The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Words cannot even describe the awesomeness of this day...

October 26, 2009

I suppose I could start at the very beginning and work my way through the day in a linear fashion (as the whole day was AMAZING!!!!! – yes the irritating capital letters and excessive punctuation are entirely necessary), but the fact of the matter is, I never dreamed I would be able to start any story, much less a true one with the phrase “I hunted a giraffe today”.

I hunted a giraffe today, late this afternoon in the company of many of my fellow wanifunzi, Daudi, Mwalimu Ken and our Hadza hunter friends. We went out in small groups of three – five wanifunzi per one hunter early this morning and one of the groups happened to shoot a giraffe with a poison arrow. Generally the protocol when this happens is to leave the animal alone until it dies and then track it because if you chase it, the adrenaline and survival instinct will kick in and the animal will run much farther than if it is not pressured. So the group came back for lunch, told the rest of it about it and a couple of hours later we all headed out to find the twiga!

I was so excited – which may sound weird, given my love of animals (especially fuzzy, four legged ones) and my vegetarianism, but life here is so different. I wouldn’t have any qualms at all about eating a wild animal who has had a full and interesting life and was brought down by a small human with a bow and arrow. That, while certainly not “fair”, is definitely “natural” and makes sense to me in way that factory farming and the like never, ever will. In fact, I even decided that if the opportunity arose, I would eat at least a bite of twiga, impala, kudu or any other game meat that comes my way.

I’m planning a return to total vegetarianism upon my return to the States, of course, and am even toying with the idea of trying to eat vegan more often than not, but right now, (and at the risk of sounding too cheesy to be taken seriously), I’m not just learning about the circle of life, I’m living it and it seems silly not to take advantage of a once in a lifetime sort of opportunity.

This morning was one of those opportunities. Rachel, Zach, Anton and I went hunting with a man whose Swahili name is January (after the month in English, but pronounced with a Swahili flair). Anton and Zach were of course wearing their new Obama t-shirt skirts, while Rachel and I were the ones in the group literally wearing the pants. In addition to observing and trying not to get in the way of January’s hunting, we were assigned to record the different spore (hair, dung, etc.), tracks and different animals we saw. January was very helpful and caught on to what we were up to quickly, giving us his best estimates as to how old the various signs were and even pantomiming different kinds of horns or tusks when we didn’t know the Swahili word and he didn’t know he English one for a certain kind of creature.

Within the first five minutes, he shot twice at a squirrel in a tree, but after that it seemed pretty clear that he considered his hunterly duty fulfilled and that he much preferred socializing to stalking anyways. One of the most important aspects of Hazda hunting is the practice of stopping to take frequent smoking breaks. I supplied January with a piece of very girly baby blue notebook paper and he used it for the duration of our outing to tear pieces off in order to roll tobacco in for a good smoke. Wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I purchased the notebook back at home, but he sure enjoyed it.

While we were out with January we saw: squirrels, baboons, impala, mongoose, steinbuck, birds and kudu. We saw signs of: jackal, impala, warthog, zebra, twiga, dik dik, steinbuck, leopard, bush pig, greater kudu, lesser kudu…just to name a few. It was so incredible how he could identify all of these creatures by the slightest hint of a foot print, a patch of hair or a pile of dung. He also told as about what his favorite ones to eat were. Twiga, warthog and impala were at the top of the list. He thought baboon and kudu were ok and informed us that the Hadza will never, ever eat a hyena because hyenas eat men. (Or at least, this what we thought he said – but we all agreed upon this meaning so hopefully our Swahili is right!).

He took us to see some incredible, very, very old cave paintings. They were in among a big rock formation, which we ended up kind of crawling through and then on in order to end up on top to see yet another stunning view of the valley. He welcomed us to the rocks by saying “Karibu nyumba na nyani. Inaitwa nyumba na nyani kwa sababu nyani mnapenda kulala hapa.”, which means “Welcome to the house of the baboons. This place is called the house of the baboons because the baboons like to sleep here.”

