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Monday, 5 July 2010

The Wa-Hadzabe tribe of Lake Eyasi: Tanzania's last hunter-gatherers


The Hadza people (or Hadzabe'e) are an ethnic group in Tanzania living around Lake Eyasi in the central Rift Valley and in the neighboring Serengeti Plateau. The Hadza number just around 1,000, with a worrying decrease. Like the Bushmen of southern Africa, the Hadzabe are hunter gatherers.

Their ancestral homelands originally covered large parts of northern Tanzania and included the world famous Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Plain. Now, the Hadzabe exploit a far smaller territory to the south of Ngorongoro, in the escarpments of the Rift Valley and the valleys around Lake Eyasi. The area is home to a wide array of wildlife, and to a range of flora that includes the magnificent baobab trees of Africa - home in turn to the bees from which the Hadzabe collect wild honey. But despite this environmental diversity with its rich resources, the Hadzabe are facing severe pressures on their traditional way of life.

The Hadza are not closely related to any other people. While traditionally considered an East African branch of the Khoisan peoples, primarily because their language has clicks, modern genetic research suggests that they may be more closely related to the Pygmies. The Hadza language appears to be an isolate, unrelated to any other. These nomadic hunter-gatherers live as all humans once lived during the Stone Age: wandering the plains with the changing seasons, killing game for survival, constantly avoiding aggressive wild beasts.

There are four traditional areas of Hadza dry-season habitation in Tanzania: West of the southern end of Lake Eyasi, between Lake Eyasi and the Yaeda Valley swamp to the east, east of the Yaeda Valley in the Mbulu Highlands, and north of the valley around the town of Mang'ola. During the wet season the Hadza camp outside and between these areas, and readily travel between them during the dry season as well.

The Hadzabe survive using the most ancient subsistence practice and technology known to human beings. They hunt animals with bows and arrows and gather wild fruit and plants. The Hadzabe hunt all manner of game from small animals such as dik dik, bush pig and antelope, to large creatures such as wildebeest and giraffe, using arrows with poisoned tips.

The Hadza have traditionally foraged outside these areas, in the Yaeda Valley, on the slopes of Mount Oldeani north of Mang'ola, and up onto the Serengeti Plains. Such foraging is done for hunting, berry collecting, and for honey. Although hunting is illegal in the Serengeti, the Tanzanian authorities recognize that the Hadza are a special case and do not enforce the regulations with them, just as the Hadza are the only people in Tanzania not taxed locally or by the national government.

Hadza men usually forage individually, and during the course of day usually feed themselves while foraging, and also bring home some honey, fruit, or wild game when available. Women forage in larger parties, and usually bring home berries, baobab fruit, and tubers, depending on availability. Men and women also forage cooperatively for honey and fruit, and at least one adult male will usually accompany a group of foraging women. During the wet season, the diet is composed mostly of honey, some fruit, tubers, and occasional meat. The contribution of meat to the diet increases in the dry season, when game becomes concentrated around sources of water. During this time, men often hunt in pairs, and spend entire nights lying in wait by waterholes, hoping to shoot animals that approach for a night-time drink, with bows and arrows treated with poison.

The Hadza are highly skilled, selective, and opportunistic foragers, and adjust their diet according to season and circumstance. Depending on local availability, some groups might rely more heavily on tubers, others on berries, others on meat. This variability is the result of their opportunism and adjustment to prevailing conditions. Traditionally, the Hadza do not make use of hunting dogs, although this custom has been recently borrowed from neighboring tribes to some degree. Most men (80%+) do not use dogs when foraging. Women's foraging technology includes the digging stick, large fabric or skin pouch for carrying items, knife, shoes, other clothing, and various small items held in a pouch around the neck. Men carry axes, bows, poisoned and non-poisoned arrows, knives, small honey pots, fire drills, shoes and apparel, and various small items. While men specialize in procuring meat, honey, and baobab fruit, women specialize in tubers, berries, and greens. This division of labor is rather apparent, but women will occasionally gather a small animal or egg, or gather honey, and men will occasionally bring a tuber or some berries back to camp.

