Irony of Poison
I stop the vehicle, a solid mark four inches wide stretches across the road in front of me, and I step out, it is obviously the track of a big snake. The Hadzabe who are taking me to get some “mbuyu” or Baobab fruit jump off the top of the truck as my guest calls it. Their exclamations are obvious by the intonation of their completely foreign language of clicks. It’s a very fresh track and I ask if they think we can follow- “ndiyo” they answer and suddenly we are moving through the thick scrub following the track of possibly the largest snake I will see in the wild. They spread out and while one is following the immediate track, the others surge forward looking to pick it up further ahead. A couple of times we circle a thicket, an exiting track is not obvious and we peer into the undergrowth looking for the serpent. The track is fresh enough that it still shines and soon one of the bushmen sees where the snake passed and we are on its trail again. The interruption of bird chatter speeds things up and the keen eyes of the hunters spots a 16 inch section of thigh-thick python entwined in the thorny branches of an Elephant-football plant.
After a little searching we find the head, its tongue flicking in and out of the mouth. One of the shorter stockier Hadzabe places the end of an arrow against his bowstring- surprising me he asks;
“Niue”? (Shall I kill it)
“Kwanini”? Hua munamkula? I reply. (Why? Do you eat them?)
“Mnatumia ngozi yake”? (Do you use their skin?)
“Sasa kwanini unatakakumua?” (So why do you want to kill it?)
“Labda kwa ajili yako” (Maybe for your sake)
I don’t know how to answer his last words. “Maybe for you”?
Maybe for me?
I am not a hunter, but I have just enjoyed the hunt, following this animal without it knowing until we had found it. How easily we could have killed it- but to whose benefit? Maybe for me? Maybe for the photographer- I imagine the perfect arrow placement, the writhing 14ft of African rock python as it died. For me? The older of the Hadzabe adds, this snake is “mpole sana” (very calm). “Our safari is blessed by this”, he finishes.
Our journey continues and we head up a valley. A couple of times the Hadzabe go into hunting mode when they spot a dikdik, but our goal is Baobab fruit. The massive trees stand out against the bright sky- something that could be out of Dr Seuss’s children’s books. Again I’m thinking about the light and how harsh it is as we walk up to a beautiful Baobab specimen, one side pecked with holes. “Tuchukue asali”, one mutters and starts picking up bits of Commiphora wood to start a fire. The other is cutting branches from a Grewia to make the pegs he will use to climb the tree. Nicol is busy watching and forgets that she has two camera bodies strapped around her neck. I clumsily try to light the fire with the Hadzabe barely encouraging more than a wisp of smoke, then sitting back to let him get on with it, it’s barely two seconds and he has a coal and then some smoke, and finally the blaze.
My mind wanders back to yesterday; arriving at the kopjie, the meat of a Lesser Kudu laid out across some sticks, everyone sitting around their little fires. Looking into the Kudu’s big black eyes I wasn’t as sad as when I’ve seen them in the back of a hunter’s Landcruiser. I know that every muscle, every sinew, and every organ of this beautiful animal will probably be used. I climbed up to where the men were huddled around the fire, the liver, heart and kidneys boiling in a small pot.
I remember the other vehicle arriving, the feeling of betrayal that my local contact had brought me to another “tourist trap”. Sitting with the men huddled around the fire, I am offered a kidney and some liver. I try to learn about the hunt, but only one of them mumbles a little bit of Swahili while the rest ignore me. I sense annoyance to my presence. I know that when they have meat they will not hunt, and now they are carving intricate patterns on their long arrows, adjusting arrowheads and guinea fowl feathers. Three of the men reluctantly get up and head off with the two tourists on the “hunt”. I sit and wait.
Four hours later, after having withdrawn trying to be a fly on a wall instead of an intruder, we’ve already seen more than most see- normal life. The kudu skin is being stretched out in the sun to dry and I hope Nicol is getting some good photos. The tail is brought out and we watch as they skin it and then place the soft hairs on their bows- to tell the direction of the wind I’m told. I hold some arrows in my hand and ask about the poison, found half-a-days walk away but only 2 hours by car, one of the older boys suddenly speaks up in Swahili- if you will take us we will go make poison. We only have one arrow left each. One of my main interests is in plants and their uses and I want to go. They all run off in different directions while I open up the roof hatches, 6 of them want to come.
