The Most Fascinating Tribes of Africa

By Jyoti Shetty

Destination InternationalWhen one goes off the beaten tracks of a Safari to see the original inhabitants of Tanzania, it’s like going back in time, it’s like finding that missing link, Africa being the cradle of civilization, that majestic land of endless horizons, where each setting sun merits its own painting, simply has no parallels. The Maasai, Kikuyu, Hadzabe, Datoga, the original inhabitants, have blessed this land with a unique character of its own. The explorers, traders, hunters entered the scene later. This is the land of adventure, raw, savage in appearance and yet gentle. This is the land of where the earth was torn apart by catastrophic forces creating the Great Rift Valley.

It was a chance Safari to East Africa that made me seek Tanzania’s eternal Serengeti plains, the Ngorongoro Crater, several game parks, fulfilling a dream that I had harbored for decades to see wildlife up close. The impressive migration of the Wildebeest, camping in the wilderness, the sights and sounds of Africa was surreal. It was even more so when I visited a few of the tribes in the most dreamlike settings, transforming it to one of the most humbling experiences of seeing Africa other than the Safari hype.

Lake Eyasi located south of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro is a wild and remote location, home to the Hadzabe Bushmen, the last few true nomads of Africa. It was like an endless drive in a Land Rover, along an occasionally bumpy road, but when it finally ended our guide signaled us to alight, we had reached the most amazing locale of the Hadzabe tribe, our first of the tribal visits. The guide had briefed us that there would be an offering by the eldest of the Hadzabe tribe, we were to accept it graciously and only then would we be welcomed! We had to walk along a steep rocky outcrop by the hill, besides a massive stone jutting like an oyster shell projection, which formed the cluster homes of the Hadzabes. At first no one was in sight, but the guide whistled and from the shrubs a young boy in his early twenties, in his Hadzabe fineries of beaded headband, off shoulder cover made of animal skin, and a bow and arrow clicked his greetings at us. Out of nowhere some half a dozen kids and two elders joined in and on a stone platform shaded by a huge stone natural roof, we were invited to sit on Zebra skin.

The youngster and the others got busy in the welcoming routine, making a fire the ancient way, pulled out a dried dead bird that was stacked away in the bushes, and some weed which was locally grown and rolled to a cigarette. They older Hadzabe passed on the leafy cigarette, which the guide readily smoked, while we politely declined saying we are non-smokers. They didn’t relent as the dried flesh was the next welcome ritual to be passed around, the visiting group declined again saying they were vegetarians and it was left for me to break the ice, and I had no clue what I chewed on but the elder Hadzabe was indeed very happy. We were then taken to see their stone shelter, the women folk, a few hunting skills was displayed proudly by the youngsters and while I too tried my hand at their particular type of Archery it elicited giggles and laughter from the young ones.

The Hadzabe tribes are nomadic and live in a time warp to an outsider. A lot of Government assistance to rehabilitate the 120 odd tribes in Tanzania has led to stiff resistance and they continue the way they have lived for centuries. When there is a substantial kill by their hunting party, the Hadzabes simply move homes closer to the kill; they are also bigamous and wife swapping is a fairly common phenomena. But apart from their kills, their basic dwelling of lavic rocks, the Baobab trees, shrubs and fruits that they subsist on, their life exemplifies simplicity, quite in harmony with what their natural surroundings can offer.

Clambering down the rocks was as tough as the climb up, but I was quite excited holding on to two lovely beaded porcupine bracelets that were on sale at the ladies quarters of the Hadzabe home, having paid 10,000 shillings for the pair! Way past the hillock, neat clusters down at the plains were rows of mud huts, very interestingly built to keep the hot African sun at away. We were now entering the territory of the Datogas.

The Datogas are not nomadic, ironsmiths by profession, live in the plains in mud-reinforced fillings between barks and twigs of trees that form a skeletal support to their homes. A boundary of thorny bushes and large thorny shrubs at the entrance to keep predators like lions, hyenas from entering in. We were not allowed in, as the Datogas do not like this intrusion, reserved as they are and shy away from curious tourists. Datogas primarily live in the arid areas of Singida and Manyara regions of north central Tanzania near Mt. Hanang, Lake Basotu, and Lake Eyasi. Sworn enemies of the Maasais since centuries, they are often called Mangati or fierce enemies.

We gave up hope meeting them, but it was a chance spotting of two Datoga belles peering at us being turned away by their neighbor, that I implored to let us in as they had wares on display and I showed great interest in buying their products.

The two Datoga ladies shared a husband and was away. Their kids played in the backyard where their older ones among them were hammering away at a bracelet that they were twisting to shape over the furnace. One of the ladies gladly put her hands around me in an embrace, posed for pictures, showed off her leather skin dress replete with colourful beads, and tassels, she kindly let me try on a dress and we both posed to the cameras, the guide was so thrilled when the dress fitted me, insisted I buy it. Their simple mud hut was so cool from the direct hit from the sun, we sat there looking at the women showing off their wares, sipping water from a clay tumbler. We scrambled before the men folks arrived, their men do not take to strangers lightly and made our way. The next vista took my breath away, the scenic hills and valleys that followed were quite different to the Datoga area.  We were on a long drive to the abode of the most talked about tribe, the Maasais!

Tanzania has 14 National Parks of which the most visited and largest, the Ngorongoro is a conservation area and the Maasai tribes live and co habit with the animal world as they have been doing since life began. On one hand the Maasais to a great extent have stuck on to their roots, have commercialized and capitalized their very existence to the public on the other. They have to a great degree progressed, and some have even sent their children to school. We met a young Maasai boy in Arusha town, he readily posed for pictures and unlike others of his ilk he didn’t accept money to pose. I invited him to coffee and delved into his life. Emanuellu Kumaya was sent to school with a promise that he would never forget his roots, dress the Maasai way with the traditional shawl and skirt to school. What more he was well versed in computers and requested me to send the photo to his email id. He did however mention that he was often teased at school earlier on because of his traditional dress that sets him apart from his school friends in regular uniform.

Tourists flock to Maasai villages to get an insight to their way of life, the colourful shawl or Shuka that’s on sale everywhere, a hot item to buy in Tanzania. We witnessed a colorful parade at a Maasai market and the splash of red is so prominent, denotes their valour and courage that’s legendary. Fierce warriors they have now been tamed to conserve wildlife, which they instinctively know so well, being part of nature and the topography. So much has been written about them, and filmed extensively that they seem to bask in the attention. Smaller houses side by side by surround each Maasai home (usually built by women), this indicates the number of wives he keeps and more women more cattle designating wealth and power!



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