Hunting for Dinner in Tanzania
From the January/February 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
As Njegela-Saitoti raised the bow over his head and pulled the arrow back, I was shocked by my atypically bloodthirsty thought: Kill the monkey. And when that arrow and a slew of others missed their moving mark in the canopy above, I was just as surprised by how my reaction differed from that of the chief elder and his companions.
My husband and I had brought our sons, ages 13 and 11, to northern Tanzania to spend a day with the Hadza as part of our year traveling and homeschooling.
The Hadza, whose homeland includes the Great Rift Valley, are one of the last functioning hunter-gatherer tribes in the world. They sleep in twig huts and eat only food they find or kill. They do not raise animals or grow crops, preferring to roam free to follow the chow. Because the land they’ve long ranged over is being lost to encroachment by the modern world, fewer than a thousand Hadza still adhere to the traditional lifestyle today.
Our day started at 6 a.m., when our guide brought us to a clearing in the bush near shallow Lake Eyasi, where marabou storks pace the shoreline like professors deep in thought. This was the camp of one Hadza clan—the elder, Njegela-Saitoti; his teenage son; two other men; and two women. The shirtless men were smoking the tobacco-like leaves from a khaki bush—a ritual to bring hunting luck—and making arrows out of twigs from a sandpaper tree. They whittled one end to a point and tied bird feathers to the other with the tendons of the kudu antelope. A secret ingredient—a gummy black poison made from the desert rose plant—was added to a few arrowheads for extra potency.
With the early sun casting here-to-infinity shadows, the slim, muscular men trotted into the thicket of palm and acacia trees while we trailed behind like groupies. Suddenly, someone whooped. As the men took off, I hurdled fallen palm logs and dodged thorny branches to keep up with them, and my sprinting, grinning boys.
The vervet monkey that had earlier dodged their arrows was now chattering at the hunters. As the morning wore on, I grew more frustrated with each errant arrow and worried—Italian mother that I am—whether the group would eat that day. In contrast, the men laughed at the oh-so-close misses. They certainly didn’t act as if their next meal depended on success, even though it did.
My family speculated on why they remained so unfazed by their poor luck. “They’re just having a good time hunting together,” my oldest son suggested. My husband figured they understood the win-some-lose-some nature of the pursuit. I chalked it up to either a khaki-leaf high or to an enviable acceptance of their limits of control—something many of us spend years with therapists and yogis trying to develop. Even more than the natural history, anthropology, and zoology we were studying, this example of living in the present—and not getting hung up on outcomes—seemed to be the most important lesson we could take from Africa.
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Eventually, having lost all their arrows, the men headed home. On the way, they met a farmer from the neighboring Datoga tribe who had found three of their arrows from an earlier outing. Rearmed, they returned to the hunt and soon after bagged a squirrel, which they roasted on the spot. My husband, deemed the guest of honor, was offered the head, and our boys joined him in sampling the cheek meat and brains. After finishing off even the tiny bones, the Hadza seemed as content as a post-turkey Thanksgiving crowd.
I realized how much I take my easy access to nourishment for granted and wondered aloud if I should offer them a package of cashews from my pocket. Our guide reassured me they would find something else to eat. Indeed, as soon as we entered camp, Njegela-Saitoti grabbed a palm fruit his wife had gathered and then came upon a jerky jackpot hanging forgotten in a tree: a stringy piece of dried zebra leftover from a previous kill. He beamed and tore into it. I was glad at least one of us had believed that everything would turn out all right.
Visits can be arranged through the Africa Adventure Company (www.africa-adventure.com). A community-based authority allocates money and preserves tribal culture.