Get Face to Face With the Tribes of Tanzania

As safari parks encroach on their ancestral lands, indigenous groups struggle to maintain their ways of life

A Masai elder with a walking stick Christopher Wilson
A young Masai man decked out in beads and weapons. The tribe’s warriors are expected to maintain a flashy image, and the younger ones, in particular, tend to put a great deal of time and effort into dressing, accessorizing and styling their hair. Christopher Wilson
A young Barabaig woman wears traditional brass-coiled bracelets and a goatskin shawl and skirt. “The Barabaig were amazing to photograph, particularly the women,” says Wilson. Christopher Wilson
A married Masai woman wears an array of traditional beads and cloth wraps. Her white headdress is typical of northern Tanzania. Christopher Wilson
A Masai man stands under a baobab dressed in the type of everyday clothing his tribespeople wear as they milk cattle, collect water and repair their homes. Christopher Wilson
An older woman has scar patterns around her eyes, a look that was once fashionable but is now considered outdated. Christopher Wilson
A Hadza elder wears a roughly tanned wild-animal skin over a T-shirt. The skin strips on his bow reinforce his weapon while the furs attest to his recent kills. His headband is not traditionally Hadza; members of the tribe have begun to adopt styles from neighboring groups. Christopher Wilson
Isaya Lemuru of Masai Christopher Wilson
Stefana Gudumaya of Hadzabe Christopher Wilson
Tanzania Masai warriors Christopher Wilson
Zarupu Lengunya of Masai Christopher Wilson

There are more than 3,000 tribes on the African continent, but the Hadza of Tanzania are in a category of their own. They’re genetically isolated from most other groups. Their click-based language isn’t closely related to any other tongue. About a quarter of their thousand members still live in the old hunter-gatherer way: collecting berries and digging up tubers, hunting animals with poisoned arrows and moving constantly from camp to camp. Archaeologists believe that people very much like the Hadza have been living on the same land since the Stone Age.

When Christopher Wilson set out to photograph members of this remote tribe, he and his guide had to drive off-road through an expanse of rough, arid land. After wandering on foot, they eventually reached an encampment and set up a makeshift studio right on the spot. Members of the tribe helped hold up his tent.

He had a very different experience photographing two other Tanzanian tribes. The stately, cow-herding Masai were easy to find: They live in established villages near major tourist spots. “We shot their portraits in a cinder-block church,” he says. “The whole village was laughing and looking in through the windows.”

Like the Masai, the Barabaig—the third tribe Wilson photographed—are relative newcomers to the area. Both groups originated in the Nile region and gave up their hunting-gathering ways long ago. Today, they raise livestock and grow their own crops. The wealthiest families own several thousand head of cattle, divided among numerous sons over vast areas. While Hadza men have been described as serial monogamists, the Masai and Barabaig may have as many as ten wives.

All three tribes face existential threats. The Hadza have lost 90 percent of their roaming grounds over the past century, mostly to other tribes. Game reserves have cleared lands where the Masai and Barabaig graze animals. The government recently passed laws forbidding tribes from planting crops near the Ngorongoro Crater, a popular safari destination. Tribal warriors also run into trouble when they attack lions. These kills are forbidden by Tanzanian law, but they earn the men status within their tribes, especially when the beasts are threatening their livestock.

Still, Tanzania’s tribes have more autonomy than most indigenous people, according to a study published this summer. When the data-analysis umbrella group LandMark looked at land rights in 131 countries, Tanzania was one of just five to earn the highest possible score across ten different indicators, including legal recognition, authority over boundaries, and access to wood and water.

That’s largely because Tanzania doesn’t allow private land ownership outside urban areas. Rural property belongs to all citizens in common, and tribes are largely free to negotiate boundaries among themselves. Wilson’s photos depict these groups at a time when they’re still able to live very much as their ancestors did—grazing cattle, hunting for game or moving from camp to camp among the ancient baobab trees.

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine

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