The Ogiek are indigenous people who live in and around the Mau Forest on the southwestern side of the Kenyan Rift Valley and in the forests around Mt. Elgon along Kenya’s north-western border with Uganda. The entire Ogiek belief system and livelihood relies on the forest and its resources, with honey being the most important product and a staple food for Ogiek families. Honey has always played a key role in various Ogiek cultural practices, is traded with neighboring communities and was also used to pay the dowry. In the past, Ogiek honey was so precious that only certain people could handle it. Traditional fermented beverages are also made from pure raw honey. This drink is used during social events and initiation ceremonies.
The Ogiek hung traditional hives from tall forest trees that the men climb using vines or with their bare hands, dry moss is burnt in the meanwhile to smoke the hives prior to harvesting the honey. This technique shows the great connection and symbiosis that Ogiek have established with both honey and the forest. Indeed, the Ogiek Honey Slow Food Presidium was launched in 2015 to protect the Mau Forest ecosystem, raise awareness on the challenges that this forest and its peoples are facing, and promote the value of the Ogiek people’s ancestral culture through honey. The Presidium is managed by Macodev (Mariashoni Community Development) cooperative, an Ogiek community-based organization that brings together 12 groups of beekeepers.
Within the framework of the Slow Food’s IFAD-funded project, the Presidium has been very active in the improvement of the honey value chain since 2018, (setting production volumes, differentiating the various types of honey, packaging, and marketing) as well as in the involvement of youth and women in the very Presidium and in wider Slow Food and Indigenous Terra Madre networks.
It is worth mentioning that a pilot Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) initiative was launched to increase Presidia traceability and the level of quality guarantee according to Slow Food standards (good products, produced cleanly and fairly) of this indigenous Presidium a with the goal to promote “beekeeping” as a traditional indigenous peoples’ practice that might provide an alternative economic option for indigenous youth. The objectives of the PGS were to strengthen the Ogiek community, preserve and promote indigenous traditional techniques, guarantee the production process for high-quality honey, supply the market with guaranteed high-quality honey and preserve the environment and the forest, in particular.
We asked Clare Rono, treasurer of Macodev and Ogiek Honey Presidium, some questions about the Slow Food’s IFAD-funded project.
What was your community like 10 or 20 years ago?
The Ogiek community lived a very different life 20 years ago, compared to present times. The Ogiek people enjoyed a unique way of life inside the forest, in traditional houses, protecting the forest itself. We could be referred to as ‘Bee keepers and preservers of Mau Forest’. Which is to say that every member of the community practised bee keeping; families got honey for themselves and to barter it for other products from neighbouring communities such as ‘the Maasai people’ (we exchanged honey for animals like cattle, sheep and goats). My people used to build traditional log-beehives, and honey harvesting and collecting was traditionally considered a man’s activity. Honey was a staple food and had great symbolic value to us. We used honey to brew traditional beer (rotiikaap gomeek) too. Meat was another traditional source of food for us. We hunted and trapped wild animals e.g hyrax and antelopes, using tools such as clubs, spears, bows and arrows. The father was the head of the family and was involved in all major decisions concerning his family. The mother assumed authority in the absence of the father.. On the other hand, the man’s duty was to provide food, leadership, protect his family and teach the boy child about specific man’s dutiesin our society such as hunting and bee keeping among others . A woman’s place was at home. Her duty was to bear children and look after her home, which meant collecting firewood, fetching water, and cooking the food that her husband brought home. On the other hand, women, carried the traditional log hives to the forest and took the harvested honey home and also made the leather bags to collect honey from the hives. Few people from my community attended school back then. and fewer girls than boys. Girls were married off very young. generally from 14 years of age. We believed in one Supreme Being (Tororet) and offered prayers seeking help and good fortune from Him. As a consequence, there were no churches in the forest, except for the caves where rituals used to take place.
A funny anecdote during a project activity?
An amusing story that certainly stood out during IFAD project activities took place during the workshop and public event on ‘Shaping the future of Food in Africa’. Clare remembers that some indigenous youth participants from D. R. Congo and others enquired a lot about the ‘Ogiek community’during the story telling night and the field visits, . Since this was the first time they met the Ogiek people, they were shocked to see Ogieks dressing like any other person. Some expected to meet hairy people wearing only animal skins and sandles, or that not even a person who could speak English or know how to hold hotel cutlery such as forks, spoons and knives while eating. “Others thought we only eat honey and meat… hehe” Clare explained amid laughters. She added that, “It should be known that in 2020, the Ogiek community got the first Ogiek female lawyer in history- Caroline Tegeret”. In conclusion, it was clear that despite the fact that the Ogiek people adhere to their traditions, they are just like other people and some things such as dressing have changed and education is part of them now.
