January 12, 2016
GUIDA MILANDA â€" It's election time in Tanzania. And though the nomadic Hadza tribe won't be changing their ancient ways, they will find the path that leads to the voting booth. These archer hunter-gatherers are camped in the north of Tanzania, not far from the Kenyan border. The women gather berries and dig up roots. Men, when they're not collecting honey, shoot poisoned arrows at giraffes and baboons.
The African country's smallest ethnic group, which counts no more than 1,000 people, recognizes no official leaders nor property rights. Nevertheless, this ancient people weighs in regularly on modern politics, participating in last October's Tanzanian presidential election, casting their ballots in a polling station set up in the rugged bushland.
If the Hadza take no orders, share food and are peacefully bound one to another, their world is hardly some benign state of nature envisioned by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the east African savannah full of acacias, hunger often reigns. Sometimes, they must request help from neighboring tribes. Wild animals are everywhere, with the proof in the marks left on the hunters' skin by snake, scorpion or leopard bites.
The search for food is endless in Guida Milanda, a camp that is lost on the sandy banks of Lake Eyasi. The Hadza have never converted to farming or livestock breeding, activities born some 10,000 years ago in eastern Mediterranean. They continue living day-to-day in camps of about 30 people and do not store food nor set-up production plans. Armed with bows and arrows, they go hunting every day seeking game through the thorny shrubs. When the wind is blowing and the mammals are hiding, the nomads shoot flamingos or little white owls.
Still, when elections roll around, they take the time to vote. Most of the Hadza back the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Party of the Revolution) who have held onto power since the independence of Tanzania in 1961. This political strength, founded by the father of the nation Julius Nyerere, is still popular in rural areas, particularly thanks to food assistance programs.
â€œWhy do I vote for the Party of Revolution?â€ ponders Onwas, an old archer from Guida Milanda who doesnâ€™t know his own age. â€œWell, just because they are the best. They donâ€™t forget the Hadza, they give us food.â€
Hadza life â€" Photo: Idobi/Andreas Lederer
However, the last time he went with members of his family, in a village 70 kilometers north from his camp, to take back the promised 100 kilograms of government-supplied ugali (corn flour), Onwas left empty-handed. A public servant just asked him to use his thumb dipped with ink at the bottom of a page as signing.
Still, the Hadza rarely worry for too long about failire, as the notion of â€œplanningâ€ is foreign for them. So Onwas says he just smiled and went back to the path of Guida Milanda. Hunter-gatherers targeting baboons and zebras arenâ€™t a priority for the government in a country where agriculture engages 80% of the population.
Over the past century, the Hadza have lost around 90% of their territory. Year by year, the game they hunt has been reduced despite tremendous animal reserves around Lake Eyasi: Lake Manyara National Park in East and the mythic Ngorongoro Crater in West. They have been removed to a place â€" a thorny and infertile savannah â€" that is occupied by herds of goats and zebus belonging to the Datoga tribes from Sudan. Looking for new grasslands, these herders lead the cattle further up into the hills where the hunter-gatherers are living. The cattle are drying up watering holes and their hoofs trample the plants that ensure food balance in the tribespeople's diet.
In 2011, the CCM-led administration enabled the Hadza to get customary land rights of more than 20,000 hectares in the southeast region of the lake. Among the some 120 ethnic groups in Tanzania, the nomadic hunters benefited from the decision along with their Datoga neighbors and herders. But how to know until what point the Hadza territory extends?
Nobody knows exactly where these mysterious hunters come from. They donâ€™t leave traces, except arrowheads, a few stones blackened from fire and some scratches on the acacias. Over the past centuries, they welcomed into their society farmers ruined by droughts, herders deprived of cattle, alcoholics facing piles of debt. As in any society, the Hadza community is less a biological reality than a lifestyle, coming from â€œthe bow civilization,â€ the oldest surviving one in the world.
In spite of their customary land rights being recognized, the hunter-gatherers have learned to count only on their own resourcefulness, and not on anything that might come down from the sky. No recognizable form of religion exists in the society.
