Notes From the Road:
What a Honeycomb, a Bird and a Tanzanian Grandfather Taught Me About Life’s Sweetest Pleasures
My love for Tanzania runs so deep that I don’t even quite know how to describe it – this country just moves you in ways that leave an indelible mark.
Take, as just one example, the walk I went on the other day.
A Walk Among the Hadza
It started out as any other walk, except that my guide – or guides I should say, about 10 of them in total, a mix of male and female, young and old – were among some of the last hunters and gatherers in Tanzania, known as the Hadzabe or Hadza people.
At first blush our “meeting” seemed a tad contrived, like so many of the programs for visitors trying to interact with the locals, but I can assure you that I quickly realized there was nothing contrived or inauthentic about them.
The Hadza immediately took off on foot, the men armed with bow and arrows and the woman with their hollowed out gourds. We clicked along nicely, stopping to pick up what to me looked like rocks, but to the keen eye of the Hadza were apparently edible.
The Hadza and Their Honey
The men fanned out into the bush looking for ground birds while the women gave a quick glance at the trees looking for a bees’ nest from which to extract honey.
Suddenly the eldest woman in the group rang out something in Hadza and the men came trotting in while kids followed suit.
They had found a small bees’ nest, and fortunately no stinging bees. They immediately began hacking away at the limb, their strokes precise so as to not harm the tree; with finesse and skill they revealed what was hiding behind the bark without inflicting any serious damage.
There it was, a little ball of liquid gold. They were polite and let me stick my bush fork (what you and I would call a twig) into the honey and have a taste before they pounced, and it was gone as quick as it was revealed.
The eldest rubbed dirt on the bark to cover the tree’s wound, so to speak, and help the tree heal. And like that we were back on the hunt.
After a few minutes later, a grandfather within the group drew an arrow and everyone stopped dead in their tracks – everyone but me, that is, who kept right on milling about, clueless to the nonverbal signal that I should freeze.
Grandpa crept like a kid trying to snatch a lizard, low and slow, and then pulled back his bow and fired. I closed my eyes — was this for real? Was there really a bird there?
He drew another and seemed to take a bit more time to reposition, and then… fire! Direct hit. This time he didn’t miss. In fact, he walked so casually toward his bounty that I got the impression he only missed the first time to tease me. He grabbed the bird silently, and again we were off.
Gliding Through the Underbrush
The Hadza have a special way of walking in the bush – it’s almost as if they float, gliding through the underbrush effortlessly.
I, meanwhile, was getting stuck on every twig, branch and brush out there. I thought to myself I’d like to see these guys in snow – then I’d have the upper hand.
But back to the bees.
We came across a larger tree with lots of swarming bees. Jackpot. It was like Pooh’s corner, and the Hadza gracefully sprung into action.
Grandpa lowered his arrow case and took out a used piece of wood and a long shaft. They gathered some dry grass and grandpa got to work rubbing his hands together to ignite the splint.
Slowly but surely, it erupted into smoldering wood before it was cradled into a wad of dry grass and rolled into a ball, which grandpa then quickly began fanning back and forth – in his bare hands, mind you. Suddenly it burst into a ball of flames and fire was born.
With a fire now crackling, the Hadza proceeded to smoke out the bees, carving a hole big enough to reach their arms up into the trunk and pull out large slates of honeycomb. The honey was sparse but they devoured the honey combs just the same, spitting out the casing as soon as the nutrition was swallowed — the nutrition in this case being the larva.
Sweetness in Simplicity
As the walk came to an end it reminded me of a Karen Blixen quote. She said “you know you’re truly alive when you live among lions.” I’d say you know you’re truly alive only after having walked with the Hadza.
That night I marvelled at the way life’s simplest pleasures, like fresh honey straight from the comb, are among its sweetest.
Actually, now that I think about it, you can disregard what I said earlier.
That’s the best way I know to describe Tanzania.