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Jim Selman

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Back to the Rhythm: 'Inventuring' in Africa

Posted: 04/01/09 01:41 PM ET

I am returning from an experience I didn't expect to have. I have just come back from being on a two-week safari in Tanzania with Richard Leider and a group of 7 other men between 55 and 70. Richard is a consultant, author and leader in the field of "Positive Aging" and has been leading groups to Africa for many years. We were going on both an adventure and what he calls an "inventure" -- a deep and reflective journey into the questions of "Who am I?" and "What do I want to do with the rest of my life?" Our guide was a man named Daudi (swahili for David) Peterson, who grew up in Tanzania and runs an extraordinary organization called Dorobo Safaris. His operation isn't the biggest, but for my money it is in a league of its own in terms of its vision and impact on customers.

Of course, we saw plenty of animals. Daudi and his staff are world-class experts on animals, birds and most of the plants and trees, not to mention the history of the country and, most importantly, the culture of the indigenous people. They often lead educational trips for students from North America and Europe. Our trip was divided between about 75% walking and camping and 25% viewing from Land Rovers.

I won't belabor the travelogue aspects of the trip. What was special is Dorobo's commitment to social justice for the native people and preserving the environment for future generations. In many ways, their work is similar to that of the Pachamama Alliance that is working to preserve and empower the culture of the Achuar and other indigenous people in Ecuador and other regions of South America. The two groups we spent time with in Tanzania were the Hadza tribe and the Maasai tribe.

The Hadza are one of the oldest hunter-gatherer societies remaining, and there are only a few thousand left. They are also the only society that has no record of famine in their oral history. These people live very much as they have over the past few thousand years. They hunt game with crude poison arrows and survive on roots or government-provided maize. While the Hadza wear mostly missionary-provided Western second-hand clothing, they still build thatched huts and migrate frequently to follow game. Only about 10% of their historical homelands remain protected due to population pressures from other tribes.

The question is what can we learn from these people? They live by consensus, have gender equality and little or no conflict. They live as a community of people in every sense of the term. In times when we in the West are starving for community (and may very well starve without community), it is worth pausing and seeing where we came from and some of what we've lost over the millennia.

The Maasai are much more numerous and have a pastoral society based on owning herds of cattle, sheep and goats. These are the people we normally see in pictures, dressed in brightly colored traditional wraps, carrying spears, and with both men and women adorned with distinctive jewelry. The Maasai do not eat meat except in a ceremonial context, move frequently and struggle constantly to find water for their livestock. These people are a bit more conscious and connected to modern times (some even have cell phones), but they also survive as a community and their lives are still lived in mostly traditional ways.

All of us were deeply moved by the dignity of these tribes and the serenity with which they inhabit the vast plains and mountains of Tanzania. We did not romanticize them or believe we would want to live their lives. But we did find in their cultures and in our many conversations with them, a common thread of humanity and community that called for peaceful co-existence, shared admiration and respect, and, most of all, for mutual learning from each other.

These people's lives are changing and much of their culture could be on the 'endangered culture' list. What we can hope and commit to is that they will have the opportunity to participate in the changes that are happening and have some control over their own destiny.

Each person on our tour recognized that the distance between these people and ourselves was not a great as we had imagined. We not only learned about nature, wildlife and indigenous people: we learned about ourselves. We got "Back to the Rhythm" (the theme of the trip) and experienced profound humility and the privilege of being alive in the context of the vastness of East Africa, the place where the human animal first evolved. We are returning to our lives in North America with a deeper understanding of our roots and a much stronger appreciation of how precious life can be.

2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.