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29 October 2014

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The Akie people live as hunter-gatherers on the vast plains of Northern Tanzania. Their Maasai neighbours know the Akie as Iltorobo, a derogatory word which means 'poor people without cattle'. Kiswahili derivatives are Ndorobo, or the Anglicised Dorobo, a word often mistakenly used to refer to several unrelated hunter-gatherer groups in East Africa.

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Anthropologist Marianne Hovind Bakken estimates that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Akie inhabiting traditional clan lands about 150 miles south east of Olduvai Gorge. The gorge is where Louis and Mary Leakey uncovered a 1.8 million year old hominid skull of Australopithecus boisei, the earliest recorded hominid footprints.

The Akie are some of the last hunter gatherers on the African savannah. Often Akie men leave their villages and head into the bush for several days or weeks, hunting and gathering honey, and living in the simplest of shelters that serve only to keep the wild animals at bay. Honey, collected from hives in baobab trees, also forms an important part of the Akie diet.

Origins Territory and Villages

Academic opinion is divided as to where the Akie actually originated. They speak a language that is a Kalenjin dialect and part of the Nilotic language group. As the name suggests, Nilotic languages emanate from locations in, and migratory routes from, the Nile area. It has been suggested that the Akie people and language are closely related to an indigenous group of hunter gatherers now living in Kenya, who also speak a Kalenjin language, called the Okiek. Some scholars believe that the Akie may have moved south as part of a group of pastoralists and, after a period of hardship, returned to a life of hunting and gathering.

According to older Akie, the various Akie clans used to live within defined clan territories. Each clan was associated with a specific ancestral spirit, and their territory along with its natural resources was divided among smaller family units. So, effectively each family owned exclusive rights to specific resources – particularly to trees, and to the wild honey in those trees. To a lesser extent this still seems to be the case today. Wild animals were considered free for people to hunt anywhere.

Once, the Akie roamed without restriction across an area known as the Maasai Steppe, but now there is huge demand for land. Agriculturalists have cultivated vast tracts of land, hunting companies have been granted concessions, large scale poaching has significantly diminished wildlife populations and Maasai pastoralists have encroached further and further into what the Akie feel is their own territory. Competition with the Maasai over land and especially water is fierce (the Akie complain bitterly about Maasai cattle fouling their water supplies).

In the past a family group would have moved to live in different areas depending on the season, occasionally establishing a semi-permanent village with other families. With diminishing territories, Akie family groups now seem to live in more established villages – with a thorny acacia fence surrounding a cluster of houses built in the style of their cattle-herding neighbours the Maasai. Men tend to leave the women and children in the village while they go hunting or honey gathering, sometimes for extended periods.

The Akie are becoming increasingly reliant on their crops (mainly maize), but they often fail and rarely do they produce enough crops to last as food year round. Consequently, the Akie do still have an extensive knowledge of roots, leaves, berries and tubers that, for at least part of the year, they have to utilise.

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It is legal for a Tanzanian to hunt between July and March with a rifle/gun in the region, as long as the weapon is registered and a licence is purchased. (Tourists are only allowed to hunt between July and November.) However, buying a licence is expensive and buying a gun is simply unaffordable, so most Akie prefer to continue hunting using a bow and arrow. The government is now tolerant of the Akie hunting for subsistence with a bow and arrow, although until relatively recently they could have been fined, or even have gone to prison for doing so.   

Most Akie continue to hunt to supplement their modest maize harvest and limited livestock. Some money is generated through selling wild honey if yield is particularly high, and some of the men are highly sought after by hunting companies because of their expert tracking skills. Otherwise there is seldom enough money to buy extra food.    

When hunting for themselves, the Akie go after a variety of game, the bigger the better. Akie men usually hunt in pairs, heading out shortly after first light to water holes, salt licks or well-known game areas. They may change their clothes to blend in more with the environment (traditionally Akie wore simple brown cloth, but now Maasai red is worn).    

Akie men usually carry a bow and 2-3 arrows with them. If fresh tracks are found, one Akie will concentrate on following the tracks, while the other looks further ahead for the prey itself and for any dangerous animals such as buffalo or lion.      

Once an arrow strikes an animal the hunt is far from over. The poison (for which there is no antidote) can take between one and six hours to bring an animal down and so tracking begins again in earnest, though care is taken not to spook the injured animal.    

If an Akie hunter brings something down, they’ll blow their horns to attract other Akie to the scene. If something is particularly big the hunters will send for their wives and children for a feast on the spot. Afterwards strips of meat are cut and set out to dry for future consumption, bones split and the marrow sucked out and fat collected to be used for cooking (the leanness of game meat means that the Akie lack fat in their diet). The various sinews, tendons, ligaments and hides are used for honey gathering and hunting equipment.    

During a full moon the Akie sometimes use hides constructed near water holes or salt licks. At other times (especially when living in bush camps) they’ll set up snares for small mammals and birds.

Honey Gathering

The Akie are renowned for their skill at gathering wild honey. It’s generally the men who are responsible for gathering honey from the hives of wild bees. They devote a huge amount of time to gathering honey – it offers huge calorific reward for relatively little work. On hunting trips, the men will often get sidetracked by the promise of honey. Depending on the time of year, their forays to collect honey can take anything from a few hours to more than a month.   

