A rare adventure with the last Stone Age hunting and gathering tribe in Africa.
In 1997 James Stephenson arranged to have almost a full year free, a year he wanted to spend among the Hadzabe in Tanzania. He had visited these people several times previously and with every trip his fascination with them deepened, for the Hadzabe are the last hunters and gatherers still living a traditional life in East Africa.
At the age of 27, Stephenson intended to spend the year living among the Hadzabe, and, more importantly, living their life, hunting what they hunted, eating what they ate, participating in their dances and ceremonies, consulting with their medicine men and learning their myths and dreams.
Armed only with his camera, his art supplies and the open-hearted courage of youth, he set out to visit with a people who have changed little since the Stone Age. He wanted to glimpse the world as they perceived it and learn the wisdom they had wrestled from the land. The Language of the Land, the account of his adventure and what he learned, is travel writing at its best.
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Read an Excerpt
The Language of the Land
Living Among the Hadzabe in Africa
By James Stephenson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 James Stephenson
All rights reserved.
In the windy late afternoon, I walked up the hill to Sitoti's bird-nest home after the long trip from Arusha. He was sitting by the fire, smoking his pipe while carving an arrow. He looked me in the eye and then, returning his attention to his arrow, he started to speak.
"Nilikuwa na ndoto ya mkono wako Jana usiku. I dreamt of your hand, and the blue giraffe. Today I sat next to my home and could not leave. Many times I wanted to hunt monkeys, but my legs would not follow my wishes, now I know why. It is good that you have come. I am the only one here, the other men have gone hunting. And the women and children are gathering food. You can stay until they return. Did you bring your colors?"
"Ndiyo, yes, Sitoti."
That night I slept under a tamarind tree in the sphere of Sitoti's silence. I dreamt of howling red winds pursuing a walking leopard. Tormented clouds ripped open and thunder rain poured across the earth. The smell of rotting hippo flesh hung heavy in the dream air. I heard baboon screams and the hunter's feet hitting the parched lake bed. A face rose from a whistling thorn tree, an ancestor spirit. He handed me three sepia-colored sprigs, branches that looked like herbs.
"What are these sprigs for?" I asked him. He looked up at me and smiled.
"This is medicine to run fast," he said. He then transformed into a zebra and galloped off into the savanna grass.
When I awoke, Sitoti was sitting, smoking his stone pipe in the rising dawn. He was staring into the fire. Always awake before me, before the dawn, he had pulled the feathers off a di-dee-dee bird for the ends of his arrows. I told him the dream. He listened and was quiet for some time before responding. He dropped the featherless bird onto the hot coals.
"Wewe umeota mbabu wa zamani Zamani. You dream of ancestors. They showed you medicine to run fast, to run like se-sa-may-a [lion]. I don't know about such dreams. But my father said if you dreamt of a leopard, you would kill a wildebeest in the morning. My uncle dreamt that his friend Nakomako was bitten by a snake. In the morning he told his friend Nakomako not to move until he retrieved some snake medicine. When my father returned to his friend's camp, Nakomako was dead from a snake bite. He did not listen to my uncle's dream. One should listen to dreams. We will tell your dream to the others when they come."
After eating the toasted bird, we started drinking pombe kale, a moonshine the Mbulu tribesmen make illegally from boiling sugar water in giant petrol cans. I call it the "Hadza peril," because many of the hunters have become incurable alcoholics. We spent the day sitting on Sitoti's hilltop looking down into the Swahili village, passing the glass Safari Lager bottle used for the pombe. Sitoti drank with both hands, taking in monstrous gulps. The pombe began loosening him up. Whenever he drank the moonshine, he indulged in huge exaggerated stories; otherwise he didn't talk much.
He told me he saw everything from his camp on the hill. He had chosen it for that purpose. And the good thing was, no one could see him. His camp was hidden by a few acacia trees that shaded it from the afternoon sun, and his hut was made of sharp sisal stalks and whistling thorn branches. He could scout the area below. If a person was coming up the hill to kill him or if it was someone he didn't like, he would vanish. He pointed to the tree he hid behind. Sitoti was a little paranoid, always thinking that someone was going to kill him. He was afraid his wife had jujued (witched) him.
