It’s not just us – assuming that we are part of ‘us,’ a dubious proposition at best. The ‘us,’ or maybe the ‘them’ I’m referring to are the white Europeans who, as part of their legacy, trashed several continents ecologically and impoverished or enslaved whole populations. There’s a reason why the American bison almost became extinct. You can decide for yourself whether you consider yourself or your ancestors as part of the problem – or not.
Either way, it’s not just ‘whitey’ who is responsible for this human depopulation. The Tanzanian government, taking its cue from the Europeans, is doing a first-rate job of keeping the various antelope species safe and sound, but as far as the humans wandering around, that’s what this article is all about.
In addition to eyeballing every species of mammal or bird known to exist in these parts, we were given an opportunity to visit groups from some of the local tribes, one of which is almost extinct, another will probably not survive, and the third will probably hang around in some form or another for the foreseeable future.
The original plan had been for us to join a pre-dawn ‘hunt’ with members of the Hadzabe tribe, but I’m assuming that wiser heads prevailed, and we arrived at the Lake Eyasi Cultural Tourism Information Reception Office at a more ‘civilized’ hour.
We picked up a local guide and continued a way into the woods to meet what I would guess was an extended family, twenty or thirty in total. Our group rushed out of our Land Cruisers, cameras and smartphones in hand, and made a beeline to a group of men, seated under a big tree, and farther off, a group of women and children under a smaller tree, all of whom were aware that a bunch of strangers would be descending upon them. In their haste and enthusiasm, my colleagues forgot that none of the languages we would speak were intelligible to a Hadzabe. I’m not sure how much communication took place, but the locals knew the drill (i.e., what was expected of them) and, after all, we had a guide with us.
There may be a million or so zebras in this part of the world, but there are only about a thousand or fifteen hundred members of this tribe left in a small region, little more than a hop, skip, and a jump from the Olduvai Gorge. There aren’t that many tribes that fit the description hunter-gathers left in the world. But these are them – sort of. ‘Real’ hunter-gatherers don’t have bracelets and trinkets available for tourists. ‘Real’ hunter-gatherers don’t take the pieces of paper they are given in exchange for their trinkets and barter them with other tribes for things that they can use. ‘Real’ hunter-gatherers don’t put on a show for tourists. But we’ll let that pass. The Hadzabe are doing their best under the circumstances, given the fact that the territory where they can function keeps getting smaller and more restricted by the Tanzanian government – no small matter if what you do for a living is hunt and gather. Progress, you know.
So they did for us what they know how: one fellow played a stringed instrument; a number of the men danced in a circle; we got a talk from the tribal elder about the different arrow heads that are used for hunting different animals;
we were invited to try our luck using their bows. But the main event was the ‘hunt.’ Two young men set out, armed with bows and arrows, in search of prey, and we, all of us, followed along, being as quiet as we could be. Since my object, as always, was to get the best possible photograph, I stayed as close as I could to one of the hunters.
We did not go that far, although it seemed like we did. I was keeping up with him for quite a while – until I wasn’t. He must have been a good fifty years my junior and was used to this pace. I’m good at sprinting to catch a bus, but there comes a point… The local guide was with me, and he didn’t notice that I stopped dead in my tracks.
When I’m with a group of people on a tiyul, I’m invariably lagging behind the rest, taking a photograph or two. I pride myself on never losing track of the others or getting lost. That’s because I have some idea of where I am; the landmarks are distinctive and make sense to me. Here I was surrounded by trees, which kind of look alike. Normally, even if I didn’t see the group, I would hear them. But everyone was being as quiet as could be; after all, they were on a hunt. Nor had I been paying particular attention to when and where the hunter was zigging and zagging. I certainly hadn’t thought to leave a trail of breadcrumbs or some such. Even if I wanted to find my way back to where we started out, I couldn’t have retraced my steps more than ten feet without being hopelessly confused. It goes without saying that in this rather remote area, there was no cell phone reception.
Was I lost? I was certainly misplaced. There was no reason to go into panic mode. I knew that the group was ahead of me and would have to come back, more or less, to where I was. Plus, there was no way they were going to get back in the Land Cruisers and take off without me; of that I had full confidence. Just drink some water and relax. Except that the water bottle that was supposed to be in my backpack was probably somewhere in the Land Cruiser. A lot of good that did me! Just look around and enjoy the scenery. That I could do. Yigal had taken pains to describe the intricate nests that birds in the region construct to prevent invaders from attacking their eggs and chicks. Look! There’s a nest right over my head. What a beauty.
Sure enough, I soon heard voices calling my name. I’m right here. After some calling back-and-forth, I was reunited with the gang. The local guide was distressed that he had lost sight of me, but it certainly wasn’t his fault that I stopped without saying a word. The rest of the trip, if I was out of sight for more than ten seconds, the cry went up, Efo (where’s) Fred? How mortifying is that?
Some of you might be wondering, who are these people we just visited? What do we know about them? The answer is, not a lot. Unlike the Datooga people (one of whose tribes we also visited), whose Nilotic language enables us to decode their origins, migrations, and relation to other peoples in the region, the Hadzabi speak a language that is dissimilar to any other language anywhere (what is called in the jargon an ‘isolate’), which means that they seem unrelated to any other known tribe or ethnic group living anywhere in the world. Their oral traditions make no reference to having come from anywhere else. They seem to have been living where they are now since the ‘dawn of time,’ undisturbed until they were ‘discovered.’
How much longer will these people be around, all thousand or fifteen hundred of them? How much longer before they are banished from the face of the earth? Not their oral traditions; those have been recorded. Not their oral language, that has been compiled. At some point, some enterprising researcher will obtain DNA samples – if that hasn’t been done already. I mean them as human beings.
Let’s put it this way: there are over 1100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (which include a number in Tanzania). ‘Sites,’ as in buildings, monuments, archaeological and historical sites, plus national parks and nature preserves in every part of the world. Over a thousand places that, as much as humanly possible, will be kept the way they are. The Acropolis won’t be turned into a mosque. The Serengeti won’t become a parking lot. Yosemite won’t become a Trump resort. Machu Pichu won’t become landfill.
So why not UNESCO World Heritage People? Why not declare the remaining hunter-gatherer tribes as endangered – as they obviously are – and make a concerted effort to keep them from becoming extinct? Protect their habitat with as much vigor as we would that of the snail darter? Perhaps a letter to a local newspaper; maybe that would help.
Will this be the last post in this series? No siree Bob. In between cleaning the nooks and crannies in our apartment and compulsively taking my temperature, I will press on. Never fear.