Sunday, September 22, 2013

Send Peter Zgambo to the Natural Resource College

In my last post I talked about the importance of supporting the ambitious young people of a community in order to ensure a brighter future for the entire community, now I’d like to talk about an opportunity to do just that.  Peter Zgambo is a bright ambitious young man, who I have tremendous faith in.  He was one of the first kids I got to know in Mwazisi.  He was my neighbor, and his father Charles Zgambo was my close friend and trusted counterpart as the local department of forestry extension worker.  Charles and I did a number of projects together ranging from treadle pump irrigation to tree nurseries.  Charles was always open-minded enogh to try out new projects, but also level-headed enough to tell me when he didn’t think a project was going over well, which is a perfect blend for an extension worker.

When Peter was in primary school he used to come over to my house to listen to the BBC on the radio and work out with my makeshift weights.  He often helped me in the garden, while practicing his English with me.  He was always a hard worker and curious about the different agriculture projects I was working on.  He finished primary school the top of his class,  and moved on to the Mwazisi community day secondary school.  I taught him in Form 1 Physical Science and History, and he was always one of my best students.  He decided to transfer to Ekwendeni after form 2 because Mwazisi didn’t offer form 3 and 4 physical science classes, which he wanted to take.  He passed his MSCE’s doing particularly well in math, biology, physical science, agriculture, and social and development studies. 

Immediately after graduating he sat for several college entrance exams, and got into his first choice The Natural Resource College (NRC) near Lilongwe.  The NRC was set up by the Ministry of Agriculture along with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) as a training center for technical assistance in the field of Agriculture.  The NRC offers classes in everything from Crop science, and swine production, to Mushroom cultivation and agroforestry.  They have a 160-acre farm where students get practical experience, and a well renowned research lab.

The NRC is right down the road from one of the most impressive permaculture demonstrations that I have ever seen.  It is the home of two former Peace Corps volunteers Stacia and Kristof Nordin who arrived in Malawi in 1997 to do HIV prevention work.  They saw connections between the communities health problems, malnutrition, lack of diversity in the diet, and degrading soil fertility.  Seeing the natural connection between these problems led them to Permaculture.  Over time they made their home into a permaculture education center, and developed a permaculture demonstration village on the neighboring property with forward thinking community members.  Over the years the Nordins have introduced thousands of people to Permaculture through their own demonstrations and their work with primary schools.  I can’t do their work justice, so please visit their website: and see for yourself the good work that they are doing.  Kristoff and Stacia were good friends of mine when I was working in the Peace Corps. I brought Peter’s father Charles to visit their demonstration gardens once when we traveled to a Peace Corps training together and it made a strong impression on him.  Peter is already aware of the ideas behind permaculture from the time he spent with me, so I think having the opportunity to regularly visit the Nordins would be the perfect counterbalance to the more conventional agriculture education he will get at the NRC.

The only problem is school fees. it costs about $1,500 per semester to go to the NRC.  Charles, Peter’s father, told me that when his son showed him the newspaper announcing the students who passed the entrance exams and he saw Peter’s name, he was completely speechless, partially because he was so proud of Peter, but also because he knew there was no way he could pay for the school fees.  The Zgambos had five to six children living with them the entire time I was in the Peace Corps, and it wasn’t until near the end of my service that I realized only Peter and his brother Happy were actually the children of Charles and his wife.  The rest were nephews or nieces, and sometimes even further removed relatives,.  They were treated the same, so much so that there was no way for me to know that the other’s were not the Zgambo’s children.  But they paid for all of their secondary school fees, and provided them with everything they needed, for as long as they were in Mwazisi.  I think it must be heart breaking for Charles to know he can’t send Peter to school after all he has accomplished  

The reason I am writing this blog is because I want to help Peter pay his tuition but I can’t afford to cover his tuition alone. Catherine and I have set up an Indiegogo campaign to try to raise the necessary funds to send Peter to the NRC and get him started on a path to making a difference in Malawi.  Please visit our website: and watch the video Catherine made introducing you to the beauty of Mwazisi through her pictures while I explain a bit more about the farming situation there and how I think Peter can make a difference.

We started with a low goal of $3,000 which will only cover his first year at the NRC,  because I wasn't sure what the response would be, but we are hoping to raise much more than that so we can pay for his entire tuition from beginning to if you can please contribute early and often!  If we raise more than we need for Peter than the money will go towards other young promising people from Mwazisi that I am already paying school fees for:  Sam Gondwe who is also in Lilongwe now going to the Malawi school of tourism, and Mathews Mkandawire who is in Blantyre going to accounting school.  If you can't contribute, don't worry you can still help by getting the word out, please use your social media magic to help us reach the people who can contribute, and together we will meet our goal in no time!

