Tanzania: The arrow-makers and the bushmen’s baboon breakfast!

So, where was I? Ah yes. We’d finished our game drives and had one more day with Damian. Our final destination on the tour was the Lake Eyasi area (a water-less lake I should point out). Wending our way into a village, we passed women washing colourful clothes in bowls, a picturesque church, kids playing with their friends, a few men sitting on the steps of a surprisingly pristine white-washed mosque.

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Signs here and there announced activities and exploits for the empowerment of women, some of whom ran the tiny campsite we were to stay at.

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Once they’d erected our tent under the shade of a large tree, we received a visitor: Glory. Too small to step over the doorway, she plunged in, head first and enjoyed wandering around over our sleeping mats.

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Our first tribal experience was a brief visit to a Datoga tribe. The family’s buildings, constructed from mud and wood, were situated inside a fence made from closely planted sticks.

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We were warmly welcomed with big smiles and handshakes then led inside the largest building by some of the women.

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Gourds used for carrying water and milk hung from the roof and the women showed us their ornately beaded leather skirts. Through a low doorway we glimpsed cooking pots and an area for a fire.

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In the main room, they demonstrated how to grind maize into flour before encouraging me to have a go. Much to their amusement, Dean then tried his hand at it. We discovered afterwards that it’s unheard of for a Datoga man to participate in such women’s work!

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Leaving the hut, we were led to another open area where we met some of the family’s young men, engaged in their traditional industry of metalwork. They were seated on the ground around a pile of charcoal and one was shaping a piece of metal into a bracelet. Nearby was a display of their handiwork: arrowheads for their community and jewellery for tourists!

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Some of the women quickly attached several bracelets onto our wrists so of course we felt we should buy one. I opted for one in a coppery colour which turned my arm green within the first 15 minutes!

Interested in how they were made, we asked for a demonstration. Metal bits and pieces, collected from cars and other machinery, are broken down and then placed into a small ladle-like device. It’s then buried beneath the charcoal in the fire for a few minutes whilst the bellows are pumped to encourage the flames.

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Once the metal has melted, any ash is blown off and the liquid is poured into a straight mould. Later it’s shaped, decorated and ready to be worn.

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We left the village with lots more handshaking and utterances of whatever their tribal language’s word for ‘thank you’ was.

A little while later we collected a man named Julius, an ex-village officer and member of the Datoga tribe, who took us to a high point on his land to show us a view of the dry lake at sunset. It wasn’t particularly impressive but it was nice to talk to him about the village, its inhabitants and their social projects. We said goodbye and arranged to meet him at 6:00 the next morning.

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Morning came… just… and bleary-eyed we climbed into the Land Cruiser along with Damian and Julius. A twenty minute journey over dusty terrain you wouldn’t really call a road brought us to a rocky outcrop rising out of the bush. Damian stayed in the vehicle whilst we headed off into the settlement with Julius as our guide and translator.

Our morning was to be spent with the Hadzabe (or Hadza) tribe, also referred to as the Bushmen. I’d anticipated being able to choose fruit picking with the women rather than hunting with the men but it turned out that was not an option! First we passed a tree on which hung a range of arrows and some small antelope skulls of some kind. We also saw the root used for making poison. More on that later.

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We thought it a bit strange when Julius started to whistle long high-pitched notes but things became clearer when we heard the similar response. Very shortly afterwards, we were greeted – quite reservedly – by the women of the tribe and I couldn’t help but think I wouldn’t really appreciate random strangers turning up at my house at such an early hour!

Here men and women remain segregated for most of the day so next we were led slightly uphill to an over-hanging rock to find the hunters. Under it sat five men around a fire, dressed in worn out shorts paired with animal skins – mainly baboon and dik-dik. They didn’t get up from their rock perches but instead raised their hands to shake ours. They too were looking bleary-eyed but it emerged that this was probably more attributable to their daily marijuana breakfast than the earliness of our visit.

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Julius began by narrating the fire-making process before the men invited Dean to have a go so that they could re-light their pipe. Downward pressure is applied to a hardwood stick whilst it’s rotated rapidly upon a piece of softwood.

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He wasn’t too impressed at having a baboon skin hat plonked on his head!

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Julius then told us about bows and arrows. The bows, decorated with tufts of fur, are wooden with string made of some kind of animal leg sinew or plant. All the arrow shafts are made of wood but then there are three kinds of tip. One is metal and is covered in poison made from plant extracts. When dry, the poison is harmless, but once it comes into contact with its target’s bloodstream, it is activated. These arrows are used on larger animals who then take some time to die and are consequently re-traced by the hunters on the next hunt. These animals must then be cooked in order to make them safe to eat. The second type of arrows are metal with no poison, for smaller animals and the third kind are made of wood, sometimes with pieces of corn on the cob on the end which somehow helps with catching birds! On the ends of each arrow are feathers from birds such as guinea fowl and eagle.

