By David Banks
A heavy downpour spatters the dry-season dirt of the high Tanzania plateau, and the smell of rain-soaked cloves fills the air. Our Land Rover dodges potholes between old farms bracing for the oncoming rainy season.
As the farms give way to rocky scrub forest, we descend into the Yaeda Valley. The Yaeda is home to the Hadzabe, one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth.
My friend Daudi Peterson, who has worked for decades to help the Hadza, tells me this valley used to teem with wildlife. Elephant and wildebeest herds were common, and the area was particularly important for black rhino. Now the wildebeest and elephant numbers are a fraction of what they used to be, and the rhinos are gone.
This is not because of the Hadza. The Hadza population has declined with the wildlife — and for the same reason.
The Hadza developed unique and peaceful ways of existing with their environment and community. They have neither clear political systems, nor prominent hierarchy. As more warlike tribes move in looking for farmland and better pastures, the Hadza’s territory shrinks. The result is a loss of habitat for both people and wildlife.
The Nature Conservancy is working with a local organization, Ujumaa Community Resource Team, to help the Hadza protect their land rights. One step is to bring the Hadza elders together for their first-ever powwow.
We meet the group of 150 elders on a granite kopje in the hills overlooking the Yaeda Valley. As we drive up, it’s hard to tell there is a large group of Hadza here. Their grass huts, worn clothing and small stature allow them to blend in with the landscape.
Gatherings during the powwow are random and haphazard — nothing like the well-orchestrated conferences I’m used to. Groups strike up conversations under trees when the mood hits them. Others wander in to make comments, drift away and then join other groups discussing similar issues. Occasionally, the full group gathers on a big slab of granite under a large baobab tree to share what different groups have been discussing all day.
In all these meetings, the men are straightening arrows, adding feathers to shafts, sharpening points and repairing bows with baboon skin. This is a bow-and-arrow culture. Neatly stacked arrows and propped bows next to the men’s sleeping areas remind us that these are weapons for protection as well as food.
At night, we hear music and feel the shuffling of dancing feet. We drift among the Hadza family camps, where low cooking fires illuminate the grass huts and the singers, dancers, and ancient violin players. Sparks rise up into the sky and mix with the Milky Way as the chanting, jumping and pounding gain strength. Each family attempts to outdo the others with joyful singing and laughter.
Sitting in the shadows of the ancient rocks, I feel as though I have drifted back to a time of my ancient ancestors. Spirits invade me. Energy from this deep connection to land and water courses and surges through my skin.
At dawn the next morning, we go hunting with some of the young men. As we move quietly through the bush, one notices a small siphon or tube in the otherwise uniform shape of a tree trunk. As I get much closer, I finally spot a funnel about the size of the fingernail on my pinky. From here we extract some of the local honey.
Later that day, on the edge of the escarpment, we find a 10-foot python, and I’m expecting the young man to stick an arrow in its head. But his expression seems almost bored, and he explains that the Hadza have a taboo against killing reptiles and amphibians. They also don’t believe in hunting with dogs. “It would disrupt the balance here,” he says.
I worry about the future of the Hadza. They are so connected to this place, but it’s hard to imagine any group of people more disconnected from the trajectory of our planet.
As we sit together around the fire that night, sparks again lifting towards the stars as they have for millennia, our new friends quietly shape yet more arrows to replace those lost during the day. I drift off to sleep by the fire to the sounds of chanting and dancing again. Later in the night, I hear lions roaring in the distance and the quiet shuffle of elephants through the brush alongside our camp.
I know it’s a hard road to help the Hadza protect this place. Yet the intermingling of our ancestral songs and sounds of the wildlife we have lived with for generations has a good cadence. It’s a cadence that gives me hope.January 10, 2013
David Banks is director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa program. He reports from the field and shares his views on conservation in our series David's Dispatches.