Thank You

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Returning to Mwazisi, Hunger season, and the value of Eduction

One of the biggest highlights of this past winters trip to Africa was having the chance to return to my home away from home for three years Mwazisi, Malawi, and be reunited with all of the people I love there.  In the three years since I left, a lot has happened in Mwazisi…for one thing, there are paved roads and electricity in the trading center of Mwazisi now!  Something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine when I first walked down the dusty road from the Bowe turnoff 6 and a half years ago, so I’m happy to see that in Mwazisi “Chitikuko Yakwenda makola” development is moving well. 

I landed in Malawi 2 days later than I had planned to because civil service strikes had shut down the airport in Lilongwe.  So when I landed I didn’t waste any time, instead of spending a night in Lilongwe, I immediately started hitch-hiking north, and managed to make it to Mzuzu late that night, and continued on to Mwazisi the next day

Since I left Mwazisi two different Peace Corps volunteers have been placed there and have had a great impact on the community.  Prashanth Gubala from Boston took over for me and used his business and accounting skills to help the local People Living with Aids (PLA) group start a teahouse as an income generator.  He also worked with the same beekeepers association I did, finished the construction of the agriculture extension office that I started, and a whole slew of other projects. 

Towards the end of Prashanth’s time in Mwazisi the Peace Corps placed another volunteer in Mwazisi, this time it was a secondary school teacher named Kristen Olsen.  While I was back in Mwazisi I stayed with Kristen, and got to see first hand how well respected she is in the community, and what a great job she is doing at the secondary school.  It was really wonderful to see that the Peace Corps volunteers that came after me have been such great representatives of the Peace Corps and left their own mark on Mwazisi.

I spent 4 nights in Mwazisi, and it was a whirl-wind.  I made the mistake of telling my friends I was coming before I showed up, so they managed to fill up my schedule for me.  We had a full day meeting/workshop with the beekeepers association the day after I arrived.   I was amazed how many people showed up, and stayed from beginning to end.  I condensed the material from my two-day workshops in Uganda, and managed to touch on every topic in about 7 hours.  The rest of the week was filled with visiting old projects, meetings with village headman, and mostly reunions with friends.   These visits were mostly for meals and almost always embarrassingly over-generous.  This extreme generosity mostly made me uncomfortable  because I was there in February, which is the time of hunger “nyengo ya njala.”  The rains usually start mid-December in Malawi, so in February they are just about to harvest, but by then most people's stores from the previous year have run out, and they start getting desperate for food.  This year was particularly bad because of weak harvests the previous year, all across Malawi I saw huge food lines at the ADMARC offices which is a state run commodity trader who buys up people’s extra maize during the harvest and eventually sells it back to them at a slightly inflated price.  While I was there several people were killed at an ADMARC in Mzuzu because people rushed forward and stampeded when the gates to the office were opened.  I also heard reports of people robbing  maize from each other, and of course the number of people begging is significantly more during that time.  Despite all of that, literally everywhere I went I was greeted with the most overwhelming generosity in Mwazisi.  Nearly every shop I walked into somebody offered to buy me a coke, and every home I visited people cooked extravagant meals where they slaughtered a chicken or cooked rice which is seldom eaten in the village, because it has to be bought from the lake region.  It is hard to eat your friends most prized food when you know their families are facing desperate times, but to not eat what is served to you as a guest would be very rude. 

It is very difficult to see so many people struggling and to know that there is so little you can do to help, especially with these people who are so generous to me.  When I did give money I tried to be cautious and discreet, because it can lead to jealousy and resentment in the community.  I also constantly reminded myself that better times were just around the corner with harvest time.  Many people also approached me with bigger requests.  One friend asked me to help him start a community youth center, another friend asked me to help him start a natural medicine business, the village headman wrote a long letter requesting that I help build housing for an agricultural extension worker.  I always told people I don’t have extra money to spend on these projects, to which everybody inevitably replied,  “You can raise the money in America.”  I’ve seen too many people try to fund projects remotely, and seen things run awry unbeknownst to the people raising money in a far off wealthy country.  I didn’t pursue a career in international development because as a Peace Corps volunteer I saw that often times even the most well intentioned development programs or projects can lead to even deeper problems and corruption.  I realized that the problems in countries like Malawi are far too complex for me to understand and I don’t want to ever create bigger problems out of hubris in thinking I have the answers.

The one thing I do feel comfortable raising money for is education or school fees.  In my mind by supporting the ambitious young people of Malawi as they try to better themselves, we are investing in the future of the whole country.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer a lot of my time was spent working at the secondary school.  I taught physical science, and history, and also led an after school wildlife club that kept a tree nursery and a vegetable garden.  As any teacher might tell you working with teenagers always has its challenges, but if you can be patient and work through the temper tantrums and hormones, it gives you a direct link to the energy and enthusiasm of the best of the young people in a community, and in my opinion if you nurture and support that enthusiasm you have the best chance of making a positive impact on the future of the community.  

