Benja in his prized Arsenal shirt with a hornbill he has caught © Jo Owen

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Benja looked puzzled. He paused at the oddity of being asked about his home. It was a curious concept. Then his face lit up as and he proudly announced: “This is our home”. His hand made a sweep across vast swaths of bush stretching out to the horizon and the Rift Valley in Tanzania.

After a chat with two of his friends, they decided it was time for breakfast. That meant it was time to raid the largest larder in the world: the bush. Finding food in the larder is harder than in the average suburban home. In the suburbs the food does not run away. In Hadza territory, the food has long learnt that where humans go, death follows. Animals run or hide at the first sight of Hadza.

Benja and his friends set off at pace into their larder. They walked gracefully through the uneven, rocky ground. I ran in an ungainly pursuit of the hunters, quietly cursing the thorns that gave me an instant tattoo and the grasses that cut my legs and hid the rocks underfoot.

After 30 minutes Benja stopped. He had found some fresh dung and scooped it up with his hands: “Eland” he declared. Eland is very good news: it means up to 950kg of antelope meat. There is no fridge or freezer in the Hadza kitchen, which means everything has to be eaten when it is caught. Like the animals they hunt, they can feast one day and go hungry the next. Popping down to the shops is out of the question. The nearest shop is a one-day walk in each direction. The Hadza have no money anyway. So an eland means a big party for everyone: that is the most efficient way to use the meat.

Benja rolled the eland dung around in his hands. It was soft, but not quite soft and fresh enough. The eland was just too far away. It was safe for another day.

Huts in the Hadza village © Jo Owen

It was a hard morning: the animals were winning and the Hadza were going hungry. So they changed tactics. They knew of a tree where there was a bee hive, and headed there. Benja fashioned some wooden pegs that he hammered into the tree trunk to provide a climbing frame. His friends made fire by rubbing sticks together. One of them, Okwa, volunteered to climb up to the hollow in the tree to smoke out the bees with a stick from the fire. He spat furiously to keep the bees out of his mouth, but got stung repeatedly for his efforts.

Okwa started to haul honeycomb out of the hive. Breakfast had arrived. Swiping the remaining bees away, the Hadza tucked into breakfast at the breakfast table: a rock beneath the tree. After licking their hands clean, they set off in search of brunch.

Benja spotted another hollow in a tree. He hit the jackpot. He hacked away at the tree trunk with his axe, felt inside, and scooped out a hornbill and broke its neck. Lunch looked good. He felt further inside the tree trunk and found two hornbill chicks. He put one bird in his pocket and pulled the other chick’s wings to make it give out a distress call to the remaining parent. Wisely, the second parent ignored its chick’s pleas.

Smoking from a stone pipe © Jo Owen
Children learn to hunt using arrows with blunt wooden tips © Jo Owen
Okwa looking out on the bush © Jo Owen
Fresh honey for breakfast © Jo Owen

It had been a good morning, so the three Hadza had time to freshen up. They looked for a bathroom. Eventually, they found a small pool. Each took turns to drink from the pool and then wash in it. Soap is a luxury beyond the means of the Hadza. Benja and his friend returned to camp. They had been at the same camp for about three months because the food is abundant. Whenever food becomes scarce, they move and set up camp elsewhere either individually or as a group.

The Hadza women were also happy. They had found a good supply of tubers. Men and women have different diets: the men focus on meat and honey; the women focus on tubers and berries. Men hunt, women gather. When they have eaten enough for the day, they stop hunting and gathering. The Hadza are living fossils: they represent life before the advent of agriculture.

It was time to relax in the communal sitting room, which is an outdoor space in the middle of their grass huts. The women were smoking from a shared stone pipe. Tobacco is the one luxury the Hadza crave, which they exchange with neighbouring groups for honey.

The men turned to gambling for the afternoon. Gambling is not just social: it is a highly efficient way of sharing scarce resource across the community. They play a game of pure chance, so no one can win for long. By staking their valuables, the valuables get shared out eventually. Unlike trade and barter, which require skill, there is no chance of one person becoming richer than the others. Hadza are deeply egalitarian and they have no hierarchy: no chiefs, no age groups. They also have minimal representation with government, so they always lose land disputes. They are being forced into increasingly marginal land. Datoga pastoralists use traditional Hadza land for grazing in the dry season, as their own land has become over grazed. Agriculturalists are making inroads elsewhere.

In the middle of their outdoor sitting room are signs of outside influence: mosquito nets that have arrived with the help of the Gates Foundation. The children sleep in these during the dry season, but prefer to stay dry in the grass huts during the rainy season. Malarial mosquitoes are most prevalent during the rainy season.

Benja’s hut could teach minimalist designers a thing or two. There is more or less nothing in it. The hut is made from a frame of branches covered in grass. He has placed some plastic at the apex of the roof to make it water tight. Okwa’s hut has a zebra skin at its apex. Until the arrival of plastic, the Hadza had lived a highly sustainable life: no waste with everything recycled, even their dead.

Inside a hut, containing the bare essentials © Jo Owen
Cooking pots © Jo Owen
Mosquito nets provided by the Gates Foundation © Jo Owen

Benja’s one hint of vanity is his Arsenal T-shirt. He knows nothing of Arsenal, London or football. But he does know that the T-shirt is a sign of progress and sophistication. He wears it with all the pride of Alexis Sanchez and the rest of the Arsenal team.

Inside his hut, Benja has stripped away everything that is not essential to survival. When it comes time to move, he can move everything on his back. On the ground there is a cooking pot. Some old plastic bottles hanging from the roof act as water containers. There is no way of storing food.

As the evening drew in, news arrived that someone had killed an eland. Perhaps it was the one that got away earlier in the day. There was great excitement. A few men disappeared to help bring it back overnight. Tomorrow, the Hadza will not go hungry.

Jo Owen is co-founder of Teach First and author of ‘Tribal Business School’ (2008), published by Wiley

Photographs: Jo Owen

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