An African Honey Trail – finding common ground in Northern Kenya

South African rock art depicting bees and honey

Digital tracing of a figure carrying honeycombs. Ebusingatha Shelter, South Africa. Tracing by Jeremy Hollman

TARA is happy to work together with organisations that share similar or related values and goals. Porini Welfare Association aims to strengthen local community ecological governance through the understanding that effective ecosystems are a function of cultural wisdom and commitment by the local communities. Recently Porini has launched a programme called An African Honey Trail that encourages local communities to revitalise and maintain their traditional beekeeping practices, as well as to foster and share knowledge on maintaining a balanced relationship with nature. The projects current focus is in Northern Kenya with potential to extend into Ethiopia.

Traditional bee keeping is one of the oldest practices carried out in Northern Kenya with the knowledge having been passed on from one generation to the other. The importance of bees for past societies can be seen in rock art depicting bees, honey and honey collection. These kinds of images have been found in a number of countries in Africa, although not yet from northern Kenya. In places where bee rock art is found, it is often in the form of catenary curves which are interpreted as the artist’s/artists’ observation of bees’ nests from a possibility of vantage points (read more). In rare cases, the practice of honey gathering is depicted in rock art as in the painting of an anthropomorph/therianthrope above from eBusingatha, South Africa.

In San rock art, known for its symbolism, depictions of honey and bees have been tied to deeply spiritual themes such as the harnessing of potency from bees. In the same image, more than simply carrying honey that has been harvested the figure represented may be delivering potency to community members after a spiritual journey.[i] Ethnographic research has shown that in the Kalahari the trance dance is preferably done when bees swarm in order to harness their potency.

Engraving of possible honey comb, Morocco

Engraving depicting catenary curves (U-shaped curves). Possible honey comb, Morocco

Currently this thousand-year old relationship between humans and bees is threatened by changes taking place in the society: in spiritual beliefs, economy, food production and consumption – culture at large, as are other forms of harmonious co-existence with nature that indigenous communities must be recognised for.

Through the project ‘An African Honey Trail’, Porini aims to draw attention to the bee not only for their tremendously important and now threatened role as pollinators, but also to a variety of closely tied issues. The bee is both an example of harmonious living and working, and of matriarchal societies. Moreover the bee allows us to get familiar with biodiversity and examine our actions with this view in mind: in order to produce honey, bees need flowers and a regular water source. The diversity of flowers and their origins and seasons are the source of the flavours of honey! Thus a greater connection to the bee can enhance individuals’ connection to nature.

African Honey Trail blessing hives

Blessing and installing of hives at Porini Sanctuary. Images by Wanjiku Mwangi

In a similar way, ties with the past can be enhanced. Current societies are disconnected from rock art- because they do not know (about) it or because they do not have a cultural attachment to it. Even though current custodians of rock art may not be the artists of it, rock art represents a history of humanity and has been part of the custodians’ landscape for a length of time. Hence both organisations face a similar challenge: how does one make the past relevant and desirable today? How can we create a future in which modernity and tradition support each other?

Both Porini and TARA believe that local communities are the key actors in recreating effective ecosystems and in conservation of rock art. In order to validate and make the past useful, communities need to see the relevance and the benefit of actions taken surrounding it. The benefits can be both tangible, such as economic development through tourism, and intangible, such as a better-rooted and balanced sense of identity. The tangible and intangible benefits often support and reinforce each other in the sense that admiration of an “outsider” creates a sense of pride within the community and will to carry on – hence continuity. To achieve these benefits both organisations hope to build the capacities of community members through reaching out to communities to share knowledge.

An African Honey Trail

Sketch map by Hanna Söderström

Bridging the gap between the past and the present can also be achieved through documentation. Documentation and conservation guarantees that the crucial information embedded in traditions will not disappear for good.  Working together with Porini in northern Kenya allows TARA to contextualise rock art both in history and today, and thereby create more coherent and complete knowledge. Ultimately, having a voice together strengthens our message.

Find more African Honey Trail updates

By Hanna Söderström

Date: 30 Nov 2015

[i] Jeremy C. Hollmann, ‘Bees, Honey and Brood: Southern African Hunter-Gatherer Rock Paintings of Bees and Bees’ Nests, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 50, no. 3 (3 July 2015): 343–71. Link to full article