LAND OF THE BEES Turning the tide on a history of loss in Tharaka, Kenya

As part of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collectives' 'Decolonising stories' animation series, Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner Simon Mitambo shares the story of how the Tharakan People are turning the tide on a history of cultural and ecological loss in their ancestral lands by reviving their bee-keeping traditions, traditional dress and ecological governance of their territory.

Words by Simon Mitambo. Images from animation (above) by Tim Hawkins.

My people have lived in Tharaka, this place of red hills and green forests, since time immemorial. We are bee keepers and we call our territory The Land of Bees, because the bee is our most sacred relative.

Tharaka - the Land of the Bees - lies in the foothills of Mt Kenya in what is now known as Tharaka Nithi County.

Traditionally, we looked to the bees to tell us about the weather, especially when forecasting rain, which is so important for our crops.

We used honey to brew beer for ceremonies at our sacred sites that helped maintain the health of our territory.

When communities got together to help one household, that household would give people honey beer in return.

Honey - as a foodstuff and a drink - plays a central role in Tharakan cultural and spiritual life. It is a social currency and a sacred gift.

Today, our bees and these traditions are in trouble. Colonialism and globalisation have had a corrosive effect on our culture and confidence in our ways of life.

Until recently, Tharakans had forgotten the ways we once kept bees and cared for our territory. They were using pesticides that harm the bees and cutting down trees where bees like to nest.

Deforestation, illegal brush burning, use of pesticides and the breakdown of traditional governance systems have all contributed to the losses experienced in Tharaka in recent times.

Seeing these losses, feeling the pain of the bees, we decided something must be done.

For the past five years we have been having community dialogues with our elders to turn the tide on this history of loss in our own lands.

With the help of these elders, we have begun to revive our ways of dressing, our seeds, our sacred sites and our bee keeping practices.

Community dialogues are regular community meetings where people meet, discuss pressing issues and restore ancestral memory and ecological knowledge.

Traditionally, we build our hives high in the trees. Everything must be done with care, from the building of the hive from certain materials, to the selection of the tree.

We are bringing back these traditions, protecting the plants we use to make our hives, the trees they will hang in and the wild places where bees feed.

Traditional Tharakan bee keeping practices make use of local materials. Hives can only be made out of particular woods, incentivising the protection of these native tree species.

We are encouraging everyone to abandon pesticides and use organic farming methods.

The rituals honey is used in are coming back, bringing us into a more caring relationship with all the beings in our territory. Perhaps most importantly, our young people are now being trained in the old ways.

Elder bee keepers who hold immense knowledge of the craft are now passing their knowledge on to younger generations with their communities.

Our hope is that they will become guardians of Tharakan territory as our ancestors were before us. We believe that by taking care of the bees, we can help the The Land of Bees thrive again.

Find out more

Visit the website of SALT, Simon's organisation.

Listen to a podcast featuring Simon explaining how Tharakan's cultural and ecological revival efforts have boosted their resilience to shocks like COVID-19.

Read 'Coming back to life in Tharaka', Simon's article for The Ecologist.