Due to an unfortunate combination of our Swahili skills and the wind whistling through the whistling acacias, we first heard “nyani” as “nyanya” and “kulala” as “kufa”, which meant that all told we initially believed that he was welcoming us to the house of his grandmother where she had died. Luckily, we were able to sort this out among ourselves rather quickly before asking any embarrassing questions about said grandmother or anything of the sort.

After many more smoke breaks, a quick sprint chasing after a troop of baboon, an even shorter sprint after a group of impala (they’d been alerted to our presence by the baboon’s danger calls, even before our clumsy wazungu feet gave us away) and more fun conversation with January, we arrived back at camp to receive the exciting news about the twiga. Some of the other groups had killed a couple of hyraxes (large rodents), so we watched while the Hadza women first gutted them, then put them in pots of hot water over the fire so they could loosen the hair enough to scrape it off of them. Some of the L+C students even tried charred hyrax liver cooked straight on the coals of the fire, though I was not around for that part!

Chasing the twiga was an experience unlike anything I’ve known previously. While I don’t have any desire to go home and start hunting deer or anything, I can understand some of what might draw people towards hunting. I wanted so badly to catch the twiga, especially when it was just ahead of us and we were running, barreling straight through thorny thickets of acacia in an effort to keep sight of it. Eventually many of the wazungu got stuck in the acacia and we kind of fragmented into smaller groups and we were forced to give up on catching the twiga as it was starting to approach night time and the poison’s effects appeared to have worn off as the twiga had been shot in the rump, not near any major veins and though it had first been running in the “drunken” manner typical of large animals poisoned by Hadza arrows, it had been running strongly and in a straight line when last sighted.

So the fittest (in this case, the twiga, certainly not the bedraggled pack of wazungu wanifunzi) survived, to live and eat and breathe and die another day. I feel kind of weird sharing this with all of you – you must think I’m crazy to be so thrilled to be running around in the bush with the Hadza and shooting at animals with poison arrows. There is a part of me, and I would think that if you were here, you would feel this way too, that just recognizes instinctually that this is what humans do, this is why we are built to be such good long distance runners, to run not quite as fast as, but farther than our prey.

Humans are animals too and just like how all dogs, even the fluffiest little lap pet still has a little bit of wolf in him, in the way he’ll pounce on a stuffed toy, grab it by the neck and shake it, even pampered wazungu college students still have something of our African hunter ancestors in the blood that runs through our veins. There’s a lot to be said for instinct. After all, at least in my case, not even more than half a dozen years as an herbivore can change that as a human, its in my given nature to be a predator, to feel excitement at the prospect of catching something else. As a runner, I felt like I understood part of what running is actually for. As a scientist, I understood what is meant by the term “prey drive” in reference to predatory animals. As a human person I felt excitement, awe, disappointment, elation and curiosity. Quite a lot garnered from four hours chasing after an ungulate the size of a small house, I think!

I’d like to say once more, that its difficult for me to be so candid about my experience on the twiga hunt. I feel like admitting to the fact that I enjoyed crashing through the brush following twiga tracks, drops of blood, broken branches and patches of hair as found by the Hadza hunters will make some of you think quite differently of me. It is such a unique experience though, that I feel honesty is important. I think everyone has “twiga hunt” moments in their own life time and the more we can all learn from each other the better. That said, if you have any serious concerns about my views on twiga tracking, I’ll be happy to debate them with you when I return home!


PS Very sad news. My video camera, Delilah, appears to be broken. It will not focus on anything at all and I keep pushing the reset button as it tells me to, but nothing is working! I am very sad as in two days time we will be in Ngorogoro Crater, the premiere wildlife viewing destination in all of Tanzania and I will likely have no videos  I’m about to perform a video camera dissection with the aid of the screwdriver on my trusty pocket knife in the hopes that I will be able to meddle with something and make it work at least a little better. Wish me luck!

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