As we drive along more of them start speaking Swahili. It is obvious that the Hadzabe are having fun, and I wonder what the local guide thinks- sitting comfortably on one of the seats, his window rolled up- is he having as much fun as Nicol and the Hadzabe are? Nicol and I discuss the ethics of cultural tourism, its effects, of voyeurism, of intrusion, and whether can you take a photo without taking. We drive across an alkaline pan towards a small rocky outcrop blurred by a mirage. Its very hot and I remind her to put on sunscreen and stay hydrated.
“Hapo hapo” the Hadza shout as we pull up next to a hot spring. A couple Datoga herd-boys are washing in the “maji-moto”. The light is harsh and not very conducive to photography, but is more about the experience. The boys light a fire, pass around a smoke, and happily go about business. A branch is cut and sharpened as the pounding stick and Nicol is gestured to follow the two older boys as the walk up among the rocks looking for a suitable Adenium obesum (Desert rose) to use. I follow and one of the hunters tells me his ancestors and grandfathers are buried here. There are rock paintings on some of the rock walls. They are proud and happy. It’s not another show. After watching them cut branches from the poison plant, pound at the base and squeeze out the liquid into a sufuria, a Datoga warrior who has been watching too exchanges some words. Nicol asks me for translation because it is obvious that this is not a friendly exchange of words. I’m pulled aside by the guide from the village into a discussion. A Cultural Tourism Identity Card is flashed in front of me and I’m told that we have violated a Datoga sacred site, a Tambiko. We must pay a sheep and bucket of honey. The Hadzabe are defiant, the Datoga are aggressive and we watch and listen. I step aside to try to mitigate without involving Nicol. The Hadza don’t want me to talk to the man with the ID card. They tell the Datoga warriors that they are not being paid to make the poison, that they had asked if I would help them with transport. They quickly cut some more branches to take home and we head down to the car. They are determined now for Nicol to document the poison making with her photos and keep telling her to follow them. They place the sufuria on the fire and the evaporation process starts. Back at the car, they ask if they can tie the branches they are taking home with them on top of my car. The exchange is still heated, apparently the “serekali” has been called on cell phones and are on their way. The Hadza don’t care. “Our ancestors are buried here, these are our paintings from before you came to this land”, they tell the Datoga.
“You want a fine because we have cut plants, but we have not killed them the way you do when you cut for your bomas. We have only cut branches, we have not taken roots or cut the whole plant.”
The older of the boys is most vocal and the Datoga threats change- “You will be the last to run into the hills” they tell him.
He gets into the car and takes out his bow and arrows. He tells them- “We are not people living in the bush, we are people of the bush. When you came to this land you found us here”.
The poison is starting to thicken and we head back to the fire. They tell me to translate for Nicol and explain how the poison curdles blood and when it gets to the heart it is the end, and how the poison they are making will be used on larger animals when the rains come. One of the hunters rolls the thickened poison into a ball using ash from the fire to stop his hands from sticking to the gob. He takes one of his new arrows and starts to shape it around it around the shaft of the arrowhead.
The next day at dawn, we are back with the Hadzabe. Nicol is happy, she’s seen a lot in our 10 hours with the people. The men sit around oblivious to me, smoking and eating meat they are animated about the day before. They laugh when they mention how quickly the Datoga retreated behind the car when they got their bows and arrows out. I wish I had a video camera and tape recorder to record their discussion.
I’m back at the base of the Baobab, the stocky Hadzabe is throwing down honey combs dripping with the clearest honey. The other bites into a comb full of bee larvae. It’s another good day. The experience has turned out well. It’s hard to plan a genuine cultural experience, but I’ve been lucky with Nicol. She is happy to wait and watch and be spontaneous. We couldn’t afford to visit the more remote Hadzabe on this trip- and I can hear some of the comments other guides might tell me about the genuine experience, its true it hasn’t been the romantic untouched hunter-gatherer experience, but Nicol and I have tasted some truth, not as sweet and clear as the Acacia mellifera honey that’s dripped from our fingers.
All photos by Alyssa Nicol www.nicolragland.com more on her website.