In Mwazisi I was very lucky to interact with a wide array of outstanding young people, but so few of them have any opportunity to go further with their education or live up to their full potential.  For example my first year teaching Form 1 (freshman) physical science, I had over 80 students in my class, by the beginning of the 2nd term I had close to forty students.  When I taught the same group of students in form two (sophomore year) I had close to 25 students in my class, by the time they were in form four there were only fifteen students, only 4 of which managed to get a passing grade on their Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) exam.  Granted some students did transfer to better schools where they thought they might have a better chance of passing the MSCE, but most of the other students were prevented from being able to finish their schooling because they either couldn’t pay for school fees, or needed to work in their families tobacco and maize fields, or they got pregnant and had to drop out.  Some of my very best students from the beginning didn’t make it through form three. 

One example that was particularly heart breaking for me was a girl who was a daughter of a friend of mine.  I taught her in both physical science and history, she was very quiet, yet also very poised.  She rarely answered questions in class, but her homework and essays completely stood out from her peers, due to her tremendous comprehension.  She somehow always managed to accomplish exactly what I asked for in a homework assignment, while most others in form 1 weren't even close.  At the end of the year, she had the highest grade in all of her classes, but the next year she didn’t come back for form 2, when I went to ask her father what happened, he told me that she was pregnant and going to get married.

I often wondered if there was anything I could do to help the problem of students dropping out before they can succeed in school.  The only  solution I ever came up with was to support those who have the ambition and opportunity to go further with their education, I believe the more successful students that are able to progress in their education become, the more serious the whole community starts taking education and the more families support their children in completing secondary school and hopefully they go further beyond in their studies.

Friday, February 22, 2013

To the Mountains: Kilembe

Our final training was in Kilembe, which is a town just a little ways up in the Rwenzori Mountains.  It was a copper mining town for a long time, now there is just the remains of rusting equipment and decaying buildings from the mining company.  But the Rwenzori mountains that surround it are beautiful.  There are massive granite peaks in the distance that remind me of Glacier National Park in Montana (but I don't remember so many banana trees growing in Montana.)  Some of the peaks are snow capped even now during the hottest months of the year here.  It felt good to get up into the mountains and escape the dusty hot weather of Kasese.

Our final venue was a sub-county government office.  The variety of different spaces we have taught in has been fun, always adapting to different spaces and making it into our classroom.  Kilembe was our best turnout yet, and again Simon and Jockus explained to me how far some of the participants had walked to join us, this made me feel thankful, and motivated me to really try to make it worth their walk.  By now Simon and I have the whole program down cold, so we moved through the sessions more efficiently and added much more anecdotal material.

At one point one of the farmers asked me about the effect of pyrethroids on bees.  I asked him if people were using the pesticide in the area. He said "no they're growing the flower pyrethrum as a cash crop."  I started asking more questions and it turned into a great side discussion, people told stories about seeing bees actually dead stuck to the plant.  I told them I honestly don't know the effects of the pyrethrum flower on the bees but I do know that pesticide can be deadly to the bees especially when it comes into contact with other pesticides and fungicides.  They told me about a white man who came to Kasese to encourage the farmers to grow it, he convinced them it was safe by actually eating the flower in front of them.  I asked them how much they got paid for the flower,  they said about 3,000 Ugandan Shillings per kg for it.  I didn't really want to influence them to much one way or the other on it, because I don't know all of the dynamics behind it so I just said, "you get 6,000 USh for a kg of honey, so if beekeeping is your business and you see bees dying on pyrethrum, I'd choose one  or the other."  I also encouraged them to consider cash crops that are good forage for the bees like coffee or Moringa Olefera.

The second day we did mostly practical sessions like all the other workshops.  We went up to an apiary along the dam above the town.  This apiary wasn't nearly as nice or big as the other apiaries we visited. It had one langstroth hive that was just occupied.  I told the owner it would be a good time to inspect to see how they were drawing out their comb, but he didn't seem comfortable opening it up with the group their so I didn't press the matter.  He had a few occupied fixed comb hives, both wooden and grass.  We peaked into one occupied grass hive and found again that the comb was running perpendicular to the entrance (I'm beginning to think that this is not as uncommon as everybody has been telling me.)  We saw that the hive had hardly any honey at all so we left it for the upcoming nectar flow.

