Soon after our wedding, my new husband and I took a middle-aged couple from Wisconsin to meet a small tribe of hunter-gatherers. (We were leading walking safaris at the time.) We rendezvoused at a guesthouse in the Ngorongoro Highlands, and headed south into the Yaida Valley the next morning. I was fairly useless as a guide; my main role was to keep everybody happy. Because this trip happened soon after our wedding, I jokingly referred to it ever after as our honeymoon safari:
Mrs. Smither next inquired about the tents—what exactly is “light camping”? I have a bad back, she explained. Trouble getting up and down. She described in some detail her experience with back pain, a subject about which I suspected we’d be hearing more in the next few days.
“But I really wanted to do this trip,” Mrs. Smither said, resolutely jabbing at a chunk of beef with her fork. “I told Carl we had to. The thing I most wanted to see was the Pygmies.”
“Not Pygmies,” I reminded her. “The Hadzabe. The Pygmies are in the rain forest, in Central and West Africa.”
Mrs. Smither stopped chewing. “The brochure said we would visit the Pygmies.”
“Not in Tanzania. Here, you’re going to meet the Hadzabe.”
Mrs. Smither swallowed, looked from me to Patrick and back to me. “Ha—what?”
“Hadzabe. Hunter-gatherers. Like the Pygmies.”
Mrs. Smither, for the moment, was speechless.
“Oh for…” Mr. Smither started to say, but Mrs. Smither silenced him with a glare.
“The brochure said Pygmies,” she stated firmly. Mr. Smither rolled his eyes in irritation.
Patrick took a long pull of beer and set the bottle on the table with a little tok. “I can take you to see the
Pygmies,” he said.
“Sure. But we gonna have to fly maybe two thousand miles, then go by foot deep into the rain forest. It’s gonna take time.”
Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Smither found this amusing. “The brochure definitely said Pygmies,” insisted Mrs. Smither. “I’ll show you—it’s in my luggage.”
“Good,” Patrick said. “I would like very much to see theez brochure. However, I can assure you, theez informations are wrong. There are no Pygmies in Yaida, or anywhere else in East Africa, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.”
Mr. Smither chuckled sympathetically, suggesting he’d had many such arguments with Mrs. Smither over the years. To her credit, Mrs. Smither reacted to Patrick’s counter-offensive by turning conciliatory.
“I’m not blaming you,” she assured him.
“I hope not. I don’t write the brochures. Well, I can barely speak English, much less write it.”
Mr. Smither shook his head but said nothing, concentrating on his food. Over dessert, we learned he was a retired state civil servant, a highway engineer, with a sizable pension. His wife, fifteen years younger, still worked for the state and loved her job; she had no desire “to sit around the house, doing nothing.” If Mr. Smither found this remark insulting, he gave no indication. He did let us know, however, that it had been her idea to come to Tanzania, and that she had done all the research. He knew nothing about Pygmies, or whatever. He had left everything in her hands. She wanted to come, so they came. He would just as soon have stayed home. (To continue, click on "Read more," below)
“I like my morning programs,” he said. “I read the newspaper for an hour while I have my coffee, then I turn on the TV from ten o’clock to noon.” He grew more cheerful as he talked about the programs he liked, which he would soon be able to enjoy again, once all this Pygmie nonsense was behind him. He mentioned the various shows by name, but we shook our heads—no, we didn’t know that one. Patrick, who hadn’t owned a TV in years, had no idea what Mr. Smither was talking about. Nevertheless, we feigned interest in Mr. Smither’s morning regimen, Patrick feigning harder than me, consoling himself midway through the main course by ordering a second beer.
Mr. Smither wrapped up his monologue by stating firmly that he enjoyed the peace and quiet of being retired, and had no desire to go anywhere, but his wife had insisted.
“You see, I have high blood pressure,” Mr. Smither explained.
“Me, too,” said Patrick. At last: something in common. They could discuss beta blockers. But before they got a chance, Mrs. Smither jumped in: She had trouble with her feet.
“What about the mountain?” she asked Patrick. He looked blank. “You know, how steep is it, the mountain we’re going to climb?”
“Oh, that. It’s just a little mountain.”
