son Kampoony helped me make no, basically
made for me a few days ago.
Sitotee and Kampoony lead us north down a boulder-strewn path, sidelined
by thorny acacia and large baobob trees. With the sun directly above,
most of the path is not shaded. Before long, I am sucking from my one-liter
water bottle like a little baby. My Wahadza friends seem perfectly fine
as they make a quick left, off the path and into the dense, thorny,
I try to follow their lead, but my tall, lanky frame doesn't fit into
all of the gaps that their small, sinewy bodies dart through. This spells
serious pain since every African plant is required by law to have at
least some kind of thorn on it. I often get my hair caught up in a dangling
thorny branch, and we have to stop while I foolishly untangle myself.
After the forth or fifth time this happens, my mood changes from embarrassed
to frustrated. I realize that if someone was looking for us, they wouldn't
even need to look at our tracks, they could just follow the trail of
blond hair knotted around low-lying thorny branches every thirty meters.
Despite my frustration, Sitotee is a sport about it. I look ahead at
the man who has become my best friend and guide since I arrived in the
village. In his right hand he holds his bow and arrows, both made by
hand out of wood from a mkokoma tree, and various other wild resources:
guinea fowl feathers, giraffe tendons, animal fat and, most importantly
some simu, or poison, that the Wahadza have used for over a thousand
years. The poison is placed on the metal end of the arrow. When the
arrow hits the animal, the tip stays in and the shaft falls to the ground.
This way, the animal can't smell the human scent on the shaft and therefore
won't keep running forever, thinking its predator is in close pursuit.
Sitotee's bow and arrows are amazingly accurate, and very deadly. He
never leaves home without them. They are his cell phone and briefcase,
his wallet and keys.
Soon we reach the top of a valley, cross it, and then sit down under
a giant baobob to have a smoke. The thick-trunked, scraggly behemoth
of a tree towers above us, three specks on the globe in the middle of
the African bush. We are just south of the Ngorongoro crater, one of
the wildlife hotspots of the world. Thousands of tourists go there every
year to gawk at zebra, giraffe, and antelope. The same animals we are
trying to hunt. The village is actually inside the Ngorongoro protected
area, but the government allows the Wahadza to hunt there, with certain
restrictions. I can't imagine where else the Wahadza would hunt, as
most of the land they've traditionally occupied has been put under till
by agricultural tribes, scaring away the wildlife and leaving many Wahadza
villages dependent on government hand-outs or other means of acquiring
As Sitotee and Kampoonie finish their smoke, I squint at the brown
rolling hill ahead, and see nothing. They do the same, and see five
zebra. I'm flabbergasted. Their vision is impeccable; and effortlessly
so. I guess when your next meal depends on it, your eyesight gets good
pretty quick. Sitotee explains that Kampoonie and I will wait here under
the tree while he sneaks closer for a shot.
He creeps closer to the zebra, skirting from bush to bush, and I soon
lose sight of him. I keep my eyes fixed on the zebra as best I can,
although their stripes are perfect camouflage against the dense scrubland
background. We don't see him for a good twenty or thirty minutes, until
suddenly the five zebra become fifteen, sprinting across the hill and
out of sight. Soon after, Sitotee's small black body appears in the
distance. He stops and whistles, signaling for us to come to where he
When we arrive, he is holding a cracked arrow stem and wearing a huge
smile, his white teeth bursting from his face in pride. It's a mini-celebration
as he recounts the event, stepping out how close he was from the zebra
when he shot it - about thirty yards. Pulling back an imaginary bow,
he acts out his heroic shot.
I'm so excited that I want to go find our prey right away. But Sitotee
reminds me that the poison takes a few hours to kill the animal; we
will have to wait until morning to track it down.
Sitotee awakes me the next morning before sunrise, as he leads a group
of ten other men from the village to find the now-dead zebra. If I was
amazed at Stitotee's hunting skill from yesterday, I'm blown away by
my Wahadza friends' ability to track the trail of the wounded zebra.
