A few mornings later I found myself in the company of two young beekeepers. Okello and Zelalum who introduced themselves as brothers despite marked differences in their appearance.
Zelalum was a pure blood Tigrean, traditional occupiers of the premier rungs of the Ethiopian class ladder with his lightweight frame and skin the colour of milky coffee. Okello in comparison was a diehard lowlander—an Anuak—whose thickset frame was enclosed in the blackest of black skin. Given their differing social rankings these two young men should have resentfully eyeballed one another from across the street as was the observed norm. But despite all of society’s engineered complexities they had instead chosen to spend their energy engaging with the natural world and the creatures so taken with flitting about her surface.
At the time, Okello and Zelalum were working on the closing chapter of a beekeeping assignment whose two-year-old project site was located deep in the Gog forest, a place I had first encountered on Google Maps as a dark green smudge in a region most people associate with drought stricken yellow. More intriguing still was the fact that somewhere deep within this oasis lived the elusive Majeng peoples, indigenous citizens whose livelihoods centred around the
wildest of bees.
According to my project brief, ‘Ethiopia is Africa’s largest honey producer with an estimated annual production of 45,905 tons (2014) which accounts for almost a quarter of the honey produced in the continent—ranking it eleventh in the world behind Mexico, Turkey and China.’
It is estimated that ten million bee colonies exist in the country, the majority of which are kept in traditional beehives (made of logs or hollow tubes fashioned from leaves, cow dung and straw). These are strung up high in the tops of the forest trees often several hours walk—or in some cases days—from the beekeeper’s homestead.
A-buzz with the enthusiasm resonating from my new acquaintances, a visit to the Majeng’s forested domain was a relatively easy adventure to justify to the once folk who signed off on my mission request with an air of habitual boredom.
The next week the three of us found ourselves side-by-side in the front of a rattling pickup. Departing after breakfast we picked our way vigilantly through the centre of town flanked by the ubiquitous bajajs who escorted us past the now familiar hawkers, disfigured beggars and gangs of scruffy children holding clusters of small green mangos that had finally come into season. For several minutes we
were forced to a standstill as a vast crowd of church-goers dressed in floating white tunics ululated their way through the fumes behind a black robed priest whose sun warped plastic cross bounced about his chest as he worked his followers up into a frantic fervour.
Getting to the mysterious Gog Forest meant continuing past the entrance of the Hub and following the chocolatey Baro upstream for a further 20 kilometres until we reached Bonga, a renowned honey-trading centre whose 300-metre stretch of human habitation was bordered by the usual cacophony of roadside kiosks.
Amongst the piles of fake Manchester United tops and plastic sandals one could also select from a range of second-hand containers filled with concentrated nectar whose contents once opened, swiftly overpowered that of burning rubbish and frying onions. Depending on the season and floral precedence at harvest, the contents of these containers would range from the purest of whites to the deepest red amber and thus, in the name of ‘market research’ and ‘supporting local industry’ we committed to the purchase of a hefty 2-litre specimen whose authenticity was confirmed by the bodies of several dead bees floating on the surface.
Shortly thereafter, we turned o onto a narrow dirt track and began to leave humanity behind. We purred through a scramble of messy scrubland dominated by juvenile neem—Azadirachta indica—that had stoically risen from amongst the charred stumps and sawdust chippings of what had once been part of a much larger, dark green smudge.
On we pushed into the muggy mid-morning heat accompanied by the frequent THWAPS of bugs-meet-windscreen, our discussions ranged from Ethiopia’s shadowy secret service to the best recipe for tej, the much-loved honey beer consumed across the country, until just over an hour in, we were silenced by the apparition of a young boy walking towards us, his tattered clothes betraying the determination in his stride.
Slowing to a halt, Zelalum leant out the window to speak the throaty, musical dialect of Majeng and after a short to-and-fro the boy’s nervous demeanour evaporated as he wriggled a beach ball sized gourd to his back and removed the plaited grass lid. Leaning over in unison we ogled at the glistening mash of honeycomb inside. Once again, the sweet scent of forest bounty filled the air
before the conversation ended with a thumbs-up from Okello. The boy returned his homemade backpack into position and continued on his way, in a hurry to reach Bonga before the sun went down.
Sister Nature is out 20th June 2023 and is now available for pre-order at Jacaranda Books, bookshops across the UK and local libraries.