My turn. I adopted a wifely tone of gentle reproach: “Darling. It’s not a little mountain.”
“It’s nothing. We try, and if we can’t, we turn back.”
The Smithers were looking from me to him, trying to figure out which one of us was telling the truth.
“What’s up there?” said Mr. Smither. “At the top of the mountain?”
“A painted cave,” said Patrick.
Mr. Smither nodded, reflecting.
Normally, I would have considered it my job to offer more information at this point, about the painted cave—who painted it, why, what the paintings represented, that sort of thing. But the truth was, nobody knew, not even the Hadzabe. “Zimani,” they said, which meant a long time ago, when people asked when the walls were painted. Nobody knew what the paintings, which looked vaguely like sunflowers, meant, if anything. I waited to see if Mr. Smither would ask more about the painted cave, but he didn’t. The Smithers looked ready for a good night’s rest.
After dinner, we excused ourselves, reminded the Smithers to be ready to leave at eight sharp, and headed straight for our room.
“Maybe we won’t go to the painted cave,” Patrick said, once the Smithers were safely out of earshot.
“It might not be wise,” I agreed. “Even though it’s just a little mountain.” I gave him a sideways look, and caught him doing the same.
The valley’s more recent inhabitants included Irwaq growers of vegetables and maize, and the farmers were giving the Tatoga more trouble than the Masai had ever done. Instead of taking Tatoga cattle, they took Tatoga land, cultivating it for their crops. While the farmers and the herders kept an uneasy eye on each other, the valley’s oldest human inhabitants, a tribe of peace-loving bow hunters, kept an uneasy eye on them both.
Paleoanthropologists who had studied the Hadzabe—as well as the Hadzabe themselves—considered their ancestors to be the original inhabitants not only of Yaida but also of Ngorongoro, Serengeti, and other parts of Tanzania. For fifty thousand years they had lived exactly as their ancestors did, hunting with poison-tipped arrows and wooden bows strung with tendon, living in hive-shaped grass huts, speaking a language unrelated to any other, and trying not to be noticed. Inevitably, they had become objects of fascination, attracting the interest of foreign missionaries, anthropologists, journalists, humanitarian groups, filmmakers, and government officials who wanted to educate their children, take their land, and turn them into modern Tanzanians.
Yaida was the story of civilization in microcosm, with pastoralists displacing hunter-gatherers, farmers displacing the pastoralists, and a host of modern enemies sweeping away all. The newest threat was from the royal family of Abu Dhabi, who were looking for a new hunting concession. The Arab hunters had a private airstrip in northern Tanzania and flew in and out of the country at will. Their crimes at Loliondo were much talked about—using fire to herd animals out of Serengeti National Park, slaughtering them with submachine guns—and they were widely considered a scourge. The local Masai could only shake their heads at the sight of so much killing.
At the first korongo, Patrick nudged the Land Rover down the steep bank and onto the flat bottom, maintaining a steady pace to avoid sinking into the soft sand. Behind us, Nosibu stopped to put the Nissan in low gear and to lock the differentials before descending. Then he waited to see if we made it across. The Land Rover roared up the embankment, lurching over the uneven ground, dirt flying.
“Did you remember the rope?” I asked as the Nissan eased onto the sand.
But Nosibu was already coming up and over the embankment; in the backseat of the Nissan the Smithers clutched at the hand grips and shouted encouragement. They pulled up behind us, and a wild-eyed Mrs. Smithers stuck her head out the window. “We made it!” she trilled. She withdrew for a moment, reemerging with a canister in her outstretched hand. “Anybody care for a sourball?”
Our first stop was a giant baobab whose lowest branch was twenty feet above the ground; the tree served as the subject of a short discourse on forest ecology. Its fruit is an important nutrient in the Hadzabe diet; they compete for it with monkeys, elephants, and birds. Elephants chew the bark for its moisture, bees nest in the hollows, and small pools of water collect in the trees’ crevices—a hungry bushman can gather the honey or take the edge off his thirst if he climbs up into the branches.
“How would you climb this tree?” Patrick asked the Smithers.
“With a ladder,” said Mrs. Smither, emphatically.
