November 16th, 2009

Hazda and Monks

In the December National Geographic Magazine there are two unrelated articles which nevertheless seem to cling together in my thoughts. One story is about Mount Athos and promises to discuss "Monks vs. Modernity"; the other relates a journalist's two weeks with the Hazda, billed as "21st Century Hunter-Gatherers."

Mount Athos is a hilly one hundred-thirty square mile peninsula in northeastern Greece where about 2000 monks and an equal number of lay employees (all male) live in 20 monasteries, a dozen smaller cloisters and hundreds of hermitages. Here the monks engage in Orthodox Christian religious ritual, work, prayer and solitary contemplation. People have come from all over Europe and North America to live and pray on this "Holy Mountain" which has sheltered monks for over 1000 years. It is hard to get there and hard to leave, though people do leave, or are sometimes sent away if an abbot feels they are not ready to be monks. They are human, weak, but here they find "freedom" and "love." Intrusions by the government of Greece, the European Union and younger monks with laptaps and cellphones challenge the tradition and serenity. "Yet the brotherhood proceeds as it always has, inchwise, turned ever inward, glorying in the unseen--'digesting death' in the words of one of the preeminent scholars, Father Vasileios, 'before it digests us.'

The Hazda live in northeastern Tanzania where their foraging area has shrunk from 9000 square miles to 1000 square miles in less than a century. Other groups, governments, poachers, and tourists have intruded farther into their land. Most of the 1000 remaining Hazda have been torn away from their traditions by these infringements, but 250 or so have retained their gatherer-hunter lifestyle. Those Hazda who have been educated on who work for money, look down on those who still forage. But those who have entered the modern world have serious alcohol problems and are beginning to experience domestic violence and other conditions of civilization.

The article was written by Micheal Finkel, who has had problems in the past distinguishing journalism from fiction, spent very little time with the Hazda; but his conclusions are interesting, nevertheless. The Hazda experience freedom and love, they welcome visitors, they do not fear death or worry about an afterlife. In fact they do not worry at all. They have a much more stable and varied diet than most people in the world. They communicate with birds who show them where honey is. They hunt at night, in total darkness moving about their 1000 square miles full of mosquitoes, thorns, and dangerous animals more easily than I move about my bedroom. Though they know nothing about the world outside their area, they are intimate with every detail of their part of the savannah. Adults follow no rules and women have the same freedom and power as men. They have no religious ritual.

My conclusion is that the monks of Mount Athos are striving mightlily with indifferent success to attain what the Hadza have always had.
Finkle could only stand to live among the Hazda for two weeks, the thorns, heat and mosquitoes were too much for him. In spite of this he concluded: "The days I spent with the Hazda altered my perception of the world. They instilled in me something I call 'the Hazda effect"-- they made me feel calmer, more attuned to the moment, more self-sufficient, a little braver, and in less of a constant rush....My time with the Hazda made me happier..."

Soon, the Hazda and the other rapidly declining gatherer-hunter societies in the world may no longer be with us. The loss will be irreparable