We then went to a "top bar hive,"  I'm hesitant to call it such because it really wasn't being used like a top bar hive.  The bars were all different sizes, some way too big others way too small.  When I saw the top bars I said " oh man, we're going to find a mess in here!"  I started tapping the top bars from the back as I usually do listening to the pitch to see which ones have comb on them.  It seemed like most of the top bars were empty I started pulling out the top bars and found no comb and no bees, but there were plenty of bees coming in and out of the entrance.  Then I came to one top bar that had a screen fixed to it with a wooden frame surrounding it on all sides which was nailed into place and the bees had caked the entire screen in propolis.  The owner told me that it was a queen excluder, I told him that it was now a propolis trap and a bee excluder.  Because it was nailed into place we couldn't take it out,  but there was only about five top bars that the bees had on the entrance side.  I tried pulling out the first top bar, and found that three combs were running diagonally across it.  Every comb was loaded with brood and pollen, or honey, or both.

I told the owner if we didn't take out the queen excluder they would either swarm or abscond.  So we took out the three combs closest to it and he hacked at the excluder's wood with a panga knife to break it out.  Once we had it out, we tied the three combs to the best sized top bars measured with a bottle cap. and put them back straight. I told him to check back in two weeks to see if the bees were building comb on other bars and check the direction, I also told him to make some new top bars using the width of a bottle cap and start switching them with the mis-sized top bars.  When he comes back he will also cut away the rest of the cross comb, and tie it to correctly sized top bars.  After that we went back to a shady place and did honey and wax processing both theoretically and practically.

Simon had told me that he was from a area called Muhango in the middle of the mountains near Kilembe.  He had a beekeeping group their and his wife and kids were living there most of the time, but he stayed in Kasese most of the time.  Since it was friday he was going to be dropped along the road and walk up the mountain after the training.  I told him I would love to see his home.  So he invited me to come along and take a night there.  When we were finished with the training we loaded up Daniel's car with the beekeeping equipment and he dropped us off at the path up the mountain.

This was a very typical African mountain path, straight up the mountain, no switch backs at all.  When erosion washes away a section, they just dig out steps in the clay.  I did pretty well keeping up with Simon during the two hour hike, but I think he was taking it easy on me.  The veiw from the top was amazing looking west I could see the snow capped peaks of the tallest mountains of Rwenzori mountains, and the expansive plains to the east with Kasese sitting under a giant ominious storm cloud.  We took a few minutes to rest and take pictures.  Then we started the second half of the hike, which consisted of going up and down different hills.  Each hill seemed to have it's own little village at the top and trading centers were usually on bigger plateaus.  When your standing on one hill top you can hear the roosters crowing , and babies crying from the surrounding hilltops.  It was quite sureal, a feeling of being close to your neighbors because you can hear them but at the same time very far away because their was always a considerable gap in between.

At around 5pm we reached his home.  We found his wife cooking with their daughter, and his three year old son running around naked making motorcycle noises.  Simon took me around to different houses introducing me to all of his relatives.  Everybody was always amused with my attempts at Lukongho.  That night we had a feast that left me begging for mercy.  The first course was potatoes and sweet potatoes mixed with beans, which would have been good enough for me.  But then she came with a second course of chicken in sauce, that was to be eaten with Kalo a hard porridge of millet and cassava flour, that you dip in the chicken sauce.  They also had a bowl of spaghetti which surprised me.  I've never seen people in the village eating spaghetti. I was stuffed, but Simon insisted that I take a banana for desert.  After that I was ready for bed.

The next morning Simon's beekeeping group came to see me.  I was really happy to see that they were mostly women.  Simon and I gave them a little pep talk, to keep trying different things until they are comfortable in their hives and they get into a rhythm of keeping the hives and harvesting honey consistently.  We also encouraged them to find ways to make beekeeping cost effective for themselves.  Beekeeping doesn't have to be expensive.

Before we set off on the long hike back we had to check in on the groups apiary and simon's hives.  Again I found top bar hives with queen excluders nailed into them, but bees just propolizing them, but not passing through them.  I asked Simon about why people did that, and he told me about another foreigner who had come and told them they needed queen excluders to increase honey production.  I told him nobody needs queen excluders.  They work well in some systems, but they are clearly not working in this system.  He agreed, and explained that he had already ripped them out of his own hives.  I told him it doesn't hurt to try them in different hives but they should never be nailed into place, try using a movable queen excluder.

We also visited his Langstroth hive.  It was a mean hive! but very well maintained.  all of the combs were running as they should in between the wood  of the frames, with the crimped wire in between.  This was a different sort of langstroth hive then I have ever seen it was one box with enough length for 20 deep frames.  He put a movable queen excluder right in the middle, so the rear ten frames were for honey production.  I said "this is a queen excluder system that works!"  The colony looked very  healthy with lots of brood, and space to grow, and it even had a some surplus honey frames two weeks before the big nectar flow.  So we harvested two frames and packed up to head back down to Kasese.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The good with the bad

My time in Kasese has been wonderful, I have experienced so much in a short period of time.  Most everybody I have interacted with has been so nice and welcoming.  But of course there is always a darker side to life anywhere.  I can't just share the good things times, I also have to share the bad, because they are every bit as much a part of the story.  Unfortunately the worst part had to come on my last two days in Kasese

On Sunday while I went to Queen Elizabeth National Park with the LIDEFO staff somebody broke into my hut at the hotel and stole my laptop.  I knew right away something was wrong when I found that my door was unlocked.  I lock up my room every time I leave, even if I'm just going to grab a bottle of water at the restaurant.  I ussually leave my laptop at the front desk when I'm out, but we left before 6 am on a Sunday so nobody was there.  So I put my laptop in it's case, and hid it under my duffle bag.