“What ladder?” said Patrick. “I don’t see any ladder. Do you see a ladder?”
“I’d call the fire department,” countered Mrs. Smither. “Do I at least get a cell phone?”
“What about a rope?” suggested Mr. Smither.
“No rope,” insisted Patrick. “You’re a Bushman. You have a bow and a knife, that’s it.”
“I give up,” said Mrs. Smither.
“You give up, you die.”
Mr. Smither was studying the baobab with interest. No longer was it just a giant plant belonging to an esoteric world into which he had allowed himself to be led by Mrs. Smither, herself going off half-cocked—a world he’d just as soon not know about. Now it was an engineering problem. He pondered it with the thoughtful frown of a retired highway engineer.
“Ah,” he said, his face lighting up. He approached the tree. “Now I see.” He pointed to a spot a few feet above the base of the trunk: a notch had been cut into the bark with a knife, and a six-inch stick pounded into the notch with the help of a rock. There was another stick a few feet above that, and another, and another, leading up the trunk to the first set of branches. “There’s your ladder, dear,” said Mr. Smither to his wife.
“You see, I was right?” exclaimed Mrs. Smither, but she gave Mr. Smither’s arm a pat of approval. Mr. Smither, pleased with himself, smiled up at the tree.
It was midafternoon—the siesta hour, the hottest part of the day—when we reached the forested area where we intended to spend the next two nights of our unofficial honeymoon. Hearing the engines of our two cars, three boys in raggedy shorts and rubber sandals emerged from the bush, smiling and waving. “Korongo!” one of them shouted, and motioned for us to follow. Looking back over their shoulders now and then, their faces bright, they ran ahead of the cars, leading us to their campsite, a grove of acacias where a dozen men, women, and children were passing the siesta hour in the shade. All eyes were upon us as we rumbled in. The men were smoking soapstone pipes, periodically relighting them with embers from the fire. One of them had killed a small lovebird with a slingshot and placed its undressed carcass on the fire, a limp pile of bright green feathers. Every few minutes he retrieved it long enough to remove a few feathers and pluck roasted bits of flesh from its bones. There is not much meat on a lovebird.
Around another small fire, a circle of women melted bits of plastic, scavenged from the road or some nearby settlement, then fashioned it into beads. A couple of infants nestled in their mother’s arms; a trio of toddlers wandered back and forth between the two fire circles.
Marogi Panda stood as Patrick climbed out of the truck. He was a cheerful old man, with bad teeth and failing eyesight. Patrick asked the clients to stay in the car while he talked with our host. With the help of two translators, in a conversation that went from English to Swahili to Hadza and back, Patrick explained to Marogi that we would like to camp nearby for a few days. Would that be okay? And we would like to have one camp assistant, not more. If they sent more, he warned, the extras would not be paid. One man, three days, three thousand shillings. Nosibu translated, Marogi nodded. Hamna shida: No problem.
The Hadzabe had worked out a system for handling the money they made from tourism—if other tour companies followed in our tracks the small trickle could become a stream. The money was supposed to be doled out by the elders for communal projects, such as the digging of wells. Sometimes, however, a little got diverted for less high-minded purposes, such as the buying of homemade beer.
Two toddlers approached the Nissan and stared at Mrs. Smither, fingers in their mouths. “Jambo!” she called. The toddlers smiled. “Oh, how cute!”
“Okay, folks,” said Patrick, negotiations complete, “you can get out now. But no pictures, please.”
The Smithers eased themselves out of the Nissan; the toddlers took a few steps back. We followed Marogi around the camp, trailed by the silent toddlers, their eyes glued to Mrs. Smither, who was large and blond and smelled of hand lotion and hairspray and was probably as unlike a Hadzabe as anyone they had ever met.
“What’s this?” said Mr. Smither, gesturing toward a circular enclosure about ten feet in diameter—it was made of thorn bushes piled two to three feet high.
“Sleeping chamber,” said Patrick “The thorns keep out predators.”
