Engaging With Africa’s Traditional Peoples

A Nature Walk at Serena Lodge, Amboseli National Park

It’s not hard to see why the continent of Africa maintains such a stranglehold over the imaginations of Globetrotters who have added an African safari to their bucket list. It has massive cities, ever-shifting landscapes, and its wildlife is the envy of the world. If you head to any country in Africa, you can also seize the opportunity to engage with the traditional inhabitants of this massive continent. Whether you’re visiting the Masai in the reaches of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, the Batwa of the Great African Lakes, or the Bushmen of South Africa, you’ll be engaging with fascinating, rich civilizations that have inhabited these lands for thousands of years.

The Masai of the Great Rift Valley

The Masai are the most famous of the traditional peoples of Africa. While their culture has many intricate traditions, their diet and style of dress have attracted the most attention from outsiders. Traditionally, the Masai diet would consist exclusively of raw meat, raw blood, and raw milk. They also dress in red sheets wrapped around their bodies and often sport body modifications such as elongated earlobes. While many of these practices have changed with the years—for instance, their diet has adjusted to include maize porridges—they still retain many of these traditional practices which are justifiably fascinating to outsiders.

Masai man in the Seregenti

Your best bet to meet with Masai people is to head to Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya or the Serengeti in Tanzania. Goway offers several tours that engage with local Masai villages, such as Olpopongi village in Tanzania, which allow you to glimpse the rhythms of village life on the African savannah and admire their rituals and customs of clothing and music. It also allows you to support their communities by purchasing crafts and hiring their services. As well, many safari excursions rely on Masai people as guides, since their knowledge of the land and relationship to the wildlife is invaluable when tracking lions or herds of elephants.

Game viewing in Masai Mara
The Diminutive Locals of Central Africa

Aside from the Masai, there are few traditional African peoples that have garnered as much attention as the various pygmy tribes of Central Africa. The superficially-defining attribute of the members of the Aka, Batwa, Efe, and Mbuti tribes is their height. On average, the adult men of these tribes are shorter than 150 centimetres, which technically qualifies them as pygmies. The various pygmy tribes are spread out across multiple countries and have varying cultures. For instance, the Aka live in the western reaches of the Congo basin in the countries of Cameroon and the Central African Republic, while the Mbuti and the Batwa are more central-eastern, living around the Great African Lakes.

As pygmy peoples live in destabilized countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, it’s dangerous to visit them and we’d warn against entering unstable zones to try to initiate contact. That being said, there are regions in Rwanda and Uganda where you can visit tribes like the Batwa and learn about their nomadic ways of life.

Camera-loving kids of the Batwa tribe posing for their photo, near Kisoro, Uganda | Photo credit: David Zolis
The Bushmen (San) of South Africa

If you head south, you’ll have the opportunity to meet members of one of the oldest cultural traditions on the planet: the Bushmen or San. The Bushmen were the original occupants of South Africa until rival tribes like the Zulu and eventually Europeans toppled their control of the region and colonized their lands. As well, they were hunter-gatherers but many of them were pressured by governments to abandon their traditional lifestyles and take up farming. Nowadays, you can find them in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

While there are not as many Bushmen as there were hundreds of years ago, there are areas where you can meet them and learn about their traditional lifestyles. In Botswana, you can head to the Kalahari National Park in the company of a Bushman guide who’ll help you track wildlife and learn about the ancient traditions of the region. You can also visit the Bushmanskloof Wilderness Reserve outside Cape Town and admire Bushmen rock art that dates at least 10,000 years old. Many archaeologists believe the area has been the home of Bushmen for over 120,000 years, making it one of the oldest spots of civilization on the planet.

An African vacation offers an opportunity to learn about lifestyles other than your own and engage with people from some of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

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