“I am Ruasa Charles, beekeeper of Busoni. I want to brief you a song of beekeeping when we are harvesting honey.”
Burundi – equatorial Africa. The air is warm and humid. The rich vegetation deadens sound, and the dull light has the grey gloom of an English winter sky.
We are ten miles from the border with Rwanda. “Rwanda’s got twenty-years of development progress on Burundi; and it doesn’t have a simmering civil war” said Methodi Butoyi, a local development worker in Kirundo. “These people have real poverty. Beekeeping is a useful top-up to their subsistence farming. There is a market for crops and vegetables but they just don’t produce enough of anything to make a living. Beekeeping is useful. Groups can make a few francs from selling honey. Some is used for a local brew.”
Methodi told the members of Mutsama Beekeepers Association group that I was also beekeeper. Ruasa Charles was delighted. He gave me a hug. His intoxicated smile beamed boyish pleasure to find a brother; and an audience.
Ruasa Charles is one of 31 members of the association – seventeen men and fourteen women. “We are improving our beekeeping with modern beehives” they told me. “We still use traditional hives to catch the bees because bees prefer them. We attract the bees and tip them into the modern hives” their chairman said.
Traditional hives are made with a napier grass frame. These are covered with strips of banana stems and banana leaves. Each one costs about £1.50.
Modern hives cost about £23 and beekeepers like them very much. “Traditional hives have to be harvested at night. There are big losses of honey and lots of bees are killed” they told me. “And we aren’t sure if the honey is mature in a traditional hive – we cannot see. After harvesting and making a mess we only get about 5kg. But from a modern hive we usually get 10kgs each time we harvest. The modern hive is good because we can see problems, and see the quality of the honey.” They harvest twice a year.
Picture yourself in the remoter settings of ‘The Constant Gardener’ – the blindingly bright, hot, dusty scenes in the film of the book by le Carre. In 2008 a couple of us of tried to set up a project to work with beekeepers in that same area. We failed. We didn’t even get started …
There were 23 beekeepers in Kaputir village, but now there are 20. Their hives are mostly in woodland on the banks of the river Turkwel, a meandering artery of water than runs through the desert. The desert’s expanding in this remote part of northwest Kenya. Like many communities around here Kaputir has had a few successes, and more than its fair share of tragedies. There are many similar stories of beekeepers dying in this part of Eastern Africa – near to Sudan [north] and Uganda [west].
This is a tough place to live. It’s sparsely populated, very hot, very dry and sometimes dangerous. These people are nomadic pastoralists living in a vast arid area at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. The Turkwel flows into a crocodile-infested lake that is partly freshwater and partly salt. Both the lake (the ‘jade sea’ crossing into Ethiopia) and the region have the same name as the people – Turkana.
The Turkana don’t get much from outside. Government advisory services are poorly resourced, and the infrastructure (roads and electricity) is virtually non-existent. There are livestock and veterinary staff based in the various headquarters. Cattle, camels, sheep and goats are the basis of the local economy – and one reason why most villages have home-guards (a kind of armed neighbourhood-watch) to protect livestock from raiders. A fair number of non-governmental agencies work here, and food aid has kept people going through drought and famine for much of the last 40 years. In reality many families are dependant on relief food pretty-much all of the time.
The Kaputir beekeepers think of themselves as “Dorobo” – the honey hunting community that (in some tribes) are spear-makers and hunter-gatherers rather than herders. They are experienced beekeepers. They know their work and have a lot of traditional knowledge. Dickson Edapal and Ekuwam Auche showed us the group’s two well-managed apiaries. Both were under acacia trees by the river near to members’ homes. The hives were hanging on wires about 1.5 meters off the ground, and were protected from ants with wood ash scattered around the base of the poles. Nineteen of the thirty hives were occupied. (It was December.) Dickson and Ekuwam were clearly comfortable working near to the bees, and they have no concerns about beekeeping despite the death of Mr Nayoto Lotipo. “He died from bee stings when harvesting his hives in April” Dickson said. The group’s (one) bee suit had been spoiled, so Nayato went without. These are Apis mellifera scutellata. “They can be very angry especially when it’s hot and they have honey.”