The the people who took it knew exactly what they were looking for.  They took the computer in its case, the plug which was on the table, and the power converter which was still in the plug.  They didn't seem to touch my suitcase which had money hidden in it.  Or my backpack which had some other small electronics in it.  They were looking for the computer only, I guess that's what I get for bringing a shiney Macbook pro to a poor country.

It seems that it was the man in the hut next to mine.  He booked to stay for three nights, but paid for the room one night at a time.  He stayed in one of the nicer rooms the first night, but asked to move into the hut next to me the second night because it was cheaper.  The next day when I was in the park the maids said he was the first person to take tea then he went back to his room, and never went out.  when the maids passed by they said they saw him looking through the window for them.  He left very suddenly in the afternoon without paying for that day.  He just left his key in his door and dissapeared.  The police said that it is common for thieves to move from room to room, and make copies of different keys, so they can go back later and rob the person who is now staying there.  The number he left in the registrar book seems to be a fake, so he may be a goner. 

Of course I went through a real low period when I figured out what had happened, but I was really surprised by my friends reactions in Kasese.  Mary one of the hotel staff came to my room while I was first looking for the computer.  When I told her it was stolen she immediatly had tears in her eyes and started frantically looking along with me.  When I called Daniel from LIDEFO to let him know what happened he litterally screamed,  and was there five minutes later with his wife.  The hotel manager went with me and Daniel and the rest of our entourage every time we went to the police station.  Even a couple of the local Indian business owners that I have befriended over the past two weeks called me when they heard what happened (Kasese isn't a big town)  and they came to meet me at the police station and the hotel to offer advice and support.  The hotel owner really surprised me when he insisted on giving me 1.5 million Ugandan shillings about $500 to compensate me for the incident.  He is a very successful man, and that's not actually a lot of money to him, but that seems like a rare gesture to me anywhere.

It is a very alienating thing to have somebody break into a place where you are staying and steal your property.  It can give a person a very bad feeling about a place or an experience.  The more you think about that violation, the more distrustful and negative you can become.  All of the support I have gotten from new friends and aquaintences here in Kasese has kept me posative, and continues to leave me feeling good about this whole experience.  I don't have any regrets about this trip.

I guess my one regret should be not backing up everything on my computer before I left.  I was talking to my good friend Mr. Khan the night before I left Kasese, and he brought that up.  "It's not the computer that is important," he said, "it's all the data."  I agreed and went on recalling all of the things I had lost with the computer,  lot's of stuff for the farm, power point presentations for the beekeeping classes I teach, papers and articles from my agroforestry classes, piles of pictures.  It seemed like a lot of work and a lot of time had all gone down the drain in an instant.  It suddenly reminded me of something I saw in college.  A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks visited Montana while I was going to school there.  They started making a sand mandala on a big mat on the bottom floor of the student center.  There were four of them on their knees crouched over the unfolding art, completely focused on the task in front of them.  They dropped one granule of colored sand at a time by tapping a small stick against a cylinder full of sand.  I remember being amazed at the perfect symmetry of the mandala, the detail of the figures depicted in it, and the intense concentration each of them had as they worked. I stopped in a couple time every day for about five days to watch them work, as the mandala became more and more elaborate.

One afternoon I was passing on my way to practice when I noticed a considerable crowd gathered around them.   I watched from the floor above them.  Three of them had finished and were gathering their things while the forth one finished up the pattern he was working on.  When he was done he stood up, and without even taking a picture of their work or a moments hesitation they started sweeping the sand to the center of the mat.  Everybody in the student center gasped, but they were perfectly content and cleaned up everything while they smiled and chatted with each other.  It's not exactly the same thing, but I take comfort in that memory just the same.