There exists a mutualistic relationship between honeyguide and mammals: in order to obtain wax, the bird guides people and honey-badgers to the nests of wild bees. The Hadza whistle "dialogs" with the honey-guide that mimic the bird's song. The role of the honey-guide is reflected also in Hadza mythology, both in naturalistic and personified forms. The Hadza move camp for a number of reasons. Conflict is resolved primarily by leaving camp; camps frequently split for this reason. Camps are abandoned when someone falls ill and dies, as illness is associated with the place they fell ill. There is also seasonal migration between dry-season refuges, better hunting grounds while water is more abundant, and areas with large numbers of tubers or berry trees when they are in season. If a man kills a particularly large animal such as a giraffe far from home, a camp will temporarily relocate to the kill site. (Smaller animals are brought back to the camp). Shelters can be built in a few hours, and most of the possessions owned by an individual can be carried on their backs.

The Hadza, like many predominantly hunter-gatherer societies, are predominantly monogamous, though there is no social enforcement of monogamy. “In a world that is changing as rapidly as ours, it is painful to think of the massive numbers of people left impoverished by such changes. How much harder then to imagine those people around the globe who not only do not only do not have access to the financial and technological prizes of modern living, but who do not actually want them, preferring instead to maintain their traditional practices of subsistence and land use, medicine, myth and ritual”. We would like to make ours these words by Kate Prendergast, as they perfectly illustrate the case of the Wa- Hadzabe and the complex and usually conflicting realities of contemporary Africa, living simultaneously modernity and tradition, and showing that tradition is not only a remaining of the past, but maintaining traditions is a choice and an option in a world that pretends to be not only global, but homogeneous. With conflicts and crashing interests, African societies show their flexibility by adapting themselves to changing times and by adapting elements of tradition and modernity to live the present.

Threats to Hadzabe´s style of life include the encroachment of both livestock and agriculture into their traditional hunting grounds. As the local area becomes increasingly taken over by neighbouring pastoralist tribes such as the Barabaig and the Maasai - who themselves have problems in securing land for their herds - water supplies traditionally used by the Hadzabe become contaminated by livestock, while at the same time wild game is driven away by the overweening presence of cattle. Moreover, the vital land corridor that links the Eyasi region to Ngorongoro and the Serengeti is being eaten into by small-scale agriculture, which acts to cut off Hadzabe territories from the annual migration routes of the massive herds of wild animals such as wildebeest and water buffalo that range across the Serengeti. These problems in turn are transversely affected by tourism. Because the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti are now wildlife parks - the jewels in the crown of Tanzania's burgeoning tourist industry and a source of much needed foreign cash for the country's fragile economy - the Hadzabe are effectively excluded from hunting in these areas. As a result, many Hadzabe face the problem of devising new and innovative ways to survive as their ancient hunting and gathering territories become ever more denuded.

Included among such strategies are attempts at building small-scale economies. The Tanzanian government attempted - and failed - to resettle the Hadzabe on permanent small-scale agricultural settlements in the 1960s and 70s. For, as long as the government supplied free food, the Hadzabe stayed, but as soon as the food supply dried up, the Hadzabe moved back into the bush. However, given the harsh environmental conditions they now find themselves in, some experiments have been made growing maize to supplement their hunting and gathering practices. The Hadzabe's relationship with tourism in the region is also an active - if complex - one. Some tour companies offer the option of visiting a Hadzabe village and experiencing the unique lifestyle of an African hunter gatherer community. When these schemes directly employ and pay Hadzabe to act as tour guides, they can have benefits for the community. Cultural tourism programs and such visits when designed genuinely and with respect, benefit both these communities and the image of Tanzania as a destination not only with natural interest, but also highlights its cultural wealth. However, some companies are less than scrupulous in their treatment of the Hadzabe, and some are even known to bring commercial hunting trips into their territory, directly threatening Hadzabe security and livelihood in the process.

The larger and more long term strategy the Hadzabe are engaged in is to win back rights to hunt and gather in a far bigger territory than is currently available to them. Such demands involve complex negotiations with their pastoralist and agricultural neighbours, and with local and national government officials. While the Tanzanian government is not overtly hostile to the Hadzabe way of life - unlike the Botswana government who are currently evicting Bushmen off their ancestral lands en masse - the politics of land in Africa are often fraught, and with many competing claims, full restoration in the region of Hadzabe hunting rights looks a long way off.

by LLA

If you would like to visit a Hadzabe village and see traditional life first hand, please contact us.

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