"Nikaona yote. I have seen everything from here," he said smiling.
Sitoti had an older wife and three children. Some of the other hunters claimed Sitoti's wife was his sister.
"He claims he is still paying off the bridal price to his father," explained Mustaffa the previous year. His father said, "If you want to marry your sister, you must bring me three lions, ten baboon, six buffalo, two baby elephant, one rhino, fourteen waterbuck, and seven zebra. Plus a year's worth of honey by the time the full moon returns!"
Sitoti was never able to fulfill this impossible bridal price. But then again, maybe he wasn't married to his sister — although they looked a lot alike.
Sitoti's wife had a terrible temper. She was always shouting at him. One afternoon the previous year, while she was boiling monkey brains, she had confided to me that he often ran off for weeks at a time with younger women. "Sitoti mbaya sana, sana! He is very bad, very bad," she said, becoming more and more infuriated. "He takes girls hunting with Mustaffa. Mustaffa is a bad man. While they hunt, the younger women search for roots and berries. When the men return with meat they dance with the young women, sing, and eat under a shade tree. When their stomachs are full they make love while my children and I are hungry. They hide themselves so I cannot find them. After three days when he is full of jiggi [sex] and meat, he returns. Sitoti and Mustaffa are bad men, wabaya sana," she shouted, the other women in the camp agreeing with her.
There were so many stories flying around about Sitoti, I didn't know what to believe. He was the butt of the other hunters' jokes because of his angry outbursts that kept them laughing for hours. There was no one as exciting as Sitoti when he unleashed his explosive energy. This energy usually possessed Sitoti for two or three hours during a day, coming on at different times. If this surge of energy hit Sitoti while he was making arrows, he would produce ten arrows in an hour, while it would take someone like Localla three days to make the same amount. His arrows would be detailed with carved inscriptions — dancing spirit figures leaping on the backs of animals, animals he believed he would kill with that arrow.
If the hunters joked with Sitoti in one of his "energy" hours, he countered with foul diatribes, his whole being absorbed in what he said. His words literally led him up trees, sometimes to the highest branches, from where he cursed the hunters sitting below. Or, if he got really angry, he would violently wrestle with his bow in order to demonstrate what he would do to the poor soul who made the joke.
Sitoti carefully packed some tobacco into his stone pipe and pointed to the returning hunters coming up the hill in the distant mirage heat of late afternoon. I was immensely taken by what I saw. It was one of those moments when the visual impression transforms your inner perception; memories of other lives you did not know existed until that moment rise to the surface.
The hunters approached through dry gusts of dusty wind, wearing baboon-face skins as masks and baboon-body skins over their backs, carrying the dead baboons on knife- shaved bow sticks; archetypal deities approaching from another time, singing, otherworldly. The unison of their walk revealed a balance only achieved among hunters after days of hunting together. All their senses and energies were synchronized to each other. Their stern faces resembled trees. Everything about them was in harmony.
Sitoti clapped his hands in wild excitement as they arrived at the edge of his camp. He began shouting, "Nyama, nyama, meat, meat." He leapt up and ran to help Sapo and Mustaffa unload.
Warm smiles came over the hunters' faces as they washed their hands.
"Itl'ik-wa ta, Jemsi, how are you?" they asked in Hadzabe. Jemsi was their pronunciation of my first name.
The hunters embodied that ancient joy of bringing food back to the hearth after a successful hunt, which meant there would be a fantastic night of dancing. Mustaffa, Sapo, Memela, and Mzee (old man) Mateo set their bows down, greeted me, passed out tobacco, and talked profusely about the hunt while Sitoti cleaned and cut the meat for drying and cooking. These were hunters I had known for several years. The eating commenced as soon as the men sat to rest by the fire.
Sapo noticed that I was looking at his hands covered in baboon meat oil. He lifted his right hand, holding his knife, toward the fire, chewing on a baboon heart.
