Tanzania is home to 120 different tribes of people. I have encountered individuals from maybe 15 of them. Each group maintains very unique traditions and values and I have noticed that somehow a persons personality always seems to fit their tribe. Tribal identity is something celebrated, something to be proud of. Talking to people about their tribes makes me feel weird that I don’t have one, like I am lacking some form of identity. I already described the Iraqw community that populates the village we live in in this post. Last week we toured the homes of members from two other tribes – the Hadzabe and the Masai.
The Masai drip with pride from their shaved heads to their ear jewelry, their shukas to their anklets and tire shoes. The tribe’s homeland spans much of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The Masai live in “bomas” which are circles of small stick and mud huts with a corral in the middle for livestock at night. Each boma holds the family of one man, with his many wives each in a different house. They are known for eating only meat, milk and blood and will often walk over 25 miles a day with no water. They also have intensive coming-of-age traditions involving ceremonies, exile, circumcision and age classes. I am not even going to pretend to understand them.
While many have been educated in English and Swahili they have resisted abandoning their traditions and dress and still practice pastoralism throughout their homeland. It is not unusual to see fully dressed Masai chatting with businessman in town. In addition, they have capitalized on the international attention they receive by setting up cultural bomas (or homes) to share their life style with tourists for money. The history of the tribe is less beautiful then their clothing. In the late 1800s many Tanzanian Masai were forcibly removed from a section of their original homeland, the Serengeti, by colonial governments. They were resettled in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area as an experiment of combining human settlement and conservation and they maintain rights to live and graze there. The history of the NCA is also riddled with horror, but today the Tanzanian Masai now call it home.
The Hadzabe are easily the coolest people in the world (fact, not opinion). Shaking hands with them was like traveling back in time to a place I never dreamed still existed. Less than 1,000 Hadzabe remain in Africa and 300-400 of them live as hunter-gatherers outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area around Lake Eyasi. Smaller and more muscular than other people in the region they are not closely genetically related to any surrounding tribes and have inhabited this region, living as they do, for thousands or even possibly tens of thousands of years. They are the last full-time hunter-gatherers in all of Africa. The Hadzabe travel in roaming groups of 20-30 individuals, changing camp every few days. Unlike many other neighboring tribes they marry based on mutual desire, choosing partners based on work ethic and physical appearance. Partners predominantly practice monogamy and limit themselves to under 3 children per couple, another tradition distinct from their neighbors. Children are raised in a high quality communal manner with all adults taking care of all children. Generally, Hadzabe men and women gather. They hunt with only bows and arrows and are the only people in Tanzania allowed to hunt without a permit. They’re also the only people in Africa who (as I understand it) are legally allowed to smoke marijuana. The Hadzabe have managed to escape the pressures of modern social and economic development in Tanzania and they clearly expressed this indifference to modern culture through their indifference to our presence (our guides were actually Iraqw neighbors of the Hadzabe). The fact that I met them still astounds me and I will never forget what their presence stands for.