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  • Megan Zavaglia

What not to do when your song bird lunch still has its feathers

I was breathing hard.

My legs were pumping and I was barely keeping up.

I looked to the right and Bama Banga gave me a big smile. He wasn’t breathing hard. At six and half feet tall or taller he was able to use his long legs to just stride up the hill.

We were pretty high up in the mountains and I was running through the trees like it was some kind of obstacle course.

Why were we running? To find antelope and to catch the mongoose, of course. That was lunch.

You caught your lunch when hunting with the Hadzabe – if you didn’t catch anything you went hungry.

The safari camp had gotten up early on this day. Muridy and I ate a quick breakfast and left the camp for the hills of the Rift Valley. I was staying at a resort on the shores of Lake Eyasi that evening, would have a little time on the lake before dinner and bed. The next day we would head out into the Serengeti national park.

On the way to camp, we stopped at a building where we would meet and pick up the man who would translate while we visited the Hadzabe. The Hadzabe are one of the remaining tribes to speak !Click, a dialect that you’ve probably heard in Mel Brooks’ “The Gods Must be Crazy”. Muridy didn’t speak !Click, Bama Banga didn’t speak a lot of English but his Swahili was good enough that at least Muridy could tell him what we needed.

My first impression of Bama Banga was to look up, and up, and up, and up. His breadth was fitting to someone of his height. He had a great smile, beautiful white teeth and even with his physicality, put you at ease immediately.

We had arrived at the Hadzabe camp while it was still breaking dawn. The group greeted me and invited me to camp. They introduced me to the chief who looked to be about 80, but was really 34, and I sat down at the fire, listening as they planned their day and joked with each other. It was odd to see Muridy remain quiet, he was a visitor here as well.

As the light lifted the hunters invited me to try shooting the bow. I’m not a great shot…. To their credit they tried hard to instruct me on the right way to shoot but I’ve got terrible posture and little to no coordination so I quickly and gracefully backed away from the target. Besides, I’d rather take pictures than actually kill breakfast.

Our hunting team consisted of four 13-16 year olds and a pack of dogs. In a society where the chief looked 80 at 39 and would retire soon you pitched in early in life. The villagers lived in mud huts that were constructed from sticks, grasses and really, any garbage they found. There were many plastic bags seen glued to the side of the huts.

We left Muridy behind in the village as he didn’t really have anything to offer during the hunt. I looked at Bama Banga, said a little prayer and followed the group.

As we set out in the morning through the filtered sunlight the boys took turns shooting at birds in the trees. We had three birds in short order, each boy would pose for a photo with their bird before we moved on. I couldn’t see the birds, much less aim, shoot and hit one. It was a good thing they didn’t expect me to actually participate in the lunch gathering.

We were hoping for larger prey, a dik-dik or even antelope, so we picked up the pace. That’s where the running came into play…. Gotta cover some ground to get to the best hunting spots.

Just when I was starting to get really out of breath, the air coming out as puffs of steam in the cool morning, one of the boys to my right gave a shout and took off. Like a flock of birds changing mid-air we all shifted our direction. I looked at Bama Banga. He’d said about 2 words to me the entire time. He smiled and ran along side us so, I kept up, assuming that if there was danger, he’d let me know.

Side note: Yes, this is another place where I probably should have asked more questions about safety. However, if you don’t trust, go with the flow and be a part of the adventure, you may not have an adventure. Sometimes we have to suck it up and hope that today is the day we have an amazing time and that no one gets shot with an arrow by a 13 year old in the mountains of the rift valley.

What had drawn us to the right was a LARGE tree. When I say large, I mean massive. The tree had obviously been there for quite a while (dare I say BC?) and was spread out low close to the ground. I finally asked Bama Banga what we were doing

One of the hunters had seen a mongoose and had chased it into the tree. We spent the next 30 minutes quietly stocking the mongoose as it moved through the inside of the tree. It had found hollow branches and hunkered down. The boys would bang on the branches or even break off pieces to try to flush him out. Twice the mongoose made a run to a different branch and both times the hunters missed him.

Now, I REALLY shouldn’t have been rooting for the mongoose, but really he’d done such a good job of avoiding the hunters that he’d won me over. This hunt was instrumental to the village, however. Too many trips out without an antelope and there wasn’t much for dinner.

Eventually the hunters gave up and we continued on. A mongoose wasn’t really that big, so I was glad we didn’t spend more time. We walked for quite a while, not seeing anything more to fill in our menu. I could tell when the hunt was over, the boys slug their bows over their shoulders and picked up the pace.

We popped out at a dry river bed and followed it for a while. One of the hunters veered off to the left and started a fire up on the edge of the river while three others headed a little further down to the river and started to dig. It took a while but eventually they found water…. There was dirt on the top, but if you put your face far enough into the hole you were past the dirt layer and it was clean and well filtered.

Once their thirst was slaked the group gathered around the fire. Once the fire was hot enough, the three song birds were tossed into the flames.

That’s right, feet, feathers, head, the whole kit and caboodle. After a time they fished the birds out. I tried to avoid the eyes staring at me so I was glad that the head was quickly dispatched. The feet remained, however as did some of the feathers.

Now, I’m not an expert on cuisine, I’ve eaten fish caught out of the river and ocean right before cooking. I try to set aside any food issues when I travel so that I can experience the local communities but don’t really have a well-developed pallet overall. I have to say that the breast of that bird was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Juicy, sweet, gamey and perfect. I didn’t want to be rude and ask for too much so settled for the ½ of a breast I was given…. But, I would have loved the other birds for a later snack.

I am pretty sure that that the hunters also thought the bird tasted good but honestly, I couldn’t read them very well. Why? Because they were high. That’s right, they were smoking pot before, during and after our hunting adventure. Who am I to judge? They shot birds, dug a water hole and fed me lunch no problem. And, shoot, if it helped the mongoose get away….

On return to the village I danced with the villagers and had photos take with the group. The 18 year old that was next in line to be chief directed the dance and other activities at the camp and was very kind.

One of the things I love the best when I travel it to take a moment and enjoy the culture, in Italy it was at a coffee shop when the car broke down. In France, it was sitting on the curb outside of Versailles with a baguette watching people take a break during their work day. In Cancun it was in Old Town watching a barber cut hair while the butcher in the store next to him washed down the floor of his stall where chickens hung. Here, it was eating a song bird with a bunch of high teenagers. Who knows when the moment will hit, but when it does, I know that I’ve got my moment that will last forever.

Travel tip: What not to do when your songbird lunch still has its feathers?

Answer: Don’t decline. Don’t complain. If you can, see if there are seconds available.

Next up: What not to do when there is an elephant outside of your tent

Language: Swahili

Bow = Upinde

Arrow = Mshale

Hunter = Hunter

Chief - Mkuu

Lunch = Chakula cha mchana

Mongoose = Nguchiro

Tree = Mti

Fire = Moto

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