"Baboon mafuta [oil] is good for jiggi-jiggi [aphrodisiac], Jemsi. Safi sana, Jemsi, it is very good, it kills malaria. Do you want some meat to kill malaria?" he said laughing.
"I bet the oil is good for jiggi, but you use it with your hand," I replied.
"Siyokweli, this not true. I don't use it with my hand, but Sitoti does. Sitoti, is baboon oil good for jiggi with the hand?" laughed Sapo.
"Hapana, no!" answered Sitoti. "If you eat baboon meat you don't get ukimwi [AIDS]," said Sitoti, who had paused from his work and excitedly begun sucking the marrow out of a baboon shin bone.
"Siyokweli, this is not true. Who told you that?" I asked.
"Kweli, it is true. The doctor told me. I gave baboon meat to a friend with ukimwi and he walked three days back to Lake Victoria," continued Sitoti, eating with more enthusiasm.
"Siyokweli, he is chizi [crazy]. Don't listen to him, Jemsi, Sitoti has shetani [demon] in his chest. One moment he is OK and the next he's crazy. He tried to kill his wife yesterday," said Mzee Mateo.
"It's true, Jemsi, she has jujued me, I need medicine, crazy comes," said Sitoti, cracking the thick shin bone on a rock to find more marrow.
"Mzee Mateo, where did you get the pombe?" I asked.
"I told the Swahili the baboon meat was swala [impala]. So Mzee Juma gave me pombe in exchange for some meat," he said laughing. The Swahili would never eat baboon meat; they are always calling the Hadzabe "baboon eaters."
While eating, I told the men about my dreams. They listened, chewing. Occasionally they commented quietly to each other. Sapo said if one dreams of a snake, one has a child coming. He then elaborated on the demon snakes that live in the oasis. "If you see the big snake, you run and never look back, even if it is in a dream."
"How big is the snake?" I asked.
"Its belly is bigger than this tree."
"Jemsi, it is good that you have returned, because the shetani would have made you crazy, you saw too much last year. We have medicine, we will help your dreams now," said Sapo.
"We are sorry that our shetani have come to your dreams. Leo usiku ngoma, Jemsi, tonight we will talk with our ancestors. They will tell us why you dream of red wind and leopard; why you dream your dreams. The ancestors will tell the old people what medicine you must wear to make shetani leave you," said Mzee Mateo, starting a song. He sang for some time, eyes half-closed while chewing on his meat.
"What are you singing, Mzee Mateo?" I asked. He stopped chewing and looked up at me, grinning, taking another swig of pombe.
"I sing that the mother is the sun and she cannot find her children, the stars. But as the mother leaves, tired and sad, she sees the father, the moon, returning with her children, the stars. The mother is happy again," he said, smiling. He then pointed to the setting sun. "The day is hot and there is a big cloud near the sun as it leaves the sky. Jua [sun] is yellow, someone has been born," he expounded, returning to his song.
Soon all the men were singing, passing the pombe. The Hadzabe song always travels from one to another, and the men will either listen in a meditative state or join in. This was a slow after-dinner song. But it grew as their songs often do. Sitoti started breathing hard to add a heightened beat and Mustaffa jumped up, reacting to Sitoti's breath, dancing to the beat, sucking the marrow out of a rib bone. He threw the bone to the side, shouting:
"Tu-ta-on-gea na wa-zee, tu-ta-on-gea, tu-ta-on-gea na wa-zee, tu-ta-on-gea, stu, stu, stu, tu-ta-on-gea na wazee, tu-ta-on-gea stu stu."
Mustaffa kept dancing while motioning me to join.
"Jemsi, we sing that we will talk with the ancestors. We will talk with the ancestors who will chase the shetani away. You can walk anywhere in the bush and be protected. No snake will bite you and lions will run from your walk."