As I'm sure you might be able to guess I won't be blogging as often now that I don't have a computer. I'm still keeping a detailed journal, and I'm looking forward to typing up my stories from Kasese and beyond and sharing the pictures as soon as I get back (which is soon.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Kirembe with the Renzori mountains behind
Yesterday we finished up our second training in in Kirembe.  The group wasn’t as organized as the beekeepers in Bwera, but there are always a few good examples in every group, and this one was no different.
The first day we ended up waiting for the farmers for about 3 hours.  The first person to arrive was a woman dressed in a nice Ugandan dress like she was going to church.  Simon told me that she had walked about three hours to come.  He said “she lives behind these mountains somewhere thereeeee,” as he raised the pitch of his voice to indicate the distance he reached up and over an imaginary mountain to point to a far off place.  I looked at her and said, “oh wow,” to show her I was impressed.  But she just looked forward and pursed her lips and nodded to show that it was no big deal.   I used the little Lukongho that Simon and Jockus had taught me and said “Wasinja Kutsibu,”  which means thank you very much as I dug out the protein bar that I packed for lunch and gave it to her.  She was definitely confused by it, but ate it one little piece at a time, I could tell because every time she took another piece I could hear the wrapper rattling.  When two more people showed up, I heard the wrapper rattle again as she shared pieces with them.

THe talking begins again
Eventually when we had five people or so I said to Simon we better start or we will be here until dark.  I could tell some of the people had come straight from their fields; it wasn’t long before people started nodding off in the hot and dark church.  I used the same program that we used in Bwera, but I tried to make it more interactive to keep people from nodding off too much. 

As soon as we got to talking about different types of hives, I asked everybody that was already keeping bees to tell us about the types of hives they kept.  This turned into a lively discussion, and an old man that has close to 100 hives took over the class describing the different types of local hives he has built, and described how he builds top bar hives.  This gave Simon and I a nice break, as he just whispered to me the occasional translation.  I could mostly tell what the man was describing by his animated hand motions.  It was a good discussion of how to use cheap local materials to make hives.

By the time I started talking about the advantages of different types of hives there were closer to 12 participants.  I was glad more people were there for that discussion; it’s good for new beekeepers to hear that local hives are just as valuable as the “modern” hives, they just have different purposes.  One is good for intensive beekeeping, while the other is good for extensive beekeeping.  Every group should have a mix of the two.

KTB hives in the old man's apiary
Finally I wrapped up the first day talking about colony management.  I spent more time this go around talking about how to approach a hive, and how to work it calmly, efficiently, and safely.  Last time I left that topic for after our practical visit to an apiary, which made for a bit of chaos at the beginning. This time I made sure people knew what my expectations were for working in the apiary ahead of time.  I also made sure to say that people should be there at 9 am so we could get to the apiary before it gets too hot!  I was really happy to see the chairperson for this group was a woman.  She thanked me for the day, and urged me to come again and again.

The next morning of course folks weren’t there at 9, but the church we were teaching in was full because it was Ash Wednesday.  Simon passed the time chatting with some of the old men waiting outside of the church.  The first farmer that came carried a Kenyan top bar (KTB) hive that he built, to get our advice.  This drew the attention of the old men, and soon we had a crowd of people standing around the hive asking questions.  I could see Simon's excitement as he answered all of their questions with my occasional help....He's a true extension man!

showing the group capped brood.
When everybody showed up we headed over to the apiary of the old man who had described the local hives the day before.  It was really impressive!!! the apiary was in the middle of a huge Moringa Olefera grove (A fantastic agroforestry tree that has tremendous medicinal qualities, and is good bee forage).  The apiary itself had a tall dense living fence around it.  Inside there was close to 100 hives, a long line of KTB, then again long lines of the local hives he had described side by side, with about a meter in between them.

This time we went to the KTB hive first.  It was a strong colony and people once again had the chance to see eggs, capped brood, larva, nectar, capped honey, and pollen.  Still having a hard time finding queens here in Africa, but I'm still holding out hope.  I always tell people if you see the eggs you know a queen was there at least three days ago.  We straightened out a few small gaps, and closed up the KTB.
Locally made, fixed comb hive
drawn out comb in a fixed comb hive hive

Next we went to one of his local fixed comb hives that was made of thatch, unfortunately it was a rare case where the comb was running the wrong direction, so it shot the idea that the bees keep the brood next to the entrance, and the honey to the back.....Dang bees never read the books.  We did manage to see some well capped honey to harvest though, and took one comb to demonstrate filtering honey.  But too many people had to take a bit of comb when we got back so there was hardly anything to demonstrate with.
Parading the suit through town.
Recruiting new beekeepers.

Despite it being mid-day and wicked hot the ladies insisted on wearing their full suits and gloves as we walked back through town.  It made for a fun bee parade.  When we got back to the church we decided to do the last few sessions outside because it was so hot.  When we got done talking about harvesting and processing both honey and beeswax Jockus demonstrated how he checks the honey water content at the LIDEFO with the refractometer.  Then we took another picture to say thanks to another donor of equipment and the refractometer Better-bee LTD.
Separating honey from the comb.

The Kirembe Beekeepers,  Chairperson is the woman holding the suit.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Honey Packing

African bees aren't so mean!