Mr. Smither looked dubious but said nothing. Most clients reacted with dismay to the raggedy clothes, the flimsy huts, the total absence of any domestic comforts in a Hadzabe encampment. But the Smithers were either remarkably unperturbed by the primitiveness of Marogi’s settlement or too stunned to express themselves. Perhaps they were wondering how closely this sleeping chamber resembled the one they themselves would spend the night in, surrounded by predators.
We stayed only a few minutes before leaving to set up our own camp, a quarter mile away. One of the youths—the designated camp assistant—grabbed his bow and climbed into the back of the pickup. Marogi came over and bummed a cigarette from Patrick and we drove off.
“Was that them?” said Mrs. Smither. “The Hadzabe?”
We had neglected, in the course of making introductions, to mention this small detail. The people we had just met could be anybody. They could even be Pygmies, if we wanted them to be. But from the excitement on Mrs. Smither’s face, I was guessing she had forgotten all about the Pygmies.
“Yes,” I assured her. “Those were the Hadzabe.”
Mrs. Smither nodded with satisfaction.
“Are we going back?
“Tomorrow,” I answered. “Today we’ll rest.”
Over dinner, mr. smither told us about his pension fund. He said that, thanks to the state of Wisconsin, he was making more money as a retiree than he had made when he was working. This seemed to impress Patrick way more than the fact that Mr. Smither came from a state famous for its cheese; he started paying more attention to Mr. Smither after that, even testing out a few jokes on him, which Mr. Smither chuckled at, but he himself was not a joke teller and the effort of being the only joke teller in the group soon proved too much for Patrick and he began to yawn and stretch, signaling it was time for bed.
“So,” said Mrs. Smither. “What do we do tomorrow?”
Before Patrick had time to answer, Mr. Smither jumped in.
“I want to see that cave.”
Flush with success in the tree-climbing and arrow-making trials, Mr. Smither was ready for the advanced stuff. If mountain climbing was next, then bring on the mountain.
“You know it means we will have to get up early,” Patrick warned him.
“That’s okay,” said Mr. Smither. “I’m normally up at five.”
Mrs. Smither, however, wasn’t so sure. “I’m not really a morning person,” she confided.
“You want to stay here?” said Patrick, a bit too quickly. “With the cook?”
But Mrs. Smither would have none of that. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’m coming with you. But I might not make it to the top.”
Mister and missus bid us good night and retired to their tent, guided by the beam of their flashlight. The tent zipper went up, then down. Muffled voices wafted toward us, rising now and then in complaint as the Smithers tried to arrange themselves for sleep, fumbling around on the floor of the unfamiliar tent. The second day of our honeymoon was at an end. We remained seated at the table, too exhausted to move. The dry leaves of the baobab rustled gently overhead. “Well, darling,” Patrick said, taking my hand: “La vie est un desert, et tu est le chameau qui m’aide a le traverser.” Life is a desert, and you are the camel who helps me cross it.
A few minutes after sunrise, Mr. Smither joined us in the dining tent, where we were drinking coffee and waiting for Robert to finish cooking our eggs. Mrs. Smither would join us shortly, he said. Ordinarily it took a while for her to get going in the morning and, well, neither of them had slept too soundly.
“Me, I always sleep very well in the bush,” said Patrick, dipping a hunk of jelly-slathered bread in his coffee. Mr. Smither studied the bread-dunking routine with a worried frown.
Three adolescent boys from Marogi’s camp had come to observe us. Crouched at a respectful distance just beyond the baobab’s periphery, they were so quiet we almost didn’t notice that they were there. Like kids gathered in front of a big-screen TV, they watched, spellbound, as Robert prepared our breakfast—frying eggs, brewing coffee, toasting bread, slicing fruit.
Ten minutes later Mrs. Smither appeared, puffy-eyed and grim, one hand on the small of her back, a canvas bag slung over her shoulder. Her coiffure had morphed overnight so that she looked like a giant Barbie that had gone through the washing machine. And the dryer. “Coffee only,” she told Robert, then, grasping her cup, she made her way to the table that Robert had set up outside the mess tent, the one he used for chopping vegetables. Setting her bag on the table, she pulled up a chair and eased into it, wincing. She unzipped the bag and extracted a few items, among them a self-standing mirror. She placed the mirror on the table in front of her and gave her reflection a bland assessment, then frowned, picked up her hairbrush, and began tackling her coiffure with brisk, businesslike strokes.
