At first, it was clear that everyone in camp—about two dozen Hadza, ranging from infants to grandparents—felt uncomfortable with my presence. There was a lot of staring, some nervous laughs. I'd brought along a photo album, and passing it around helped mitigate the awkwardness. Onwas was interested in a picture of my cat. "How does it taste?" he asked. One photo captured everyone's attention. It was of me participating in a New Year's Day polar bear swim, leaping into a hole cut in a frozen lake. Hadza hunters can seem fearless; Onwas regularly sneaks up on leopards and races after giraffes. But the idea of winter weather terrified him. He ran around camp with the picture, telling everyone I was a brave man, and this helped greatly with my acceptance. A man who can leap into ice, Onwas must have figured, is certainly a man who'd have no trouble facing a wild baboon. So on the third night of my stay, he asks if I want to join the hunting trip.
I do. I leave my shirt on—my skin does not blend well with the night—and I follow Onwas and ten other hunters and two younger boys out of camp in a single-file line. Walking through Hadza country in the dark is challenging; thornbushes and spiked acacia trees dominate the terrain, and even during the day there is no way to avoid being jabbed and scratched and punctured. A long trek in the Hadza bush can feel like receiving a gradual full-body tattoo. The Hadza spend a significant portion of their rest time digging thorns out of one another with the tips of their knives.
At night the thorns are all but invisible, and navigation seems impossible. There are no trails and few landmarks. To walk confidently in the bush, in the dark, without a flashlight, requires the sort of familiarity one has with, say, one's own bedroom. Except this is a thousand-square-mile bedroom, with lions and leopards and hyenas prowling in the shadows.
For Onwas such navigation is no problem. He has lived all his life in the bush. He can start a fire, twirling a stick between his palms, in less than 30 seconds. He can converse with a honeyguide bird, whistling back and forth, and be led directly to a teeming beehive. He knows everything there is to know about the bush and virtually nothing of the land beyond. One time I showed Onwas a map of the world. I spread it open on the dirt and anchored the corners with stones. A crowd gathered. Onwas stared. I pointed out the continent of Africa, then the country of Tanzania, then the region where he lived. I showed him the United States.
I asked him what he knew about America—the name of the president, the capital city. He said he knew nothing. He could not name the leader of his own country. I asked him, as politely as possible, if he knew anything about any country. He paused for a moment, evidently deep in thought, then suddenly shouted, "London!" He couldn't say precisely what London was. He just knew it was someplace not in the bush.