Histories of Honey: Material Practices of Beekeeping in the Cherangani Hills, Kenya

By Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe | 17 October 2022

PI: Samuel Lunn-Rockliffe Collaborators: Timothy Kipkeu Kiprutto and Joseph Kimutai

Project ID: 2019SG03 Host Institution: Oxford University

In collaboration with the University of Oxford, this project documents and makes available the material histories of beekeeping in the Cherangani Hills, western Kenya, to comprehend how beekeeping has been integral to the structuring of Sengwer and Marakwet indigenous lifeways and local forms of traditional ecological knowledge. Such research is particularly important as honey production across the region continues to decline due to a complex array of factors, including the spread of agriculture and the resultant depletion of forest vegetation. Running from September 2019 to February 2020, this project documented in-depth contemporary practices of honey production. This includes the construction of beehives and honey pots as well as investigating local forms of traditional ecological knowledge.

The project team worked closely with members from the Sengwer and Marakwet communities who historically resided in the Embobut Forest block, Western Kenya. The distinction between these populations is slight but not trivial, being predominantly based upon differences in the local dialect and complex stories of migration. The Sengwer have had a more explicit relationship with the highland forests and are a much smaller population than their Marakwet neighbours, whose activities extend into the semi-arid plains of the Kerio Valley to the east of the Cherangani Hills. That said, the Marakwet and Sengwer have both conterminously resided in the Embobut Forest for several generations and it was thus important to work with members from both communities to explore how beekeeping within the highland forests have been important in the structuring of daily activities and knowledge through time.

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The project repository contains all the documentation produced by the project. The dataset includes:

Audio-Visual Documentation: to document the process of making a beehive with three individuals (two elders and a younger man). One of the elders, Kipchai, continues to construct beehives in the same way that his grandfathers had taught him and was particularly willing to demonstrate his craft to the other participants as well as the video camera. The second elder, Jacob, has a wealth of knowledge surrounding honey production and ethnobotany but had never made his own beehive, instead choosing to buy them from specialist craftsmen such as Kipchai. Jacob was thus very keen to be a part of the documentation process and learn about the construction process in detail. The younger man, Ruto, makes his own beehives but uses slightly different techniques, often improvising with artificial materials instead of organic resources from the forest. Over the course of seven intermittent days, these individuals worked together to make the beehive. This involved a plethora of interesting techniques, including cutting (), carving, stitching, charring and smearing dung.

Interviews: Seven semi-structured interviews were conducted. Six of these were in Sengwer or Marakwet and were conducted via a translator. The seventh was conducted in English. These interviews explored oral histories that focused upon the historical importance of honey production and how it is integral to local lifeways. They also explored forms of traditional ecological knowledge, documenting different plants that are used for paramount for beekeeping activities.

Participatory Mapping: Using information gleaned from informal discussions and the interview process, a series of ground-truthed maps were created using a handheld GPS. By physically walking the landscape with Mr. Kimutai and willing participants, we created a series of GPS tracks and waypoints of important locales in order to create a material record of how beekeeping is entwined with the wider landscape.

A curated selection of assets from the collection has been provided below as a small sample of the type of assets that can be found in the repository, as well as their content, format, and the metadata provided. The documentation generated by the project has been published under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and can be consulted and downloaded freely including a guide to the dataset which explains the different formats, sizes, and the ID attribution process of the assets, and a metadata spreadsheet with all the metadata information which was collated following the Material Culture Ethnography Metadata Schema (MCEMS).

 

Curated collection of assets from the project repository

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A series of plant resources are collected from nearby forest areas. Video: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, Joseph Kimutai 17 September 2019.

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Amos Ruto recounts a story associated with bees told to him by his grandfather. Interview: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, Joseph Kimutai 02 October 2019.

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Grass collected from the Elgeyo escarpment is tied around the beehive in order to keep the bees warm. Photo: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, Joseph Kimutai 21 September 2019.

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The beehive is hauled up into the forest Domebya tree. Photo: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, Joseph Kimutai 21 September 2019.

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Document with live links to online museum collections displaying different objects associated with apiculture from across sub saharan Africa. File: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, 03 November 2019.

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Document explainging the methodology of the project and acknowledgements. File: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, 3 October 2019.

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A view of Embobut forest taken from the top of Kosich (Kapsaniak’s community forest area).
Photo: Sam Lunn-Rockliffe, Joseph Kimutai 10 February 2020.