Shooting Baboons With Africa's Last Hunter-Gatherers

Africa's last full-time hunter-gatherers live in Tanzania. Gareth Wishart spent a month living with them. This tale is drawn from that experience. — Ed.

Never has the phrase "torn to pieces" been so relevant to me. We had woken up to the warm African sun heating our bones and headed straight into some of the thickest bush I had ever seen. Whoever created the world didn't get very creative when thinking up the defense strategies for the plants in East Africa. "Thorns it is then!" he must have thought.

Rain means life in Africa, but so can a drop of blood on a dry riverbed. I've come to this part of the world to live with a group called the Hadzabe. One of the last hunter-gatherer people left on the planet, they live as all of our ancestors once did. Based around Lake Eyasi in Northwest Tanzania, at home roaming the dry savannah.

Shooting Baboons With Africa's Last Hunter-Gatherers

I'm originally from South Africa, and have been going into the bush my whole life. As a teenager I learned that there was still a tribe in Africa that led a lifestyle that I had always admired — living off the land and nothing but. I had to experience it. After months of contacting people throughout Tanzania I was eventually able to find a translator in the area who could help with communication and knew how to find the Hadzabe. In my mid twenties, after years of dreaming, I was finally able to rack up the nerve and head out there.

One of the oldest cultures on Earth, the Hadzabe live in small groups scattered throughout the bush. Families stay together in camps characterized by small grass huts which are used only during bad weather, usually located near the rocky hills that punctuate the golden savannah. When the weather is good they sleep under the stars around a fire. They have lived on this land for thousands of years, maintaining their hunter-gatherer way of life throughout.

Shooting Baboons With Africa's Last Hunter-Gatherers

As with much of Africa, the area was once flush with game. Kudu, eland, buffalo and giraffe all call this area home, but as agriculturalists plow more land and pastoralists graze further afield, there is less space for wildlife and those that depend upon it. The Hadzabe are one of the few groups left in our modern world that live almost completely from what they can either kill or gather from the bush, trading honey or meat with other tribes for anything else that they may need, such as knives and metal pots. Some may think it a hard life, but the reality is they are generally healthier and happier than those in the towns and fields. They are perpetually confused as to why a farmer might toil in the soil when a bird easily within bow range would make good eating.

The Hadzabe own only what they can carry. On that day each of us was carrying a bow, a few arrows and a knife. We were on the tracks of a kudu, shot by one of the guys the night before with an arrow. Unfortunately after hours of tracking sparse blood and spoor in the dust we found no reward. I was staying with a group of four young Hadzabe men, most with names I wouldn't have the first idea of spelling due to their click language, similar to that of the Bushman in Southern Africa. The youngest of the group was Dawite. Small, leanly built with a high-pitched voice, he was a joker through and through. I couldn't help but love the kid. I had asked him how old he was (the Hadzabe don't really have a sense for age the same way we do). He responded "2!" with a big grin. I had no idea where he got the number from, but he must have been around 12. He also happened to be the best shot among us.

Shooting Baboons With Africa's Last Hunter-Gatherers

I had been in the bush with these guys for a little over a month at this point and we were going to head out on one last baboon hunt before I left. In case you're not all that familiar with baboons, they're a gnarly bunch. Teeth bigger than a lion's, you definitely need to think twice before messing with them. The day before, we had headed out at dusk to find where the baboons were nesting and would spend the night in the trees. We woke before dawn and headed back to our scouted location. As the sun crested over the horizon a chorus of birds began singing and light started to filter through the canopy. The dark silhouette of the baboons started to awake with slow movement, and we started firing arrows. Little Dawite was the first to bring one down. It came crashing through the branches and hit the ground with a massive thud.

The baboons quickly began moving limb by limb to a neighboring tree, and another was hit, but not killed. Three of us took positions at the base of the tree, while an older Hadzabe climbed the trunk to try and finish off the baboon. Suddenly, from directly behind me, a massive male baboon burst through the brush, letting out a deafening bark. It stopped a few feet away, eyes wide and muscles tense with rage, sizing up the threat. I drew back my bow, but held, knowing that if I let one fly he would be on me before I could load another. The male gave another booming bark, but the standoff held. Thinking of the rest of his troop, the male broke the deadlock and dashed back through the brush the same way he had come, disappearing in a crash of branches.

Shooting Baboons With Africa's Last Hunter-Gatherers

My heart racing, I had to sit down against the tree, sweat pouring from my brow. The other guys, having seen what just happened came and patted me on the shoulder as a sign of congratulations. Most of them already bore the scars of baboons getting too close. We carried the two dead baboons draped over our shoulders through the sweet morning air back to camp. That night, feast underway, Dawite came up to me and said "now I am 3!" His smile lit by the warm glow of the fire. I smiled back. In their world, age, or rather stature, is measured by experiences such as this. I wonder today how old I am.

Shooting Baboons With Africa's Last Hunter-Gatherers

Months later, getting back into my regular life and work at a large environmental NGO, I got an email from my Hadzabe translator. He told me that Dawite had been hunting alone for a few days as he so often did, and while he slept a flash flood had taken him in the night. There are few words to describe what a loss that was. Today when I think of Dawite, he serves as a reminder to me that life is about what you do; what matters to you. And you never know when you could get swept away.

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