An Old New Way
Earlier this year I spent time in Tanzania, hanging out with the Hadza, one of several African tribes to which all human beings trace their genetic lineage. The Hadza, known to some as the “original people,” are hunter-gatherers who live on the eastern shores of Lake Eyasi in northeast Tanzania, just as they have for at least 30,000 years.
When I left the United States for Africa the Dow Jones Industrial Average had descended to 6,500. As I write, the market is hovering around 8,500. Still, many friends remain convinced that the financial turmoil is far from over, prologue to a cataclysmic economic and environmental meltdown. They’re storing food, buying guns, and otherwise trying to prepare for total systems collapse.
Their actions beg the question: How on earth are we going to survive?
I don’t know the answer. I am convinced, though, that if humans are around in 500 years, it will be because we’ve learned to think in new ways, harking back to old ways of thinking: Hadza-like thinking, updated for the exigencies of our times.
Like the monks of Lindesfarne who preserved ancient scriptures in their cloisters during the Dark Ages, the Hadza and other indigenous people preserve and pass down wisdom regarding how to live in sustainable communities, the role of elders, the use of plant medicines, and the art of consensus decision-making, among other things.
I went to Hadzaland with a group of eight men, led by Daudi Peterson of Dorobo Safaris and Richard Leider of Inventure Expeditions, to spend time learning from the Hadza. We hiked together through their homelands; hunted gazelles, warthogs, and guinea fowl with bows and arrows (without success); dug tubers and roots; picked baobab fruit; made fire (and blisters) by twirling fire sticks; harvested wild honey (with the help of honeyguide birds); and exchanged stories and songs around the night fire.
A down-to-earth, nomadic people, the Hadza congregate in groups of up to 30 for two to eight weeks before moving on to new foraging grounds. They eat whatever they can pick or catch. Their playful humor is often bawdy, and they can be unabashedly flirtatious. They are not big on ceremony or ritual. They do not keep more possessions than they can comfortably carry, and will gamble frequently to relieve each other of items too tightly held or jealously guarded.
It’s easy to romanticize the Hadza’s lifestyle, especially as they struggle to maintain their traditional ways. They are besieged by officious government bureaucrats, big-game-hunting oil sheiks and poachers, land-grabbing cattle herders, and camera-wielding tourists like me.
I don’t think I’m idealizing them, however. I think they’ve managed to accomplish something extraordinary. They’ve preserved their common sense.
Three stories illustrate how different their thinking is from the modern mind-set.
I asked a 40-year-old tribesman what he thought of Barack Obama. “I watched the inauguration,” he answered matter-of-factly. “He’s saying all the right things but we’ll just have to wait and see.”
One night we sat around the campfire with eight Hadza men and women, including 80-something-year-old Magandula, who told us, “One time a Hadza camp was hungry and everyone debated whether to move camp. Only the old man wanted to stay where they were. Everybody else wanted to move, so they did, leaving the old man behind. The group searched all around for food, but could find nothing. Meanwhile, the old man got hungry and went hunting and found two giraffes, which he killed. After awhile the others, still unable to find food, decided to check on the old man, so they came back and found him with the two giraffes, waiting for them.” End of story.
Another night we heard stories from Gudo (pronounced Goo-doe), who, at somewhere between 90 and 100 years old, is the oldest living Hadza. Someone asked Gudo if he was happy. After lamenting the fact that the Hadza girls no longer wear beads around their waists as they used to, Gudo acknowledged that he was nearing the end of his life. “What brings me happiness,” he said through a translator, “is knowing that, at my funeral, I will be surrounded by many people, including my children, grandchildren, and friends.”
Withhold judgment. Listen to your elders. Don’t fear death. This is the sort of commonsense thinking we need now.
Viva la différence! Long live Gudo!