Monday morning we started the process of packing honey into jars at the LIDEFO.  I asked that I could just watch how they normally do it, and give my suggestions after the fact.  So when Jockus arrived he started his usual process.  First he started a fire, which right away surprised me.  "You are pasteurizing the honey?"  I asked.  "No, we just heat a little because the honey becomes hard when it stays a long time,"  he explained.  I looked at the honey which looked liquified to me, but went along anyways.

stones to keep the bucket off of the bottom of the pot
I was really impressed with the great pains that Jockus went to, in order to make sure that everything was very clean and sanitary, even though the majority of the process was done outside.  Once he got his fire going, he put a giant pot on the three stone fire,  he then put three stones in the pot.  Then he brought out all of the white air tight buckets filled with honey.  There were about 4 full 20 gallon buckets.  We spent some time scooping the pollen, wax, and propolis that had settled on the top out.  When a bucket of honey looked clear, then we put it on the three stones in the water, with the lid loosely on top to keep anything from dropping in.

lightly heating the honey
Joukus left it there for about an hour while he cleaned out the 50 liter settling tanks that they have installed the honey gates to.  I kept asking Joukus "don't you think the honey is warm now?"  He would test it by sticking a giant wooden spoon to the bottom, then pull it out and see how the honey dripped off, "not yet," he would say, "it is almost ready."  Then he would carry on with his other work.   Finally I asked, "How do you know that the honey isn't getting overheated?"  He went in and came back out with a thermometer and put it in the honey and it read about 32 degrees celsius, "You see it's not yet warm enough," he said triumphantly.  "Okay, well how warm is warm enough?" I asked as I put the thermometer in the water just to check how hot that was. It was close to 90 degrees celsius (about 194 degrees F).  He said the honey should be about 40 degrees celsius (about 104 degrees F).  I laughed and said,  "Well then you are pasteurizing the honey."  "O--kayy," he said half in agreement, half to acknowledge that he had learned something.

At first I was adamant that they shouldn't heat the honey because it breaks down the sugars and produces a byproduct hydroxymethylfufuraldehyde (try saying that five times fast, or even once slowly,  or just say HMF.)  Everything I have read says that to sell on international markets you have your honey tested for it's HMF value.  The higher the HMF, the lower the quality of the honey.  Joukus understood this point very well, but he explained that once the honey granulates (crystalizes) in the jar, then people can't buy it in Kasese.  He made a great point.  For now, it doesn't really matter what the international markets want, what matters is trying to dominate the local market, since their aren't any other local honey packers near Kasese.  We agreed that once the LIDEFO outstrips the local demand, and is ready to move onto markets further abroad, then maybe they could start to institute my suggestion not to pasteurize.
filtering the honey

After the honey was warmed then Jockus poured the honey through one of the stainless steel double filters that Bee Commerce donated.....Thank you good folks at Bee Commerce!

Finally he poured the honey into the settling tank where it is mixed with all of the other honey, and it is left to sit for at least 24 hours so any other imperfections can rise to the top.  Then Jockus will again scrape the little remaining wax and pollen that rises out and he will start pouring the honey through the honey gate to fill jars for selling at local super markets.  I will miss this step as it has to happen soon since the buyers are starting to clamor and I will be busy with farmer trainings.

Honey in settling tanks with honey gates.  Ready to jar!

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Bwera woman carrying jackfruit and cassava

Simon left is in the northern hemisphere, Joukus right, is in the southern, I'm in both!
Friday and Saturday we packed up in Daniel’s little car to take our beekeeping trainings down to a village almost exactly on the equater and very near to the DRC border.  It was really good to get out of the noise of town for a while and get to a rural village.  I think the trainings are off to a good start.  Our group for the past two days was small, about eighteen farmers on average, with people floating in and out.  But I was happy, they all seemed serious and I know they all learned something both days.  Some were new beekeepers, others were long time traditional beekeepers having anywhere between 5 and 60 traditional fixed comb hives.  I was a little disheartened to see that there was only 2 women, but I was happy to see some very young people in the mix.

talking, talking, talking...
The first day was about 6 hours of me lecturing with translations.  I have to admit I was a bit exhausted at the end of the day.  I talked about the life cycle and biology of bees.  That seemed to be the most fascinating for the experienced beekeepers.  They asked lots of questions about the nuptial flight of the queen, or the waggle dance of the foragers to indicate the site of a nectar source or a new home in the case of a swarm.  Some of it left them dumfounded and laughing, shaking their heads.  I smiled and assured them "It's true, I can't make this stuff up.  You can read it in bee books."  I showed them diagrams of the waggle dance in The Beekeepers Handbook, and asked them to check the next time they see a swarm, "you will see the bees following each other in this same pattern.  
Daniel translating that the drones get kicked out of the hives during the dearth for laziness

We talked a lot about types of hives.  I tried to outline the advantages and disadvantages of both local traditional fixed comb hives (like woven basket hives or log hives), and "modern" movable comb hives like (Kenyan top-bar KTB or langstroth hives).   The difference boils down to "intensive beekeeping" vs. "extensive beekeeping."  

