MY father owned 20 beehives in a dense forest near Itiso. In theory beekeeping was a moneyspinner. I asked my old man one chilly evening as we sat around a bonfire why he kept the hives in that distant forest, an hour’s walk away from home.
I was such an inquisitive teenager. My father went to great depths to enlighten me on the medicinal and monetary benefits of keeping bees. He said honey was a cure for various human and cattle illnesses.
He also said honey and wax cost the heavens, especially on the black market. No wonder our family was thriving.
But he also cautioned me about the dangers posed by bees. He said bees were dangerous insects that should always be kept away from people.
Of course, I already knew that bees, especially the worker bees, were no-nonsense insects that attacked intruders in earnest. But Haruna’s father had five hives lodged in musisi trees only a few metres away from his compound.
I very nearly mentioned this to my old man but the leer in his eyes warned me against any clever retort. Children are not expected to challenge the reasoning of their parents or other elders.
I told Haruna, a friend and age mate of mine, that my father sees beehives as dangerous objects that should be kept a discreet distance away from homes.
Haruna gave me a long, hard stare. The kind of stare he normally reserved for hoodlums, morons and fools. Then, he said curtly, “I have seen harmless bees living in a pot right inside the house.”
He was right. His uncle, Ngaka, kept a huge cluster of bees in a plastic hive close to his bed and his elder brother, Mawala, enjoyed the company of bees that lived in a large pot in his hut.
Haruna said bees remained friendly until someone provoked them. I didn’t respond to this curt remark. The following evening, my father was in a friendlier mood, so as I poked the fire with a splinter of wood to stoke it, I said I had seen a cluster of bees in Ngaka’s house.
“I know,” he said jutting his chin out at me. “Ngaka keeps a lot of bees in his house. But those are bewitched, docile bees,” he said. “They are a bequest from his own father who was a dreaded oracle and miracle maker,” my old man said.
He paused to swat a firefly that strayed into his face. “Never borrow a leaf from the world of miracle makers. It is a dangerous, uncanny world. It is a mad world,” he continued to say after defeating the annoying firefly.
He cautioned me against telling anyone what he had revealed to me. “These people live in an underworld of intrigue,” he said shaking snuff out of a small calabash. “They wouldn’t want to share their knowledge with anyone from the more rational world,” he said.
“Many of them are dangerous characters.” Two moons elapsed without incident but I kept watching the beehives that Haruna’s father had placed in the crotches of musisi trees.
I knew that bees became harmless and incapable of flight when it was bitterly cold. My mind wandered back to the day I conquered a very dangerous snake-a puff adder.
Haruna and I were out to harvest honey from a hive that we had seen in the forest. It had rained in sheets the previous night. The morning was bitterly cold, an ideal condition for harvesting honey.
We arrived at the foot the massive omoko tree in the canopy of which an old, abandoned hive rested. The hive, in fact, had belonged to my late great grandfather. I climbed the tree with difficulty but finally reached the crotch in which the hive lodged.
I slipped my right hand into a soft but tough goatskin glove that stretched to the elbow. Haruna watched me from the foot of the tree shouting instructions I didn’t need. The hive was full of bees.
The insects were so cold that they could hardly walk. They were completely incapable of flight. But I knew, from very bitter experience, that they could sting.
They glared at me angrily but hardly did anything to repel me. I sunk my gloved hand into the mass of desperate bees and scooped several hundred out. They fell to the ground helplessly.
I dug deeper into the hive and scooped out more and more of them. I finally reached the honeycombs. I brought out a couple of the combs and studied them in utter amazement.
They were a thrilling work of art. All cells were astoundingly identical hexagons that, incredibly, were made by insects that never used calibrated geometrical tools.
I was, however, baffled by the crude hole in the lower half of the combs. Obviously, the bees could not have made the hole. I extracted more combs from the hive.
Each one bore the hole that kept increasing in size. Bees are vicious insects. They could not have invited any creature to venture into their hive-or so I thought. I finally caught a stiff object that appeared to exude physical energy.
I hauled it out thinking it was a mass of combs. Alas! It was a puff adder. It had never crossed my mind that bees can host a reptile that big. I held it tightly as it struggled vigorously, flicking its forked, jet-black tongue in and out.
The reptile was a menacing sight but I didn’t lose my head. My hand trembled like a “masiaga” reed but I had to cling on to life. My old man had told me to remain calm in the face of danger.
“Be brave in the face of life threatening danger. Some people wind up in graves because of fright. Fight back bravely. Always hit your enemy where it hurts most.” That was the advice from my old man.
The reptile wriggled out of the hive and coiled menacingly around my right hand. It even threw several tail-end coils around my neck. I told Haruna that I had captured a snake and that I was climbing down to the ground with it.
“Get ready to crush its head with a club,” I told him. Haruna clucked like an old hen in disbelief as I set foot on the ground but he managed to pound the reptile’s head to pulp.
My father was over the moon in delight when I showed him the snake later in the evening and narrated my ordeal to him later that evening. He gave me gift, a large black bull, for marshalling survival skills to the fullest.
Two years rolled by before another bee tragedy struck. I was leading my father’s cattle to a watering hole when I saw Haruna, his father and mother running like maniacs. Haruna headed for the lake.
His mother sprinted towards the forest and his father cantered towards the hills. The family vanished behind the shrubbery. I later learned that a housecat that belonged to Haruna had inadvertently led into the house a large swarm of angry bees that it had disturbed.