Toilets on planes, and underground trains:

Reflections of a Hadza hunter-gatherer in New York City

In September 2019, Ezekiel Phillippo travelled to New York City to represent the Hadza hunter-gatherer community of Yaeda Valley. He went to receive the Equator Prize on behalf of his community, a people who have lived in the area for the past 40,000 years. The prize was given in recognition of indigenous peoples’ efforts to address climate change. 

Watch the highlights from the award ceremony

Imagine if you can, having grown up wandering across the dryland forests of the Yaeda Valley, hunting small mammals, and occasionally some slightly larger mammals. You’ve become an expert at tracking, climbing trees, looking for honey, sensing the environment, and it’s every detail. Then in a flash you find yourself in the hustle and bustle of New York.

Yes, Ezekiel had been to Dar-es-salaam before, but as many of us know, regardless of where you’re from in the world, New York City is a step-up, an insult to the senses. Returning to Yaeda with Ezekiel we had organised some community meetings as an opportunity for him to share his experiences and stories, and of course to tell his community about the whirlwind of meetings that culminated in the Equator Prize ceremony. I was along for the ride, the driver, there to listen and reflect on his impression of this ‘other world’. 

There were so many stories to hear, but here are a few of my highlights, ‘if you’re on the plane for so long, how does one go to the toilet and where does it go?’ So, half and hour later, lots of giggling and disagreement, the drawing of a diagram of the inside of an aircraft in the sand, and none of us were any wiser, where does it go! I think my favourite part was Ezekiel’s retelling of a journey across New York on the subway, it wasn’t the crowds or the noise that surprised him, it was the fact that when he got to the surface at the end of this journey, he didn’t know where he was – something he found to be profoundly disconcerting, How do you get back if you don’t know the way? A metaphor for life from someone who always knows where he has come from.

For Ezekiel, one of the hardest moments to get over was being shown his hotel room on the 30th floor, when he looked out the window, he initially felt that he just couldn’t sleep at this height, thankfully the hotel staff where able to make minor adjustments. The stories continued into the night – jet lag, food, numbers of people, the noise, the lights, on and on, the reflections of a hunter-gatherer in New York; perhaps Sting needs to retitle his song – I think a ‘Hadza in New York’ just sounds better?

If you would like to read more about Ezekiel and the Equator Prize click here.


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