Hope for the Hadza: Protecting one of the world's last hunter-gatherers

A Hadza member heads out for the morning’s hunt.  CREDIT: Matt Miller
© A Hadza member heads out for the morning’s hunt. CREDIT: Matt Miller

By David Banks, Regional Director of The Nature Conservancy in Africa

This unique indigenous group is at great risk of losing the elements that have allowed them to thrive for so long.

Mkalama’s voice trails off with lingering harmony from other members of the Hadza clan, and we are left with chills from the power of the sound. The acacia fire we are gathered around still warms us and the dust from shuffling feet is only now beginning to settle. I’m sitting here on the fringe of a granite dome looking down into the Yaeda Valley of Tanzania, and I’m surrounded by an interesting mix of American donors to The Nature Conservancy and members of the Hadza tribe, some of the last hunter-gatherers left on Earth.

But it all feels right. We’ve spent the last few days living with the Hadza and learning more about their way of life. We’ve been hunting with them, gathering roots and berries and searching for reservoirs of glorious honey. Now, filled with elements of the land, we join in song and dance around the fire. Even though we don’t understand each other’s language, we trade songs. The Hadza sing of animals, water and the origins of people and the Americans sing “Amazing Grace” and “This Land is Your Land.” As the evening moves on, we start dancing, springing and jumping with the Hadza accompanied by the songs of the land. We come to an understanding that did not need words.

Here in the birthplace of humanity in Northern Tanzania, the Hadza have lived sustainably off of the bounty of their homeland, roaming as they needed to find game, tubers and wild berries, for at least 50,000 years. But this unique indigenous group, known for shunning material possessions and social hierarchy, is at great risk of losing the elements that have allowed them to thrive for so long. Vast changes to the lands and wildlife populations that the Hadza need to survive threaten to extinguish their unique way of life and vibrant culture. These threats, mainly agriculture, disrupt their landscape and the natural resources that they depend on for survival.

Less than a year before the exchange of song and dance around the acacia fire, I had the chance to be in another nearby encampment. On this occasion Daudi Peterson of the Dorobo Fund and I were there to help address the potential displacement of people. We were the only non-Hadza in the encampment, and it was one of the first meetings of all the Hadza clans to discuss the future of their territory.

A Hadza baby smiles for the camera inside the camp. CREDIT: Firestick Productions© A Hadza baby smiles for the camera inside the camp. CREDIT: Firestick Productions

We sat under baobab trees during the day airing concerns and learning what opportunities existed for protecting this important landscape. Richard Baalow, a Hadza elder, and staffer of the Ujamaa Community Resource Team, helped facilitate when needed, but the conversations seemed to flow naturally. By the end of the time, we had a road map that would lead to the protection of nearly 150,000 acres in a customary and traditional use zone for the Hadza and adjacent Datoga people. While their homeland had shrunk by nearly 90% in the last 100 years, the Hadza finally had a secure base.

Each night, Baalow would guide us amongst the shadows between different clan encampments. We would often hang back under trees trying not to interrupt. The night grew darker as the fires also grew at the center of each clan encampment. We started hearing the sounds of the zeze, ankle bells on shuffling feet and harmonic singing and chanting from around the trees and rocks. It seemed the Hadzabe were trying to compete for the attention of the heavens, and as the stars grew brighter, the voices strengthened, and the sparks from ancient fires drifted skyward to mingle with the sparks of the Milky Way. We felt far away, yet somehow at home.

The next morning we visit one of the Hadza encampments to learn more about where they live. On the way home, Pili Gudo and another Hadza woman join us in the land rover, and as we bounce along from their camp to ours they break into song. I have no idea what they are singing, but the sound makes me sad and I start to cry. I only understand one word, mutana, which means "hello" and "goodbye" in the Hadza language. I ask for a translation of the song and learn that they are singing a simple goodbye to the old Hadza camp and hello to the new American camp.

I’m struck by the metaphor wrapped up in this. We’ve been working hard to protect a Hadza homeland, but it’s really not about keeping the Hadza living a certain way; a natural zoo, so to speak. It’s about allowing them to live the way they want to. My hope is that they can do this for as long as they want. In the meantime, they might help all of us get in touch with something deep down in our own souls that reminds us of what it is like to be human and connected to the natural world.

To learn more about the Hadza, look out for the documentary film “Hadza: Last of the First,” directed and produced by Bill Benenson and featuring engaging interviews with Jane Goodall, late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, author Peter Mathiessen, Hadza historian and Conservancy partner Daudi Peterson, and the Conservancy's Africa director, David Banks.

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