When we asked the elders, we discovered their spiritual secrets that are closer to taboos, focused on a single word in their Kiswahili language: epeme. Simultaneously, it refers to a passage, a privilege and a tribal identity. It embodies the transition of hunters into adulthood. When a young Hadza manages to kill a large animal, he is entitled to remove organs from the game: livers, testes, heart. Then, on a moonless night, fellow men of the tribe open the dance circle to him. The one who doesnâ€™t respect the steps of the epeme rite, like eating an organ, is guilty of serious misconduct and will bring the group bad luck.
Two Hadza men back from hunting â€" Photo: Andreas Lederer
Sulphur-yellow huts, strong wind, a few antelope skins drying in the sun: We have to content ourselves with the essential in Guida Milanda. The fire is lit with sticks twirled between palms; the meat is placed directly on the fire; tamarind bark is used for drying hands.
Just as women, men are â€œserial monogamists.â€ Most Hadza change spouses every few years. Marriages come and go. In spite of huntersâ€™ radical individualism, personal aspirations are rarely in conflict with requirements of a common life. The archers move freely. Sometimes, they disappear for days at a time. Nobody thinks about supervising them or taking advantage of their absences. If an ongoing conflict arises between two nomads, one of them simply decides to move to another camp.
With no ostentation
Most Hadza are small with a lean body and yet suffer frequently from a chronic cough due to use of tobacco and marijuana. The hunters can easily follow an animal that escapes in the shadow, between ditches and thorny foliage. But there is also the pursuit of honey, calling out to the passerines who are guiding them to the hives hidden in the hollows of trees. Hunters take off their sandals, climb up onto the branches and chip away at trunks with axes before coming back down with cells flowing with honey. Birds take debris that they leave behind them as a fair exchange of goods and services.
In the evening, archers gather their arrows and check the piles of torches. In a single set, they are able to kill an antelope, a warthog or a monkey. If a lone hunter manages to catch a large mammal, he brings it back to the group. The nomads have very little but give everything away. There is no ostentation, no search for prestige in this profligacy. The distribution of goods occurs according to need. Equality is practiced, and thus doesnâ€™t have to be claimed.
Around 400 Hadza have decided to live at the edge of the sedentary world where they have developed a â€œshowâ€ for tourists: hunting trips, archery training, sale of craft products. The show is often faked. Several extras â€" impoverished Bushmen â€" pretend to be Hadza without even knowing their language. This â€œbush comedyâ€ is organized by unscrupulous travel agencies, with support from local guides who are living hand-to-mouth.
Dressed in a baboonâ€™s skin and making grunting noises, hunters exaggerate the features of their culture to play to the vision of romantic fictions. The West wants to see â€œliving fossilsâ€ in these nomads and primitive people who have endured in time and remained the same. The Hadza perfectly understood the character of these fantasies and manage to make them true with a notable flexibility.
Although they are no more than 1,000 people in total, and that their possessions can be summed up in bows and arrows, these hunters do not worry about vanishing. They know who they are. They frequently repeat â€œWe are Hadza.â€ Their society has traveled through millennia, evolving in contact with other peoples. They borrowed a few inventions from the modern world â€" t-shirts, flashlights, corn flour; but have foregone other crucial ones: authority, accumulation of goods, social inequalities.
If they eat impala fetuses, wash and rub themselves with stones, they also know how to make use of the city, where to find food aid offices and use Secure Digital memory cards to listen to music on their mobile phones. An anarchist stronghold at the heart of the Tanzanian savannah and far from the concerns of the Party of the Revolution or the presidential elections, the archersâ€™ community keeps its gaze toward the future with a quiet confidence. No one can force a society to doubt itself.
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Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.
October 28, 2021
CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."
Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.
According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.
While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.
Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.
Two letters per month
The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.
Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."
A form of punishment
Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.
Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.
Outside the gates of Tora Prison
Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.
This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.
During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.
Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.
He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.
Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.
It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.
In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.
Marked in red
According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."
Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.
Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.
According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.
Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."
Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court
Fear of being forgotten
Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.
"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."
Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."
Looking for something to say
During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."
After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.
Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.
Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.
News about COVID-19
In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.
Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.
Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.
Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.
"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."
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