Story by Shelley Seale, photos by Keith Hajovsky
The baobab tree was towering, its circumference so large that it would take ten men with outstretched arms to encircle it. The dramatic trees dotted the Tanzanian landscape of this remote terrain near Lake Eyasi, but I approached this one with more curiosity. Something was hanging from its trunk, pieces of adornment affixed to the rough bark like artwork in a museum.
As I neared enough to realize what they were, I was at once shocked, intrigued and disgusted. Skulls, bleached white from the sun and cooking, dotted the baobab’s trunk. Small and large, with teeth hanging from the jaws haphazardly and empty eye sockets staring woefully.
I looked back at the family crouching around a fire nearby; three women and four children chewing on strips of animal meat, mostly ignoring the visitors although the children stole a glance every now and then. In the small tree just next to them was wedged the head of an impala—skin and fur still intact, pieces of red flesh hanging from the gaping neck, flies buzzing around the clouded, lifeless eyes. This head would soon join the other skulls on the baobab tree, just one more monument to the animals that this family of the Hadzabe tribe has hunted and killed.
Here, in the vast wilderness of eastern Africa, live approximately 700 members of the Hadzabe, an ancient tribe whose lifestyle is little changed over the past 10,000 years. They grow no food, raise no livestock, keep no land, buy no supplies except by bartering, and live as far removed from the modern world as it’s possible to do today. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving camp every two to six weeks to follow the herds of animals they hunt. They interact very little with others, only trading with the Datoga and Iraq, two other tribes in this region of Tanzania.
They are some of the very last of any bush tribes left in Africa.
We had driven through the bush this morning before sunrise to find this family of Hadzabe, about 20 members strong. Qwarda, our guide, is a member of the neighboring Datoga tribe with whom the Hadzabe occasionally trade. The driver, Sam, picked us up in the dark hours of early morning at our tented camp, itself an hour from the nearest town or any paved road. From there we drove completely off road in the Land Rover, across dried riverbeds and over rocks, making our own road.
Qwarda knew where this particular Hadzabe group was located; they had set up their homestead here a few weeks ago, and he had already made contact to ask if it was okay to bring a couple of mzungu to the camp. When we arrived, Qwarda sprinted off as the sun broke across the sky, to let the tribe know we were there and get their approval to bring in me and my boyfriend, Keith. Fifteen minutes later he returned and led us into a scene that appeared straight out of the Stone Age.
The Inconsequential Outsiders
I have been in some pretty remote, primitive villages; but never anything like this—human existence at its most elemental, and perhaps noblest, form. As we approached the camp and its baobab trees of animal skull trophies, the Hadzabe glanced up at us briefly, with passing interest, and then resumed their work as if we were not there. Considering that these people have so little contact with the outside world—little interaction with neighboring tribes and villages, let alone Western foreigners—I had expected they would be more curious about us. But for the most part, we were ignored; inconsequential, perhaps, to the fundamentals of their daily activities.
A group of males squatted on the rocks closest to us; the younger ones stoking a small fire while the elders carved wood arrows. Qwarda explained that this was how the day began—warming themselves with fire and preparing for the morning hunt, which would commence shortly. There were three elders who appeared over age 50, three young men probably in their twenties, and an adolescent boy of around 12.
Nearby, about 20 feet away, the women and children were grouped. “They stay separated during the day,” Qwarda explained, pointing out the nearby thatched huts that were the sleeping quarters. Bones and teeth of small animals littered the ground and skins hung on branches to dry. Many of the tribe wore animal skins and fur; several of the men had fur headpieces, which Qwarda explained was baboon.
The Hadzabe men called to Qwarda, in their unique language that consists not only of words, but also of clicks; they are one of the few peoples in the world with a clicking language. Qwarda turned to us and said the hunt was beginning, and we were welcome to accompany them. Before Keith and I could say yes and wander over, the Hadzabe had sprinted off, and we were racing to keep up with them as they sprinted across the wilderness that they knew so well.