Onwas is an old man, perhaps over 60—years are not a unit of time he uses—but thin and fit in the Hadza way. He's maybe five feet tall. Across his arms and chest are the hieroglyphs of a lifetime in the bush: scars from hunts, scars from snakebites, scars from arrows and knives and scorpions and thorns. Scars from falling out of a baobab tree. Scars from a leopard attack. Half his teeth remain. He is wearing tire-tread sandals and tattered brown shorts. A hunting knife is strapped to his hip, in a sheath made of dik-dik hide. He's removed his shirt, as have most of the other men, because he wants to blend into the night.
Onwas looks at me and speaks for a few moments in his native language, Hadzane. To my ear it sounds strangely bipolar—lilting and gentle for a phrase or two, then jarring and percussive, with tongue clicks and glottic pops. It's a language not closely related to any other that still exists: to use the linguists' term, an isolate.
I have arrived in the Hadza homeland in northern Tanzania with an interpreter, a Hadza woman named Mariamu. She is Onwas's niece. She attended school for 11 years and is one of only a handful of people in the world who can speak both English and Hadzane. She interprets Onwas's words: Do I want to come?
Merely getting this far, to a traditional Hadza encampment, is not an easy task. Years aren't the only unit of time the Hadza do not keep close track of—they also ignore hours and days and weeks and months. The Hadza language doesn't have words for numbers past three or four. Making an appointment can be a tricky matter. But I had contacted the owner of a tourist camp not far outside the Hadza territory to see if he could arrange for me to spend time with a remote Hadza group. While on a camping trip in the bush, the owner came across Onwas and asked him, in Swahili, if I might visit. The Hadza tend to be gregarious people, and Onwas readily agreed. He said I'd be the first foreigner ever to live in his camp. He promised to send his son to a particular tree at the edge of the bush to meet me when I was scheduled to arrive, in three weeks.
Sure enough, three weeks later, when my interpreter and I arrived by Land Rover in the bush, there was Onwas's son Ngaola waiting for us. Apparently, Onwas had noted the stages of the moon, and when he felt enough time had passed, he sent his son to the tree. I asked Ngaola if he'd waited a long time for me. "No," he said. "Only a few days."