By Christopher Davey
(First published in the Beekeepers Quarterly.)
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.”