Tiny specks of blood, no bigger than two pinheads, are easy for them
to find. Rocks, bushes, dirt; no matter where the drops are, they see
them. I can easily identify a zebra track when it is pointed out to
me, but am hard-pressed to find any tracks myself, let alone tiny drops
I try to make the surreal seem real, telling myself that the WaHadza's
knowledge of tracking in the bush is analogous to a citizen of New York
City, who has lived there his entire life and can show you every street,
alley, and sidewalk crack in the neighborhood. But the analogy just
doesn't seem to do justice to the sharp eyes of my Wahadza friends.
As we head north, we pass a Mangati village. The Mangati are a pastoralist/agricultural
people who live near the Wahadza. Although only the WaHadza are allowed
to hunt here, the Mangati have copied their neighbors and often hunt
also, keeping out of sight of local government authorities. Which isn't
too hard when you're a two days drive from the nearest sizable city.
We press on. The blood spots become bigger pools as we find evidence
that the beast stopped to rest on the way towards its demise. Soon,
after only forty five minutes of searching, I hear some shouting up
ahead. I look up to see one of the boys chasing a hyena away from a
large, partially-eaten zebra carcass on the ground.
We butcher the zebra on-sight, and surprisingly the process much resembles
the way my dad and I butcher venison after hunting trips in Northern
Minnesota back home. Except we don't eat the tongue. As I watch the
WaHadza devour almost every part of the animal, I'm embarrassed for
all the leftovers I've ever thrown away. They eat the brain, the face
meat, the testicles. One of the men cooks up the stomach, and then turns
it inside-out to eat. It looks to me like a piece of carpet, and I figure
it tastes about as good. But my Wahadza friends enjoy it. They even
crack the bones open and suck the marrow out.
I try some of the tongue and find it to be a bit rough, but otherwise
not too bad. The ribs taste much better; sort of like beef, but sweeter.
I have not eaten meat in awhile, and am convinced that zebra ribs are
the most delicious thing I have sunk my teeth into.
Sitting here in the bush with ten hunter/gatherers, it's easy to wax
romantic about the seemingly pure way of life that the WaHadza live.
They live off of wild resources. They don't make waste that is harmful
to the environment. They take what they need and leave the rest.
The women and children do the gathering, and the men and older boys
do the hunting. It is as simple as that. Everyone does their part to
get food for the village. And it doesn't take an all-consuming effort.
A few hours each day are devoted to finding food, and the rest is used
to do odd jobs around the village, or enjoy the company of each another.
Not the cut throat existence I had imagined.
When we are stuffed, we pack up the rest to take home to the village.
The men chop large branches from a nearby tree, and we string cuts of
meat to the ends so we can balance the food on our shoulders. Some of
the younger kids cut holes in slabs of meat, sticking their head through
so that they can carry the meat home in what I like to call "meat shirts."
Still wide-eyed and now full-bellied, I grab a hind leg and sling it
over my shoulder, following the men back to the village.
Despite the success of this hunt, the Wahadza by no means live entirely
off of meat. In fact, most of their food comes in the form of berries
picked from trees and tubers, underground edible roots that the women
dig up and cook over the fire. They also steal honey from beehives atop
giant baobob trees, and trade meat for potatoes with agricultural tribes.
But although the Wahadza enjoy their lifestyle, it is becoming less
and less stable. They need land in order to hunt, and lots of it. Unfortunately
land is something that is in short supply these days in an ever-growing
East Africa. As agriculture expands, the land that was once teeming
with resources for the Wahadza to hunt and gather is diminishing rapidly.
More often they are relying on help from the government. And they are
learning how to farm like their neighbors.
Some might call it changing with the times, but after one thousand
years of living relatively undisturbed, I'm not so sure it isn't the
dying of a culture. Soon, hunts like the one I went on may be fewer
and farther between as the Wahadza try to adapt to new ways of finding
food in a world that may be no longer able to support the hunter/gatherer