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Hadzabe Hospitality

We had seen the wild life: The lions taking a lazy cat nap under the cool shade of an acacia tree. The monkeys frantically screaming to each other at the sight of a predator. The elephants covered in mud after a midday bath. Now we were about to see the wild men of Africa: the hunter-gatherer people of the Hadzabe tribe, one of the last societies of its kind.

A young Hadza woman holds her child and waits for the hunters' return.

The Hadzabe live in the dry cracked terrain near Lake Eyasi, south of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. To get there we had to drive through thick bush and trees that sometimes snapped their way into our LandRover. After a few hours, we saw smoke rising from the camp of the Hadzabe. Although semi-permanent camps are sometimes established for young families, more often the Hadza set up camp temporarily, for approximately two weeks. They build homes by weaving small huts out of the euphorbia bush.

Our group was to go hunting with the men, but I had become dehydrated and felt ill. I was in no condition to run around chasing birds in 90 degree heat. The last thing I wanted to do was slow the hunters down, possibly resulting in their losing a catch.

I decided to stay in the LandRover and nap while the rest of my group went hunting. I began to drift off into a hazy rest when the silence of the lowlands was interrupted by soft giggles. I poked my head out the window and saw three little girls about 7 to 11 years old, smiling and whispering in their native click. I took another dose of trusty Imodium and got out of the car to greet them.

The women gather near their temporary homes and tell stories and
chat in their native Hadzane language.

The little Swahili I had learned before coming to Africa proved useless here. The Hadza speak a native click language called Hadzane. This ancient click language is similar to that of the San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert.

The tallest and most likely the oldest of the three girls grabbed my hand—a sign of friendship in Africa. She walked me towards the camp with the other Hadza women. She seemed to be the leader of the three girls. She was tall and skinny with a big smile and energetic dark eyes. Her skin was black, like a starless night in the Serengeti. She spoke definitively to her sisters as if she was giving them an education about me. Although she probably didn't understand why I was there, she seemed to want to make me feel at home. Her sisters looked at me curiously, following her lead, with fascination and slight apprehension.

To the "Tobacko" We Go

I asked, "Jina Lako Nani?" in Swahili ("What is your name?"), hoping someone would understand. The oldest girl did and immediately translated the question to her sisters.

"Mariam," the oldest said.

"Sina," said the second.

"Anna," said the third.

Mariam and Sina pose for the camera with their four-legged friend. These domesticated dogs often assist the men with hunting.

"Jina Lako Nani?"
Mariam asked.

"Tracey," I replied.

"JJrracey! Yah!" They laughed.

I attempted to ask in Swahili how old they were, but they didn't understand. I held up seven fingers and motioned to Mariam:

"Are you seven?"

"Yah!"

"Are you ten?"

"YAH!"

"Are you forty?"

"YAH!"

It was clear that this was the only response I would get to any questions.

"Tobacko? Tobacko??" the little girl asked me. I had no idea what she was saying.

She reflected for a moment. "Nyumba!" she exclaimed, which means home in Swahili. Mariam pointed in the direction of a worn path that weaved endlessly into a pattern of tall gray bushes.

I was uncertain if this was a good idea. My entire group was away and I had been told to stay where I was. I knew I'd get a scolding for this later.

Mariam (left) and Sina (right) smile for the camera inside their home made of dung and twigs.

Regardless, I followed Mariam and her sisters down the path. About a half-mile from where we began, we came upon a tiny house that was about five and a half feet tall and completely constructed in dried dung, sticks, and twigs. Two animal hides were sprawled on the floor for bedding and in the corner was a fire for cooking and staying warm. In the living area were a simple wooden bench, two chairs made of twigs and between them a table made of the same gray wood that could be seen everywhere throughout this dried landscape. Much to my surprise, on the table sat a bright blue New York Giants thermos. I laughed when I saw it. It looked severely out of place.

I motioned to the thermos and said, "I see you're big football fans?!"

"YAH!" they responded and giggled.

"Chakula!?" Mariam asked.

This was the last word I wanted to hear. "Chakula" means "food" in Swahili. Until now, this sideshow had taken my mind off of my ailing stomach. Mariam pointed to a clear bag hanging from the wall that I hadn't noticed. It contained something very furry and very dead.

Two women hold and play with their toddlers near the huts.

At that moment I heard footsteps coming in to the tobacko. It was the girl's father. He was tall and fit with a short gray beard and he wore a small woven hat. His arrival came as a surprise to me since I had assumed that the father of the girls had been one of the men that went hunting with my group. However, I'm sure he was much more surprised to see a white girl in his living room than I was to see him. I didn't know how he would react.

"JAMBO!" he said—"HELLO!"—in a big happy voice, as if he had been expecting me.

"Jambo," I replied. "Tobacko?"

He laughed, "YAH! Tobacko!"

I suddenly felt like I was in seventh grade at a childhood friend's house after school. He spoke in Hadzane to the girls and turned to me with a big smile and asked, "Chakula!?!?"

As one could imagine, I was deeply touched by their generosity and willingness to share with a complete stranger. Food is scarce in the dry season due to the animal migration to better hydrated areas where no hunting is allowed—even by the Hadzabe. In this home, there were at least four people, and furry-thing-in-the-bag was probably no more than four to six pounds. This wasn't nearly enough to sufficiently feed a family of that size. I felt truly humbled.

Tracey in front of the home of Mariam, Sinam, and Anna.

I would have liked to have stayed, but my safari group would be returning soon. It hadn't occurred to me until that moment the difficulty of communicating the need to get back to camp. I stood and motioned towards the door, but the young girls hurriedly blocked it. This was yet another example of the culture gap. Initially I felt frightened. However, the girls were just happy that I was there and weren't ready for me to leave yet.

"Hagai!" I said.

"Hagai! YAH!" Mariam seemed to understand.

I said, "Kwa Heri" ("Goodbye") to their father, and the girls and I walked back to camp.

When we arrived they pointed to each other and said "Chakula?" as if to be polite in excusing themselves.

"Chakula!" I replied, "Asante Sana!" ("Thank you!")

"Kwa Heri!" And with that they ran back down the path.

Tracey M. Forgue is a software developer consultant by day and freelance writer by night. Her work consists mostly of personal essays on travel experiences, relationships, and whatever is on her mind the night she picks up the humble pen.

A version of this essay previously appeared in print in The Happy Times.

Copyright © 2003 Tracey M. Forgue.