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, bush.
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 food.
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 stands.
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 of blood.
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 lifestyle.