Soon the women came to Sitoti's camp, followed by their children carrying roots and berries gathered during the day. The women heard the singing and knew the men had returned from the hunt with meat. They started shouting and laughing, surprised at my presence but happy to see the pombe and meat. They sat with the men by the fire, biting into strips of meat and handing small chewed bits to the youngest children. The men also sliced bits of meat for the children. The children were laughing, crying, and dancing. Many women were shouting for the men's knives; other women were silent, breast-feeding, smiling at the laughter. The song grew louder as Mustaffa and Sitoti continued their beat between swigs of the pombe. Children were sitting with their fathers, or climbing on their fathers' backs. Little boys, happy to see their fathers, watched them eat, watched the men move as they rolled and packed their tobacco. Many elderly people had entered the camp like slow wakes in still water and were now eating, sitting comfortably on dried swala skins, chewing slowly or just smoking tobacco and talking quietly. A little girl wobbled over and offered me some crushed orange un-du-she-bee berries from her open palm. Curious, she started to play with my hair while sucking her thumb, then she sat on my lap and fell asleep, her tummy full. The song grew louder as Mustaffa and Sitoti continued their beat between swigs of pombe. Mzee Mateo and some others left to prepare the dance.
Mustaffa, Sabina, and Sitoti led me through the darkness toward a fire in the far distance. There was no moon in the sky — "A good time to talk with the ancestors," they explained as we walked.
"Why?" I asked.
"Leo usiku [tonight], there is no diamond in the sky. The ancestors do not like the moon."
We entered Mzee Mateo's camp near a large rising rock called Soni. There were many Hadza living here. In the early mornings, looking out from the rock top, one can see for miles in all directions. The ancestors used this rock to hunt the big game when animals were plentiful in the Mang'ola area. Twenty or so upside-down bird-nest huts were glowing in the undulating firelight positioned around the southwest face of Soni. Mzee Mateo came running up and grabbed my hand, quickly leading me to the largest of the outdoor fires, where a group of old men sat.
"It is good you have come, we are waiting," he said, sitting me on a tandala skin that smelled of fermented urine. He turned and disappeared into the night, his voice rising and falling amongst the others. I watched a scorpion attempting to find his way off a burning log in the fire. A few minutes later Mzee Mateo came running back with ostrich feathers in his hand. He held the feathers up into the star light as the women disappeared behind a cluster of growing sisal, having already sent the children to sleep in the huts. He then blew spit into the feathers, passing the feathers around my feet and hands, around my chest and waist. He brushed the feathers around his body. He leaned toward me and spit in my ears, shouting to the ancestors, taking the cigarette from my mouth, inhaling, giving it back. The women began singing from their hidden place. Mzee Mateo then lifted his head to the night, reaching to some shamanistic vision echoing down from the stars to the core of his being. The structure of his face seemed to change to many faces as he tied the feathers around his head. Then for a moment he stood in calm silence, listening. He slowly reached down and grabbed Mustaffa's blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders. He pulled strings of bells from his shoulder bag and quickly tied them around his ankles, falling over while grabbing the pombe bottle and taking a swig. He leapt up and spit in my crotch, while the women sang.
"We talk with the ancestors tonight, no moon in the sky. Tonight we talk with the ancestors," Mzee Mateo said, laughing, staring into my eyes. Then a seriousness overcame him. He lifted his head from my gaze, falling silent, listening to the beat building within the silences of his mind. All the men stopped talking and became transfixed by his figure. His feet started to pound the earth with uncanny power for an old man, as if he were trying to wake the dead from their long sleep.
The sound of his ankle bells rose to the stars on the high plateau. And the starlight in the darkness created illusions with the dancing feathered figure. Mzee Mateo moved with a floating ethereal presence, vanishing into the invisible night circle, whistling to the answering women. Mustaffa, Sabina, and Sitoti sat close to me. Mustaffa leaned over to my ear:
"He talks with ancestors, now your dreams will be peaceful. The children are not allowed to partake in such a dance. For two nights we will dance, then you can walk everywhere, and no harm will come."
Excerpted from The Language of the Land by James Stephenson. Copyright © 2000 James Stephenson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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