The Hadza people are the last living hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania and are one of the last in all of Africa. The tribe lives in a style developed prior to the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago and are currently an endangered people.
At 5’4” with strong thick legs and a slightly rounded tummy, Ruth Matiyas dwarfs the largest of the Hadza men. Even their skin, as black as hers, looks dull in comparison.
Today the 39-year-old nurse at the Bishop Hhando Health Centre in the Karatu district of Northern Tanzania, is visiting a group of Hadza people whom she calls “Makao’s Family,” after the lead man. Blood relatives or not—no one could tell—this group cares for one another as a family should, regardless of who’s who, and will likely do until a conflict arises and someone opts to leave and join another group (a.k.a family). Here lines of belonging are blurry; there are no absolutes. It is more like ‘love the one you’re with, until you don’t, and then move on. No hard feelings,’” she says.
Ruth has arrived a bit later then planned because she had trouble finding them. In search of the sustenance necessary for their survival, Makao and his “family” had recently abandoned their former home site to travel by foot dozens of kilometers, with their meager belongings carried on backs and heads, to a site that—in the eyes of the bystander—looks exactly like the old one: a beige backdrop of hilly, rocky woodlands peppered with acacia, baobob, thorny shrubs, and precious little green as far as the eye can see to a horizon that meets a pale blue, perfectly clear, equatorial sky canopy above.
She wasn’t surprised earlier this morning to find their grassy, hand-made, upside-down, birds’ nest-like shelters—usually filled at dawn with children, adults and grands alike—abandoned and already disintegrating. It wasn’t the first time she had “misplaced” her friends. These Hadza are nomadic people. With no education for and no interest in farming or even keeping livestock, they do what their ancestors have done for centuries—they wander. Camps will be abandoned for all kinds of reasons—from insufficient food and water sources to death of a member or birth of a child with malformations or handicaps—both of whom will be left behind. New camps can be constructed within the space of a few hours, as shelters are all that are necessary. There are no latrines, no showers. The Hadza go where there is wildlife to hunt—once large antelope, gazelle, baboon, dik dik, and bush babies, and now in this barren landscape, more often squirrels, rats, and small rodents, as well as honey, berries, and tubers to gather. Hunt and gather. That’s what they do. That is who they are. And they are the last known full-time hunter gatherer people in the whole of East Africa.
Today, in 2012, in a world in which trains travel under oceans, satellites hurtle through space and computers dominate, these Hadza people cling to a life once lived by all before the advent of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago.
Hadza People: Modern Times
Like the settlers of the New World assumed the land of the Native American and began a systematic destruction of the environment, the same scene is being played out today, more than 7,000 miles away, on the shorelands of the soda Lake Eyasi in an area referred to as Mong’ola. Once 100 percent self-sustaining on bountiful lands, the displaced Hadza now face chronic hunger. Once protected by seas of uncharted bush lands from the impact and diseases of modern man, they now live with the grave risk of total annhilation. As the house cat can eliminate the cheetah, whose singular DNA cannot withstand the onslaught of foreign disease, so can the Hadza suffer from outsider interaction.
Ruth knows this and it scares her. She has been visiting Makao, Laja, Msafiri, Mambosi, Gudo, Bakulu, Muhamudu and the other 10 Mong’ola headmen and their roving families since 1987 when she was 10 years old, living nearby and working her brother’s farm. In those early years, she recalls, life was good, people were healthy, food was abundant—game, honey, tubers, and berries were plentiful. Not so anymore. At 13, Ruth left the area off and on for the next 20 years to complete primary, secondary and eventually nursing school, for which she received sponsorship from local researchers Jeannet Hanby and David Bygott, who continue to support Ruth and her work today.
Now, following the call of her heart, Ruth is forging a path of service to a people who are becoming exploited by a tourism industry that has just recently recognized their financial worth and either unknown or long-since forgotten by the rest. Mostly using her own wages, Ruth brings to the Mong’ola Hadza families—229 in number—food relief; education about the realities of HIV/AIDS, STDs, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases; treatment for day-to-day illnesses and wounds; testing; pre- and post-natal care; transport to and funds for hospital; medicines, and more. As their world rapidly changes due to the increased pressure of modernization, Ruth is empowering these Hadza to move beyond their reliance on body-draped charms and traditional medicine for survival. She is teaching them that there can be more to fight pain than baboon tailbone worn around a waist.
Over the years, through her sustained commitment and clear results, Ruth has begun to attract support for her mission. Nani and Chris Schmeling of the Eyasi Foundation Trust help raise funds and provide reporting. Dorobo Safaris, through their Dorobo Fund and work with the Ujamaa Community Resource Trust, who are responsible for attaining land rights for the Hadza of Yaida Valley are now focusing their support on the Hadza people of Mong’ola. In 2011, anthropologists Brian Wood and Herman Pontzer created the Hadza Fund to raise $5,000 for Ruth’s work, money which has long since been spent as each month more food and medicine is needed. And, through an introduction by university student and Tanzanian-resident Julia Pierre-Nina who has been actively involved and campaigning for the rights of the Hadza since she was 14, the U.S.-based social organization Unite The World With Africa is now working to support Ruth as well and will bring a team of 15 Americans—including a renowned nurse—to observe her and her work with the Hadza in person in June 2013.
“Ruth’s project could be crucial to the Hadza’s survival as a tribe,” says Nani Schmelling. “She cannot do this alone.” Slowly Ruth’s tribe of Hadza ambassadors is growing, but it is truly a race against time.
The two-and-a-half extra hours it took Ruth to find Makao’s family this morning has messed up the schedule. Classes must be shorter today as the rice and maize still needs to be distributed and Nyanza, Hamisi and baby Sumuni taken to hospital. “Let’s begin,” she calls out in Hadza, a language that resembles more the ancient click language of the Khoisan than Ruth’s native tongue of Swahili or KiMaa or any other the other 120 tribal languages of Tanzania. Makao nods, and his family gathers round. There is important work to be done.
For more information about Ruth Matiyas, the Hadza people, and the work being done to protect them, firstname.lastname@example.org.