While walking in the bush, the Akie are constantly on the lookout for signs of bees and beehives. They are also looking and listening for the Greater Honeyguide bird, which has a unique symbiotic relationship with humans. It’s the only bird of 17 similar species proven to guide humans to wild bee hives. It’s commonly assumed that the bird also guides the Ratel (Honey Badger) and other mammals to wild hives, but this is disputed by some experts. Once spotted, the Akie will call to the bird which chirps away in an almost continuous call as it hops between trees leading to the hive and hopefully waiting for the Akie to catch up. Once harvested, the Greater Honeyguide feasts on bits of honeycomb, larvae and bees wax (which it can digest).    

Majestic baobab trees, which are common in the area, often house one or more productive hives. These remarkable trees are climbed using sharpened sticks driven into the trunk as footholds. Once at the level of the hive, the man will use a strap made from Kudu hide as a sling to support him while he harvests the hive.    

Once at a hive, the Akie will pacify the bees with smoke. Freshly cut grass is twisted into a tight bundle and wrapped around some dry kindling (often an old weaver bird’s nest knocked down from a tree). Using a firestick and hearth which is carried in the man’s quiver, they make fire by friction. The kindling is lit and the fresh grass burns slowly producing lots of smoke. With the help of a hollow stick (also carried in the quiver) the smoke is blown into the beehive. This pacifies the bees and allows the man to harvest the honeycomb. Once all the honey has been taken, and if the entrance to the hive has been disturbed, or enlarged to allow access to the hive, small pieces of wood are jammed into the hole, making it smaller, which will encourage the bees to re-establish the hive. The honey is stored in bags made from Kudu hide and eventually taken back to the village where it is eaten, made into tea, honey beer or sold.    

Hives are also found in Commiphora trees (which don’t need to be climbed) and the honey of sweat bees (which is thought to have medicinal properties) is often found in dead trees.

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Akie Equipment

Every Akie man carries a few pieces of essential equipment: a bow, quiver (containing arrows, firesticks and sometimes a knife), a horn, hand axe, long knife (as carried by the Maasai) and honey gathering equipment.  Although the majority of this kit is made from material the Akie have gathered from the bush, added to this are usually a plastic container of snuff (made from tobacco and some added herbs – Maasai women often make and trade in it) and occasionally some chewing tobacco. They don’t carry water.

When an Akie is wandering through the savannah he is often whittling down an arrow, making a bow, busy weaving the string for a new snare or something similar.

Bows and Arrows

The technique of construction is similar to that of an English long bow. A stem from a specific tree is cut and formed into a triangular segment and then whittled down so that the heart wood in the centre of the stem provides the body of the bow, the more flexible sap wood kept to the inside. To make a bow will take more than three full days of continuous work.

The string of the bow is traditionally made from giraffe sinew, whilst Kudu ligaments are sometime bound around the bow to give it extra strength and prevent cracking. The Akie will make sure that there is tension in the bow string most mornings.

Quiver, Arrows, Firesticks and Horn

Government water projects have meant black plastic pipe has replaced gourds as the main body of the quiver, but the rest of it is made from thick Kudu leather, sewn into caps at both ends. The Akie carry this quiver over their shoulder with a leather strap.

The arrows are works of art. Great care is taken when shaping them (again they come from a specific, very hard tree) and the metal, detachable heads (now usually cold-forged from old car parts) are sharpened and dipped in poison. Poison comes from a species of desert rose, which doesn’t grow everywhere. The Akie have to travel some distance to purchase it from neighbouring tribes. The flight is made from vulture feathers and attached to the arrow with fine giraffe sinew, then bound with a specific tree resin. The firesticks are simple and effective. Most Akie can get sufficient embers for a fire in less than 30 seconds. 

Made from warthog antler, the horn of the Akie is something of awe and fear to the Maasai. Even well-heeled Maasai have been known to run from the sound of its call. The Akie find this quite funny. One blast of the horn essentially means 'danger/assistance needed, come quick', while two blasts means that an Akie has killed something large and there’s a lot of food to go round. 

Hand Axe

The metal head of the hand axe is usually made from old forged car parts, or may now be purchased, but the design of the handle has changed little since the Akie used stone heads. The metal head is triangular and not bound to the handle in any way, only attached by the friction of constant use. The Akie rely on their axes to climb baobab trees and the blade is sharpened whenever a suitable stone is found.

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Akie beliefs

The Akie believe in a God called Torroeita described as the 'father above' and the 'mother below'. The tiamisi is another ancestor/father figure and there are ceremonies related to this. Information about initiation rights, both for girls and boys, and other ancestor ceremonies is very closely guarded, and such events take place well away from the village.    

The Akie are well-known amongst neighbouring tribes for their magic, which mostly takes the form of protection incantations and actions. One common magic ritual is a protection spell used to protect Akie bush camps and villages. Three sticks are cut from a specific tree in the bush and sharpened at one end. The other end is then burnt and the embers dropped whilst a person walks around the area that needs protecting and repeats certain incantations. At the end of the walk the stick is pushed into the ground (eyes must be averted at this point). The stick’s length varies with the size of the area to be protected.     

Until recently the Akie were in the habit of marrying off their daughters to the Maasai in return for cattle, which were often quickly consumed. This led to a shortage of brides for young Akie men, many of whom had to wait until later in life to marry. It had a serious effect on the balance between men and women in the Akie population and the practice is now forbidden.

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The Future

The Akie are proud of their culture, but they are often seen as primitive and an embarrassment by their neighbours and their country. Their knowledge and understanding of the environment they live in is unrivalled. Like any other group/people, they want to maintain their identity, remember their heritage, and also embrace progress so that their children can have better opportunities. For that to happen they hope to secure ownership over at least some of their traditional lands.

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