Tribes of Tanzania

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Tanzania is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world with over 120 different cultural tribes inhabiting the country.  Each of the tribes have their own distinct customs, traditions, and languages; but together they unite to form the country of Tanzania.  After its independence, the government recognized that all the diverse spoken languages could cause a communication problem, and therefore made Swahili the official language.  Even though most people can speak Swahili, in each tribe people still speak in their own mother tongue. On our trip to Tanzania, we got to visit two of these tribes: the graceful Maasai, and the Hadza bushmen and learn a little bit about their way of life.

Maasai Tribe

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The Maasai are a semi-nomadic indigenous African ethnic group, famous as herders and warriors. They once dominated the plains of East Africa but now mostly live in Kenya and Northern Tanzania. The Maasai have resisted the sedentary lifestyle and continue on as pastoralists.  Even though they live a sheltered existence outside of modern civilization, the tribe’s distinctive clothing and unique culture have made them recognizable the world over.  The Maasai people are a perfect example for understanding the special connection between humans and nature.

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We visited one of the villages in the conservation area and learned about their rich cultural heritage. Foreign visitors are welcomed and encouraged to donate money to support the village. The money is used to buy medical supplies, water, and build schools.  We took part in the Maasai welcome dance, followed by adamu (“the jumping dance”) performed in a circle of warriors, each competing to show who can jump the highest.

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Maasai society is patriarchal, and elder men make the majority of the decisions. There are distinctive gender roles within the tribe: the men tend to the animals and maintain the fences while the women have an endless list of chores that include building houses, raising the children, and the washing, cooking, and cleaning. The women spend their spare time doing colorful bead work that they wear and sell at the market.

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When a boy comes of age, at around 15, he can take a wife, usually within the Maasai tribes. A lot of men have 5-6 wives, and each come with their own dowry of cows. The Maasai measure a man’s wealth in terms of cattle and children, rather than money. As  cattle breeders, the Maasai people mostly eat meat and the milk that they produce themselves. One of their traditional dishes involves the mixing of cow’s blood with milk. Their typical diet of roots and traditional food has kept them strong and healthy.

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On our tour of the village, we got to see the inside of a traditional hut.  As the interpreter explained, each hut is for a woman and her children.  A man can have multiple wives, each with their own hut.  Inside there is a bed for the husband and wife, and a separate one for the children made of branches and grass. At the foot of the bed is a hearth used for cooking and keeping warm.

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We ended our visit at a school, where the children were learning their Swahili and English letters. Their afternoon session was happily interrupted as everyone joined in and sang a very catchy song to welcome us. They were fascinated by our camera, and we spent some time showing them how to take pictures.

Song Chorus:

Jambo! Jambo bwana! (Hi! Hi sir!)
Habari gani? Mzuri sana! (How are you? Very fine!)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa!  (Visitors are welcome!)
Hakuna matata! (There are no worries!)

Hadza or HadzabeTribe

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The indigenous Hadza tribes live around the shallow, salty Lake Eyasi, and sheltered by the ramparts of the Great Rift Valley. The Hadza live as hunter-gatherers,  as their ancestors have for tens of thousands of years. They are among the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the world. The tribe lives in relative seclusion from the rest of the world, and is probably one of the few African tribes that is still very similar to its ancestors in terms of their current way of life.

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We picked up our interpreter and headed over to the Hadza homeland where we were greeted by the men of the tribe. They were huddling over a dying fire, roasting an antelope killed earlier.  We were invited to join in the snack prior to the hunt.  The antelope tasted like a tough piece of beef with a smoky flavor after it was cooked over the fire.

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We were taught to make fire from a stick by rubbing the sticks vigorously between the palms of our hand. Once enough friction is built up, a hot ember is created and gets transferred to a pile of dry leaves. The tinder pile is carefully picked up and and blown into until a spark is ignited. The tribesmen made it look easy, but we were not able to even get a flicker no matter how hard we tried.

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We got to learn about the weapons that the Hadza use for hunting.  Bow-and-arrows are typically used to kill smaller birds, and spears are used for land-bound animals like monkeys.  To bring down a larger animal like antelope, they usually soak the spearhead with poison made from  the boiled sap of the bush gourd.

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It’s tradition for the men to pass around a pipe full of marijuana before they go out hunting. The hunt is usually reserved for men only, and so it was a treat for me to able to accompany the hunters on their quest.

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Our guide signaled for us to follow as the hunters begin fanning out around the base of the hill. We tried to keep up with the men as they plunged into the brush and climbed the hill. We were duly impressed by their speed and agility as we struggled to keep up.

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Thorn bushes and spiked acacia trees dominate the terrain, and even during the day there is no way to avoid being jabbed and scratched. Sharp-pointy thorns as long as a pocket knife stick out from the trees waiting for some absentminded tourists. The thicket bushes are vicious and as dense as a Brillo pad. As I found out to my detriment, it’s easy to get hurt if you’re not careful. Multiple times  the thorns sliced through my clothing and cut up my arms and knees.  My delicate skin was not built for the bush.

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We hunted for about two hours, traveling a few miles through the bush down to a dried up river bank where the hunters stopped briefly for a drink of water.  The tribesmen drank directly from the deep water hole that they had carefully marked.

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After the short break, we continued to quietly stalk our prey from tree to tree.  Finally after a few well aimed shots, they snagged a bird and bat. Hunting is a very long arduous process that takes a lot of skill and endurance. It’s no wonder these guys are all lean muscle.

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In the afternoon, we went back to the homestead to meet the women and children. Hadza women stay close to camp and spend their time gathering berries, baobab fruit, and digging for edible tubers. Their spare time is spent making jewelry from porcupine quills and colorful beads to sell at the market.

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The Hadza usually sleep in their hut during dry season and move into caves when it gets wetter.

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We ended our visit with a rousing goodbye song.  Everyone in the tribe came out to sing and dance to the beat as we thanked them for their hospitality.

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