It was the end of our second hour driving down a pot-hole infested, rattle-the-teeth-out-of-my-head dirt road in Tanzania, and I was starting to feel as if my body was going to shake apart.
The wind was strong and hot, and the dust swirled high into the air. Even though we were inside the jeep we looked as if we’d been covered with a thin layer of terracotta.
We were on our way to visit the Hadzabe bush tribe that lived on the outskirts of the Ngorongoro Crater, where I was going to spend the next couple of days.
On this little adventure, I would pay for the pleasure of the Hadzabe’s company with a goat – a first in my world travels – and at that time I had no idea what that really meant. (More on that later.)
The Hadzabe population is under a thousand in Tanzania, and the group we were going to meet still lived like their hunter-gatherer ancestors did thousands of years ago.
When we arrived, the tribe was waiting in a shaded clearing, the men on one side, the women and young children on the other.
They didn’t speak English, of course, only Hadza, and we communicated through a guide who translated.
Their conversation was filled with clucks and I felt as if I’d been walked into the middle of a National Geographic documentary.
The men were welcoming, inviting me to sit down near their circle. The women, far less so. They seemed cautious, or perhaps bored. I couldn’t imagine what they thought of the western red-head that had invaded their space.
The men lit up what looked like a joint, and I figured that their slow, amiable nature, coupled with their tomato red eyes, meant it wasn’t their first of the day.
They were gracious hosts and offered me a hit, but I’d been warned the night before that Hadzabe “tobacco” was mac truck strong and I would probably regret it. I politely declined, shaking my head with an expression I hoped would convey the simple truth: I was a lightweight. Eyeing me, they chuckled and whispered among themselves. It was clear they understood and agreed with me.
My guide, Chili, asked if he could leave me alone with the tribe while he went to a nearby shepherd to purchase the goat that would be my currency. I was apprehensive, language barrier and all, but I nodded, made a bad joke about getting a receipt, and off they went.
We watched them depart and then the tribe turned and looked at me. I instantly became self-conscious and my mind went blank; the Hadzabe were expecting me to take the lead and I didn’t know what to do.
A saw a cute little boy sitting with the women, so I raised my camera and nodded at him indicating I was asking if I could take his picture. He grinned and I snapped a quick photo.
I showed the boy his sweet face on the screen and he laughed. (A digital camera’s LCD is a wonderful tool for breaking the ice and bridging the gap of unspoken languages.)
Thankfully, as I’d hoped, the other children wanted their picture taken too, and I happily obliged. The women watched stoically as I methodically took photos of each child and then showed them their likeness on the screen. It was a good game and I was grateful for their enthusiasm.
After the children, many members of the tribe wanted in, and I was happy I was earning some points with the crowd.
Nearby, impala horns dangled from a tree, next to them were handmade bows. (The Hadzabe are known for being excellent hunters.) A young man grabbed a bow and shot an arrow which landed squarely in a patch of dirt he’d pointed to moments before. He turned and handed the bow to me.
The string was so tight I could barely pull it – evidently, the Hadzabe have the strength of Superman – and the arrow was so skinny and light I couldn’t keep it level long enough to shoot.
The young man adjusted my grip, tilting the bow slightly to the left so that gravity would keep the arrow in place, and then I let the arrow fly. And when I say fly, I mean it barely went 10 feet before pathetically dropping to the ground. It was clear: I would make a terrible Hadzabe.
Mid-visit the tribe offered me a handful of berries they were passing around. The fruit was wonderfully sweet, but they were so fragile, just holding them in my hands tore their skins and the juice latched on to my fingers like glue.
I tried to wipe it off on my cargo pants but I only managed to make things worse, adding red dirt to the mix of berry juice and sweat.
If I hadn’t known better I would have thought it was a Hadzabe party trick. The tribe didn’t seem to be suffering the same fate, or they didn’t care, I’m not sure which, but I was a gooey mess.
My visit abruptly ended when Chili returned with the other guide and a new man with a goat. Holding the beast over his shoulders like a shawl, the man walked into the center of the clearing, wedged the goat’s head between his knees and grabbed its horns.
In a flash, I realized what was coming next and I poked Chili in the arm. “They’re going to kill the goat?!” I said in a frantic whisper. (Though I never asked, I assumed that the goat would be added to the Hadzabe’s herd, it was only then that I learned they didn’t have one). Yikes!
Turns out the goat was their lunch. “I can’t watch this Chili, ” I said, a bit freaked out and feeling like a silly American tourist. What they wanted made perfect sense but within two seconds of seeing the goat, I’d already named it. I couldn’t watch it die.
Yes, I know, I’m a wimp.
“Ok,” said Chili, looking at me as if I was nuts, “But then let’s go soon, they’re hungry.”
My visit had been extraordinary, and I didn’t see any point in prolonging the inevitable or making my hosts wait. We said our goodbyes which consisted of a few waves and head nods, and we walked to our jeep, leaving my goat (their goat) to its fate.