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Hadzabe men do the hunting, usually in pairs. Today was no different. Two men, carrying their bows and arrows, suddenly appeared and then just as suddenly disappeared down a path between some of the rocks. It turned out we were meant to be following them so we scrambled off in the same direction. Sensibly they established quite a quick pace, leaving us and our stumbling noises a distance behind as they strode out separately, eyes and ears keenly alert. We kept at least one in our sights at all times except for a moment when I got well and truly trapped by the thorniest shrub ever: approximately 30 embedded in my trousers and another ten in my skin! Answers to Julius’ whistle got us back on track though.

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After about half an hour and a few almosts, one of the Hadzabe men crouched, aimed, shot and killed a small bird which he showed us then stowed away in a pouch in the folds of his clothing.

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On we went for perhaps another half hour, winding around acacia bushes over dried up waterways and under baobab trees until a dog appeared ahead of us. He was closely followed by another member of the tribe who looked about 17. It soon became clear that in his right hand he held an adolescent baboon by the tail! On seeing us, he switched the animal into his left hand and shook my hand with his right. Of course I squirmed internally but was comforted by the thought of my alcohol gel waiting back in the vehicle!

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It turned out that the baboon – a favourite meat due to its saltiness – had been the victim of an arrow during the previous evening’s hunt. The teenager and his dog had followed the baboon’s tracks to locate and retrieve it for the tribe. Traditionally the hunters are entitled to the innards so before we really knew what was happening, it became apparent that it was breakfast time!

Leaves were gathered. Fire was started.

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The rigid, open-eyed and open-mouthed baboon was unceremoniously dumped on the flames in order to clean it and rid it of tics. It soon blackened and, after a couple of minutes, was removed.  As politely as possible, I had to look away from time to time as the skin of the back and the tail were removed for a hat; the legs were snapped off for cooking; one leg was skinned for a knife handle cover; the innards were thrown on the fire; the stomach and intestines were thrown to the dog. Waste not, want not!

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We watched as the three hungry hunters noisily devoured the meat straight from the fire, sucking out the bone marrow before throwing the bones to the dog too. The sounds, sights and smells of this morning will stay with me for a long time yet I’m sure!

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Awkwardly stuck between not wanting to invade their mealtime yet also wary of behaving like spectators, I took the opportunity to ask Julius some more questions about the Hadzabe people. He told me some of the following but I’ve also researched further since returning home.

They’re a nomadic group who number about 1000 and have always lived mainly in Northern Tanzania. Asking Julius my plethora of questions and reading up on them on Wikipedia was interesting: Hadzabe are not genetically related to any other group of people; approximately 300-400 of them remain true hunter gatherers like their ancestors; and they speak a click language which is not linked to any other. Despite many attempts over the centuries to turn them into farmers or school-goers or Christians, and a lot of encroachment on their hunting grounds from neighbouring tribes and herders, the Hadzabe have retained most of their ancestral customs, beliefs and ways of life.

Hadzabe live monogamously in groups of 20-30, sharing responsibility for children. Life-expectancies are poor and there are many deaths from malaria and measles, particularly in children. Bush medicine is relied upon with occasional use of Western medicine as a last resort. They live in simple rounded huts made of leaves and sticks with animal skin mats and very few other possessions which makes it easy to move camps between dry and wet seasons.

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They hunt morning and evening and will eat more or less any animal apart from hyenas and jackals (presumably because they’re scavengers), and will even relocate their camps to large kills like giraffes. They also forage berries, tubers, baobab fruit and honey (with the use of honey-guide birds!). Hunted animals also enable the Hadzabe to trade with other tribes since they don’t generally have money: an impala leg could be exchanged for maize or marijuana or five arrow heads. They’re exempt from taxes and seem to be able to hunt in areas where it is generally prohibited.

Anyway, breakfast was finished. One of the hunters heaped sand upon the fire to kill it then the youngest picked up the charred baboon by the head and we walked back to camp, witnessing the killing of two more birds on the way.

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Following them, the smell of burnt hair wafted straight towards us which I did not enjoy!

Back in the camp, we caught the tail end of a dance. It was amazing to see how the dulled senses of the men were temporarily lifted as they processed, clapped, chanted and smiled. The power of music transcends!

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Many more women and children had gathered in the time we’d been out with the hunters, and they were swathed in bright, bold print fabrics making jewellery from beads and porcupine spines.

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Whilst I browsed some of their creations, Dean received a quick lesson in bush archery!

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Sadly, all too soon it was time to leave and to embark upon our journey to the airport for the final stint of our trip: Zanzibar.

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