Rumba in the jungle

By Christopher Davey

(First published in Beekeepers Quarterly)

“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.”

Village meeting
Villagers at a meeting; grey skies but cheerful colours

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.

Charles and I
On learning I was a beekeeper too …

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.

Wicker hive
How a napier grass and banana leaf hive is made

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.

Traditional hive
Traditional and modern hives under the shade

Mutsama Beekeepers Association has 62 traditional hives and 24 modern ones. (One was stolen.)

“In our tradition we have to sing when harvesting the honey so when the bees sting someone he can’t feel bad” said Ruasa Charles. “We have a song to harvest with – to sing to the bees and to each other so the stings don’t hurt.”

“We must not drink alcohol or have sex before we go harvesting honey. The bees don’t like that” the chairman said.

The smoking song, and materials for smoking the bees

They danced in the daylight to demonstrate a harvest. They danced up the hill to the beehives in the coffee. They jived to a hive they were pretty sure was empty; and this is what Ruasa Charles sang in a husky undulating wail in his local language. The others joined in.

The smoking song, and materials for smoking the bees

My wife prepare for me a smoker

My wife, give me one smoker

My wife pay attention to the bees; they can sting you

My wife, give a smoker to Rukera (a friend)

They repeated the song over and over again. They blew imaginary smoke into to the hive and brushed imaginary bees from Ruasa Charles’ head as they worked. He delved into the hive, pulled out imagined honey comb and harvested it into an imaginary bucket. But the imaginary bees became real and the beehive didn’t seem quite as empty as they thought. Perhaps a small swarm! The bees buzzing around Ruasa Charles’ head led to an early, dignified departure.

Getting stung
Perhaps there were some bees in there after all

A traditional smoker is simply a handful of grass and herbs, smouldering to dull the bees. They now have a couple of bellows-smokers, plus bee suits, boots and buckets.

When the beekeepers have harvested, they sing this as they reach home:

My wife, receive this honey and store it well

So give us some honey to taste

Give us some honey to taste.

It’s good honey. It’s from the flowers of tropical crops. The equatorial forest is now little more than pathetic patches of woodland – islands in an ocean of smallholder farms of banana, cassava and coffee. The forest has been decimated by the effects of war and the illegal cutting of trees for timber and fuel. But although these beekeepers are desperately poor they are cheerful and optimistic. Bees can make a rumba and a rumble in the jungle. Just the jungle is missing.

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