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One Sweet Adventure

In fall 2014, Susanne Weil '80 spent five weeks teaching beekeeping to farmers in western Kenya. Here, she recounts her experience and reveals her biggest takeaways.

One of the Lewis County (Wash.) Beekeepers’ Association’s members moved to Kisii County in western Kenya, where she helped form an educational co-op through a small Catholic school. She came back to speak at one of our meetings and asked whether anyone could come in fall 2014 to help teach beekeeping and how to make woodenware. The idea was that the school would manufacture bee equipment for the region as a fundraising project. There was a lot of enthusiasm, but in the end only two of us could go the whole five weeks: one to teach the woodenware manufacturing, and as I had a sabbatical coming up, I went as the beekeeping instructor.

I taught eight short courses in beginning beekeeping in five weeks to over 400 students. It was wild. I’d been told the classes would be two days each, so I assumed 16 hours. As Twain once said, “How empty is theory in the presence of fact”: Kisii road conditions made us hours late to every training, and the students often came and went in a steady stream—most walked from their farms, some as far as 15 miles. They were that dedicated: In rural Kisii, the possibility of harvesting honey could mean a saleable product that could help them send their children to school. Technically, elementary school in Kenya is free, but many rural areas have no state-sponsored school—local religious groups run schools for a modest fee, but even that modest fee is beyond the means of many; high school also costs a fee.

The actual teaching was the most challenging I’ve ever done. No electricity, so no computer aids, no PowerPoint. I taught through a translator since most of our students spoke primarily Ekegusii. The translator was not a beekeeper, so I wasn’t entirely sure that all I was trying to convey wasn’t devolving into a linguistic game of “telephone.” The “short rains” pounded on the tin roofs each afternoon: The noise knocked out at least another half-hour of instruction. Between transit, translation, and rain, 16 hours of instruction shrunk to six, so I had to improvise. My husband and I had donated a set of woodenware and hive tools, so I was able at least to demonstrate some techniques, granted in a bee-less setting; I’d also brought along a set of laminated photos that could be shown to demonstrate key concepts like the difference between a queen, a drone, and a worker bee. I cut the class down to the basics and focused on active learning methods; I would pretend I was doing a real hive inspection, pull a frame, and tell the translator to tell the students that I saw a few specific things—what should I do for the bees? They would answer, and that helped me to know what they were getting and not getting.

I realized quickly that the woodenware-manufacturing venture that was intended to provide all these students with equipment was going to take a long time to get rolling, and that the students would inevitably forget much of what I taught them before they would ever get a bee yard set up. So I asked the organizers if they could identify people who already kept bees from all the townships involved and bring them to the organizers’ school for a workshop on mentoring beginning beekeepers. Fifteen beekeepers came out, and several spoke English, so we were able to talk—really talk—about beekeeping. The exchange of knowledge was phenomenal. Many were afraid of their bees and believed they could only inspect at dusk, when the bees were calmer. In fact, when I saw them work bees at the school, I realized that part of their difficulty was rough handling. Inspecting a colony, pulling frames, amounts to a honeybee home invasion—naturally they get defensive. I taught the mentors how to work the bees by moving slowly and gently; they were amazed that I didn’t get stung (though I have been stung, many times, as it happened I never did get stung in Kenya). Seeing them gain confidence working bees was a joy.

My greatest takeaway? I’d have to say that it was a major dose of humility. It’s very hard to help create change across barriers of culture and language, amid massive resource challenges. Teaching the teachers probably had the greatest impact. Several signed on to help with the last two beginning bee classes, so I had interpreters who were beekeepers and could work with them directly on teaching beekeeping. Though the co-op that invited me to Kenya dissolved, I’m still in touch with several of the bee mentors, who have founded thriving local beekeeping associations. One works at Asumbi Teachers College, which has started a woodenware manufacturing program through their local beekeeping club. When I retire, I may go back for another teaching stint. I’d love to do that—the people of Kisii are among the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever encountered.

One footnote: Another takeaway is my 3-year-old cat, Makora, whom I met as an injured kitten during one of the beekeeping trainings. To get the vet certificate and rabies shot that were prerequisites to his plane ride, I talked a workman at the school into giving me a lift to Kisii Town on the back of his motorcycle (Makora rode in my backpack). His name means “mischief” in Ekegusii. Makora appears on our honey labels.

Susanne Weil '80 is secretary of the Lewis County Beekeepers’ Association and the Washington State Beekeepers Association. She is an English professor at Centralia College in Washington state.