Tanzania: Tribal People — the Maasai, Datoga, Hadzabe

Fiona & the Datoga chief ... he already had several wives, but I think he might have been shopping for another!

(Back to Tanzania … ) Along with the time we spent in schools and with children, we loved encountering the wide variety of cultures throughout Tanzania. There are “officially” 126 different tribes in the country.

During our two-week trip, we met a number of individuals from several tribes. For example:

  • Our driver/guide, Moses, was from Southern Tanzania and came from a Bantu-speaking tribe (closely related to Zulus of southern Africa)
  • Our guide Abraham was a Makonde (their language is also a Bantu language and they are connected to tribes in Mozambique and known for their complicated black ebony, or mpingo, wood carvings)
  • We met people from the Chagga tribe (brewers of banana beer (!) from the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro; they also grow coffee)
  • Most of the schoolchildren we met at Heydesh Primary School were Iraqw (speakers of a Cushtic language and related to some of the most ancient Ethiopian and Somalian tribes.)
  • Makonde carvings at a market in Mto wa Mbu

    We got to spend time with three different tribal groups in their villages: the Maasai, the Datoga and the Hadzabe.

    The Maasai

    In and around Arusha, we started to see Maasai communities. Traditionally, the Maasai were nomadic people whose lives and culture revolved around cattle. As their range has diminished and they’ve become slightly more settled, they’ve begun a bit of farming, usually maize.

    Maasai boma as seen from the air, en route from the Serengeti to Kilimanjaro

    The “home base” is called a “boma” and is a circular paddock area that contains the huts for living as well as a circular pen in the center for the livestock — their most precious possession. The boys and men are responsible for caring for the livestock and we regularly saw them driving cattle out to feed in the early parts of the day and back toward the boma as night approached. The older boys and men manage the cattle and the younger boys start off with the goats.

    Maasai boma on the northern slope of Ngorongoro Crater

    Many of the Maasai that we saw had their lower two teeth knocked out. We were told this was to facilitate giving them medicine and food if (when) they got tetanus, or “lock jaw.”

    Many Maasai who we saw — in fact many Tanzanians — wear sandals made of old tires. We frequently saw them for sale along the roads and in markets.

    We visited a Maasai boma that has been set up to help the women, who traditionally have very little status, earn some money by selling their bead work. We got to go into some of the huts. They’re basically one room structures, which a small storage area, a bed and a fire in the middle of the floor. We tasted their breakfast food — a kind of polenta-porridge drink made with maize and fermented milk. Traditionally, the main elements in their diets are blood and milk.

    We met the school teacher and her students, who go to school half the day and spend the other half doing chores. They’re building a new schoolhouse so they can continue their lessons when the rainy season starts.

    Interestingly, although everyone live in the traditional huts and wore mostly traditional clothes (the big cloth that they wrap themselves in, kind of like a Scottish plaid, is called a “shuka”), we did see several men in the boma with cell phones and several people who had digital watches.

    Fiona modeling an "engarewa" (a beaded ceremonial collar). A Maasai women might wear several of these at one time.

    The bead work was interesting and the women were very proud of their crafts. Bracelets, necklaces and the wide collars were all for sale. They also had some decorated herding sticks. I don’t think I ever saw a Maasai man in our entire time in Tanzania without his herding stick.

    The Maasai are probably the most famous tribe in Tanzania and it seems like the government has made a lot of concessions to keep them happy, in terms of granting them land.

    CLICK HERE for more photos of the Maasai we encountered in Tanzania.

    The Datoga

    A few days later, when we were staying near Lake Eyasi, we got to spend time in a Datoga village. The Datoga are a Nilotic people, thought to have originated in Ethiopia or southern Sudan. Like the Maasai, the Datoga  traditionally were herders, but have added a bit more agriculture. They are also well known as blacksmiths.

    Owen said it was really tough to work the cow stomach hand bellows

    The Datoga use cow stomach as hand bellows; Jack and Owen both got a chance to try to pump the bellows when we visited the village. The Datoga melt down anything — pipe fittings, discarded bicycle parts, anything metal — to make simple jewelery as well as arrowheads to trade with neighboring tribes, such as the Hadzabe (bushmen).

    They “dressed” us in jewelery (some which we purchased later) and were clearly very proud of their arrowheads and knives. Some of the women have the decorative scarring on their faces in circular patterns around the eyes.

    The woman with the drum has the traditional scarring pattern around her eyes.

    We really enjoyed meeting the Datoga women; the men pretty much kept to themselves although they hovered nearby. And even though we were speaking through an interpreter, it really felt like we were talking together. The chief’s older wife took us into her hut and was very engaging. She asked us as many questions as we asked her! We “chatted” for quite a while.

    After visiting, they demonstrating their dancing. It was much like the Maasai dancing — some singing, clapping, a small drum and the “dance” consists of jumping straight in the air. I must say that some of the young men can really spring high. The women also add to the music by tapping their bracelets together.

    CLICK HERE for more photos of our time with the Datoga.

    The Hadzabe

    The Hadzabe, or bushmen, are among the last true hunter-gather societies left in the world. They are closely linked with San in southern Africa, who live hear the Kalahari desert (the stars of “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”) They hunt on foot with bow and arrows, don’t have permanent homes and speak a “click” language.

    The National Geographic ran a great article on the Hadzabe in the Dec. 2009 issue. (Read it online here.) One of the bushmen we met was  photographed in the article.

    Like the Datoga, they live near Lake Eyasi. We got up WELL BEFORE dawn one morning to catch up with them and go hunting. When we first got there, the hunters were still getting ready–putting on baboon fur headdresses, checking bows and arrows and smoking joints. Apparently, marijuana has become a big part of their lives.

    Around the campfire, there were an older man, who was fletching arrows, and an older woman, who was weaving fronds into long strips that I think get made into baskets. They told us that all the other women and children had been gone a day or two, hunting for honey. Fiona was disappointment that she didn’t get to meet any “bushmen children,” as she called them.

    As the hunters were getting ready, Jack and Owen got a chance to shoot the bows. I think the Hadzabe were quite surprised at how well they shot (they have bows, arrows and targets at home.)

    Jack gets an archery lesson from a Hadza hunter

    As hunting with the bushmen requires running through the woods for a couple hours, Fiona and I stayed behind. She was also quite apprehensive that they might catch and kill a baboon, which is one of their favorite targets. While they were gone, we hung out with the basket-making lady and the arrow-making guy.

    Apparently the hunting trip was quite exciting, although they only came home with a squirrel and a bird. The bushmen immediately threw them on the fire — whole and un-gutted. As they cooked, they pulled fur and feather off once they were charred. They would pull a piece of the bird or squirrel off the fire and use their knives to cut off cooked bites, which they offered around. We all had some. I think they probably eat every last bit of the game.

    Hadzabe hunters cooking a squirrel and bird WHOLE on the fire

    After our “meal,” the boys got some more bow and arrow lessons and they offered to sell the bows and arrows, which we immediately said yes to. (I think they were about 15.00 a piece). They also had some porcupine quill necklaces, which Fiona latched onto.

    Although their lifestyle is certainly the most primitive we’ve encountered, they’re not immune from modern civilization. Our local guide told us they’ll probably take the money they earned and go to town to buy meat and drink beer until the money’s gone. Sort of reminds me of the early encounters between white men and Native Americans.

    CLICK HERE for more photos of the Hadzabe.

    Previous posts about our trip to Tanzania are here:

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    1. Dear Ms. Mckenna,
      I would like to correspond with you regarding possible use of one of the photographs on this page.
      I may be reached through the following email address:
      Sincerely yours,
      Kelly Moss

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