With intensive beekeeping I mean movable comb hives that can be easily inspected and managed.  With intensive beekeeping you can monitor the health of the queen, and growth of the colony by counting the combs of brood.  A beekeeper can also make splits and expand his apiary in a controlled way. You can also monitor the ripening of the honey, it is very easy to just take capped honey and leave the rest for the bees.  This is the type of beekeeping advocated by most NGOs and visiting beekeepers from the western world.

I think the group was surprised to hear me say that they shouldn't just learn about movable frame hives because NGOs tell them that that they are better and donors are quick to invest in them.  They should also make use of the valuable local knowledge in using cheap and easy to manage traditional hives.  I might not advocate for fixed comb hives in the US, but here they really make sense.  African honey bees (Apis Mellifera Scutellata) are very quick to swarm or abscond so there is always no shortage of bees looking for a hive to occupy. If you bait your hive well, and make it into an ideal space for the bees at the right time of year it will get occupied.  Because the African bees move so much their is really no problems with brood diseases.  

Most of the traditional hives have an entrance for the bees on one end and removable door on the other side for the beekeeper to enter.  The honey is almost always away from the bees entrance, and the brood is up front.  If the beekeeper opens from the back and smokes the bees to the front then they can easily focus on just collecting honey from the back and make sure that they don't take comb that is towards the front where brood is, and leave some honey for the bees.  I really emphasized that a beekeeper shouldn't be harvesting honey at night as I know many beekeepers do in Malawi, and that they should always take care of the brood nest when possible.

A beekeeper can easily and cheaply build 50 local hives of which probably 35-40 will get occupied.  With KTB hives a beekeeper may only be able to afford 5 hives, and the occupation rate would be the same, meaning they would only have 3-4 hives occupied.  A beekeeper has a better chance at making a profit by having more inexpensive hives, and they won't be reliant on donors to get started.  This is an extensive beekeeping approach. Of course their are cheaper ways to build top bar hives as well, and I encouraged them to be creative in making KTB hives that replace some of the expensive planks with locally available materials, and I gave them some examples of things we did in Malawi.  But, mostly I encouraged them to focus on what has already worked in their area, and use the knowledge of local beekeepers.

The local expert explaining his hive.

I know that I'm not the expert on local hives so I asked one of the area's long time beekeepers to explain how he makes his traditional hives.  He makes it out of bamboo that has elephant grass woven though it to make a long cylinder that narrows at one end.  The bees entrance is at the narrow end, and he makes a removable door at the wider end that he seals with cow dung, which he also uses to seal the entire hive.  It's simple, practical, proven, and best of all cheap.
Harvesting from a fixed comb hive

The second day was mostly practical lessons.  First thing in the morning we went out to the hives and visited both a local fixed comb hive, and a KTB hive.  I let the owner of the hive take charge as he smoked from the back all of the bee moved towards the entrance, and it was very safe at the back of the hive.  The honey was mostly uncapped, so we just took one capped comb so we could do a practical example of honey separating.
KTB comb with capped honey at the top, then nectar, and capped brood

Next we went to the KTB hive, for an example of intensive beekeeping.  When I opened the hive it was a bit of a mess, there was gaps in between the top bars and some of the bars were too wide, so there was multiple combs on one bar, and others were too small so the comb was attached to the next bar.  There was sticks and pieces of grass on top of the bars that were entombed in propolis.  We spent some time straightening it out, and removing some of the small top bars.  Along the way the participants were able to see drone and worker pupa, larva, eggs, pollen, nectar, and capped honey.  It was really great to see how excited some of the more experienced beekeepers were to see the eggs.   We put everything back together with no gaps.
Notice the woman in pink flip flops, just in front of these two men, She was right up front the entire time eager to see everything while other people were afraid.  I noticed that in the apiary she had her feet tucked in the suit.  The new suit gave her confidence!

Then we went back to the outdoor classroom for practical lessons in separating the honey from the comb.  The beekeepers got to see how joukus will check the honey's water content at the LIDEFO before packing.  He used the refractometer that was donated by Betterbee Inc.  We talked about the importance of storing the honey in airtight white buckets that are kept in a cool dry place to avoid overheating, and moisture getting into the honey.  We also talked about the value of the beeswax, and went over different ways to process it.

Joukus demonstrates the refractometer after we seperated the honey from the comb.

At the end of the day the chairman read us his report thanking us for the training and we talked about the donated items I told them that they mostly came from a beekeepers association just like theirs in Connecticut, which they really loved.  So we decided to make a sign and take a picture thanking their sister beekeepers association in the USA. 

Kyempara Bee Farmers Association Thanking the Connecticut Backyard Beekeepers Association