Mr. Smither, true to his morning-person nature, was recounting in some detail a recent television broadcast about the rising cost of prescription drugs. I glanced over at Mrs. Smither, who had set aside her hairbrush and was wielding a battery-powered curling wand. Already, her tortured-Barbie hair was looking smoother, sleeker, and more manageable.
The conference of Hadzabe boys looked on, discussing Mrs. Smither’s exotic toilet in whispers.
“We should go,” said Patrick, interrupting Mr. Smither’s soliloquy. But Mrs. Smither was not quite ready—first, she needed to curl her eyelashes. The three boys stared, mouths agape, as Mrs. Smither raised the demonic-looking metal eyelash curler to her eyes. They had seen a lot of strange objects enter the Yaida Valley—Nintendo Game Boys, digital cameras, potato peelers, Frisbees—but never one of these. This was a first.
Frozen with apprehension, they watched the clawlike contraption approach Mrs. Smither’s eyeball, as if to extract it. Never had the Yaida Valley seen a human being capable of popping its eyeballs in and out at will, but one never knew with foreigners. The claw spread its talons, and, guided by Mrs. Smither’s own hand, clamped down on her upper lid. The boys stirred as if preparing to bolt. The claw released, traveled to the other lid. The eyeball remained in its socket. Mrs. Smither checked her reflection closely in the mirror and, satisfied, tossed the curler in her bag. Relieved, the boys poked each other, giggling. Mrs. Smither looked up and smiled, then walked over to them with her mirror. The boys watched her approach, smiling but wary, as if she might have another frightful object up her sleeve. But it was only a mirror, nothing they hadn’t seen before, and when she offered it to them, they crowded together and stared solemnly at their reflection.
“Let’s go!” said Patrick. “It’s getting late!” It was no good to hike in the heat of the day. The camp of Hasani was a half-hour drive farther down the valley. Hasani or one of his sons would take us from there to the painted cave, a ninety-minute scramble up a steep and rocky ridge along an elephant trail.
Mr. Smither returned from the painted cave elated. Never mind that there wasn’t much to see up there. “What did I miss?” inquired Mrs. Smither. Mr. Smither was hard-pressed to say. The Hadzabe themselves had no idea what the deal with the cave was, or what the paintings meant, nor did they seem to care. But they were happy to take us there, since we seemed so interested.
As we were preparing to leave, Hasani asked Patrick for batteries. Somehow he had acquired a small radio that had run out of juice. Next time, said Patrick. Hasani nodded. He wanted to know when Patrick would be back. Patrick said he didn’t know, and Hasani nodded again. Hamna shida.
In the afternoon, we managed a small walk in the bush around Marogi’s camp with some of the women and children, who showed us how to gather berries (which Mrs. Smither pronounced “very tasty” and Mr. Smither dismissed as “glutinous”) and roots (“Like a potato,” said Mrs. Smither; “not much flavor,” said her husband). By dinnertime, the Smithers were exhausted, and as Robert cleared the dessert plates, they said good night and headed for their tent. We had the rest of the evening to ourselves.
Drums and singing were coming from a half-mile away: The Hadzabe were having a party. We sat on a couple of camp stools in the darkness, not talking, enjoying the quiet and the dry, dusty-sweet smell of the bush. From the direction of the food tent came the soft voices of Robert and Nosibu. From the Smithers’ tent came the growl of Mr. Smither’s snoring.
Our honeymoon was nearly over. As the distant drums picked up their tempo and the chorus of voices rose and faded, I remembered a story Hasani had told one night when he and Kaunda visited our campsite. It went something like this: In the beginning, there were the people—the Hadzabe—and their enemies. The enemies gave chase. The people ran toward a great rock, climbing up a ladder for safety. The last one to reach safety was supposed to pull up the ladder, but for some reason, the ladder didn’t get removed. The enemies swarmed up onto the rock and have been causing trouble ever since.
“How did we manage to find each other?”
“You came on safari, and I was the guide.”
“That was a stroke of luck, wasn’t it?”
“I am the lucky one.”