Thousands of years before the Europeans began colonizing Africa, the continent’s inhabitants set out to colonize the world. Today, it remains a culturally rich territory, with the majority of its people of indigenous origins, quite different from one another in terms of language, culture and traditions.
We all associate Africa with amazing wildlife and landscapes, and we often overlook the essential – it’s all about the voyage. There are more than 3,000 tribes in Africa, speaking around 2,000 different languages. Although many ethnic groups have adopted organized religions brought by Europeans, more than 100 million people still follow traditional African religions and worship secondary deities.
Their practices, as strange and out of this world as they might seem, all serve a purpose. At least the tribe members strongly believe they do. After all, belief is key. If it’s authenticity you’re looking for, Africa’s tribe chiefs are bound to show you a fascinating world governed by the unwritten laws of nature.
The Hadzabe, Tanzania
No rules, no calendars, complete and utter freedom… The Hadzabe, or Hadza People, depend almost entirely on wild food. They don’t raise livestock and don’t grow food either. Often referred to as the Wandering Bushmen, their lifestyle has not changed much over the past 10,000 years. They continue to live as nomads, and oral traditions influence their life choices. During the dry season, they fall asleep under trees, listening to stories about their famous ancestors.
A bow and arrows, a knife, a cooking pot, an ax, a water container and a pipe are all the possessions a Hadzabe could ask for. The string on their bow is made from giraffe or impala tendons, and the arrows are smeared with poison made from desert rose. Women gather berries and tubers. Men hunt and collect honey.
The Hadza People do not believe in weddings. If a man and a woman sleep by the same fire, after a while they consider themselves married, no strings attached. They are both free to leave if they do not feel comfortable in their arrangement.
The San Bushmen, Botswana
Renowned for their deep connection with the land, the San people are believed to be the first inhabitants of Southern Africa. Genetic evidence suggests they are among the oldest peoples in the world, placed at the root of the human tree. What’s more, these Bushmen are one of the 14 known existing ancestral population clusters from which humankind descents.
For millenniums, they have maintained a delicate balance with the environment. Today, their existence hangs by a thread. Traditionally, the San people are hunter-gatherers. Colonization and land redistribution decimated their population. They were evicted from their ancestral land during the 1980s diamond trade boom, were forbidden to hunt and forced to apply for permits. Some pursued farming, yet most of them still gather medicinal herbs and plants for food, set animal traps and make tobacco from zebra dung.
There are around 100,000 San Bushmen scattered throughout Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. They prefer to be identified using the name of the country they live in, as each tribe has its own identity, different language (all involving a clicking sound) and traditions. Botswana’s Kalahari Game Reserve and Makgadikgadi Pan remain their main residences.
The Himba, Namibia
In northwestern Namibia, a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers and pastoralists have managed to adapt to the harsh, unfriendly environment of the Kunene region. The Himba people move from one waterhole to the next. Also known as the “Red People of Africa,” around 20,000 – 50,000 aboriginals inhabit these realms today. Their nickname comes from the mixture they use to cover their skin, made from butter fat and ochre (natural earth pigment containing iron oxide). Called otijze, it protects them from the sun, giving their skin a reddish tone.
The Himba breed cattle. Men deal with legal and political matters, while women are responsible for most household tasks and are particularly noted for their beauty. A strange custom among these people is that women are not allowed to wash with water. Instead, they take daily smoke baths for personal hygiene.
A visit to one of their villages will provide insight into the structure of their community and architecture of their houses, and travelers can learn more about their animistic religion and their holy fire – Okuruwo. Continuously kept alive, it symbolizes their ancestors and helps tribespeople meditate with their god Mukuru.
The Samburu, Kenya
Close relatives of the Maasai people, the Samburu came to the plains of northern Kenya from the upper Nile region. They are a Maa-speaking tribe of semi-nomadic pastoralists – they grow cattle, sheep, goats and camels, taking their livestock from one water source and grazing area to the next. The Samburu people are considered even more remote and traditional than the Maasai.
Circumcision is still practiced in the Samburu tribe, both in boys and girls. For boys, it marks the beginning of their warrior life. For girls, it symbolizes becoming a woman. Once circumcised, a girl can be given away in an arranged marriage. Traditional diet consists of milk and blood from their cows. Meat is reserved for special occasions. Dancing occupies a special place in Samburu culture, as men gather in a circle and jump high from a standing point.
The Samburu People are a gerontocracy, a society governed by old people. Their leaders are the eldest members of the tribe, believed to hold the power to curse younger tribe members. They are very religious too – their god Nkai is considered to be the ultimate source of punishment, and the tribe elders follow his word to the bone.
The Zulu, South Africa
South Africa is impressive for a great number of reasons. Its diverse culture and traditions are among the first. The Zulu people originate from East Africa, from where they migrated to South Africa during what is known as the Bantu Migration. Today, they are the largest ethnic group in South Africa.
The largest concentration of Zulu people can be found in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, an agriculturally fertile region, where their numbers range between 10 and 11 million. Smaller groups are scattered around Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho.
The Zulu wear western clothing just like us. Traditional attire is only worn on special occasions and during rites of passage (birth, puberty, marriage, death). While most Zulu people are now Christian, they have kept their belief in their ancestral spirits and in their supreme being, or creator, called Unkulunkulu.
In South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, cultural villages like Shakaland and Simunye Zulu have opened their gates to visitors. Tourists can experience their culture first-hand, observe various crafts, dance and chant. Travelers are invited to participate in their daily activities – tending livestock, building and decorating huts, brewing beer, making pottery, weaving baskets, ritual dancing and occasional visits to the traditional healer.
The Maasai, Kenya and Tanzania
Renowned warriors and herders, the Maasai once roamed vast territories in East Africa. Nowadays, their remaining villages in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania are open for visitors to have a peek into their daily lives, traditions and culture. The image of a Maasai warrior watching over his herd from atop a hill near the settlement is a memory to last a lifetime.
Traditionally a nomadic people, most tribes are now rather sedentary. The Maasai depend on their livestock – they keep cattle, goats and sheep. They are strictly against killing wild animals.
They ignore the comforts of the modern world and repel its influences, thus having managed to maintain their traditional values. The Maasai have remained a tribe of warriors. When boys come of age, they must fulfill certain tasks. One of them is called adumu – ten or more days of singing and dancing.
The second most popular African tribe after the Zulu, the Maasai’s language is Maa, but most of them speak Swahili and English too. They are easy to recognize, with their pierced, stretched earlobes, bright colored ornaments and the red cloths they wear called Shuka. They live in shelters made from branches and grass. A strange custom visitors might notice is spitting as a form of blessing. They spit on newborns to protect them from evil spirits and spit on their hands before shaking the hand of an elder.
“Tribal visit” is a term that is beginning to catch on. Unfortunately, most cultural safaris are a bit shallow – a show for travelers with some traditional clothes and dances. For a true sense of authenticity, go deeper. Participate in daily activities, observe the lives of tribespeople and support their tribal culture.
The truth is many tribes now depend on tourism, the same tourism that created problems in the past. Unable to sustain themselves in their villages, tribe members are moving to the city. Lacking social skills and education, they are finding it hard to adapt and survive. Not to mention they are away from their families. Opening their villages to tourists might offer a solution to preserve their traditions and keep the families together. Tribal visits now provide income to help tribes survive in our harsh world, wilder than the wildest plains of Africa.
Do you wish to experience Africa’s fascinating culture and traditions firsthand? Go to BookAllSafaris.com and choose your next African safari. Go deep into the heart of the savannas and shake the hand of tribe chiefs yourself.