What is the most important change or changes for the community that this project has brought?
There is a good number of changes that have occured, thanks to IFAD project. Although Slow Food PGS (Participatory Gurantee System) is not official yet, during the data collection exercise, non-members happened to listen to the questions and answers and got interested, some even joined the groups near them, eventually. This clearly showed that, once PGS is established, it will strengthen the Presidium and give further credit to MACODEV and raise its profile, to become a more attractive driver of income generation within the community. Secondly, the number of groups and members, especially women and youth, increased too, thanks to Ogiek honey presidium . This was achieved through MACODEV mobilization and the new members’ awareness that being a groups is key (members in groups benefit more than those not in groups).
Having more groups and members also means a stronger CBO and with time, honey quality will also improve, hence more sales. The community has seen economic empowerment especially with the involvement of youth and women. This process developed and was finally internalized through trainings, exchanges and events/workshops prepared and organized by Slow Food Kenya. Thirdly, women have easier access to modern beehives, now located in the farms where control and management are easier. Taboos about women harvesting from modern hives seem to be less oppressive now, opening the way for women to venture more in bee keeping. Additionally, capacity development activities, carried out by Slow Food and through Baraka Agricultural College, addressed various aspects of beehive management, including modern beehive construction techniques for 8 young Ogiek beekeepers.
What is the activity that most represented this process?
The activity or activities that most represented this process, include the Slow Food PGS (Participatory Guarantee System) pilot project. Although this was notofficially ready to be used by the Ogiek Honey presidium, the project was highly appreciated by everybody and in their views, ‘the PGS represents a key step in this direction and empowers the Cooperative by making itbetter equipped in addressing the market challenges.
The members were aware that there is a growing market for organic honey and that “the PGS ensures that standards are followed and complied with, that all production steps are carried out in clean conditions and that the right containers are used’. The PGS, in their view, will make the honey more “sure” and more recognized by consumers. If the PGS is established, it will strengthen the Presidium and MACODEV’s credibility and raise its profile, making it a more attractive driver of income generation within the community. Furthermore, planning of trainings, exchange visits and events like the ‘shaping the future of food of Africa’ one well represented this process too, and the people were happy to be part of the team by showcasing their food traditions, singing and dancing. They enjoyed networking and exchanging knowledge with all the other participants.
How do you think the community will continue from now on?
The community is likely to continue well with the project even now that this Slow Food project funded by IFAD is coming to an end. Ogiek Honey Presidium, will continue to follow Slow Food PGS guidelines and rules and undertake PGS activities, as taught and suggested by PGS experts, to keep enhancing the honey production. The community will continue to involve and empower women and youth to ensure the sustainability of the project. More members and groups will also be recruited to produce more and higher quality honey to feed the market with a sufficient amount of it. Lastily, the community will not forget to keep preserving Mau forest because this is their sole source of livelihood and resources.
Has Covid-19 impacted the activities of this project, and how have you organized to respond to it?
Covid-19 has had both positive and negative impacts among the Ogiek community. The one and only positive impact the pandemic had, was that more honey was bought and consumed both crude and refined . The reason for this was that many people thought that natural honey could be a good alternative for antiviral drugs for the treatment of some viral infections. Negative effects included restrictions on meetings and gatherings and this meant that monthly meetings could not happen as they used to . The unusual also happened, the Ogiek were evicted from their homes during the Covid-19 emergency. It was complicated and impossible to observe government guidelines on Covid-19 during the evictions.
The evictions were carried out without prior notice, using excessive force and in disrespect of the Constitution of Kenya and the Land Act 2012 (as amended in 2016). Families also experienced drastic reduction in income due to market challenges and movement restrictions. Slow Food together with other twenty organizations from the civil society, sent out a statement letter to Mr. Keriako Tobiko (Cabinet Secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Environment & Forestry) in solidarity with the Ogiek community, to immediately stop the ongoing forced evictions of the Ogiek community in Kenya. The aim of the initiative was also to draw the international public’s attention to a situation that was bringing indigenous people to their knees. Together they were able to deliver such a strong message. Thanks to Slow Food International, alongside with AEF (Agroecology Fund) and IFAD, a fundraising campaign was organized to support the Ogiek in terms of food and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to face the Covid-19 pandemic and have a place to sleep.
How do you feel within the Slow Food network? What would you like us to do together in the future?
My name is Clare Rono, Ogiek youth and one of the Ogiek Honey Presidium leaders. I always feel energized and I think of Slow Food as our best friends. We are Slow Food. We are all unified and tied together by the love of food and Slow Food networking . Slow Food has empowered and reminded us about our cultural food and this is indeed true because, ‘We are not Ogiek without honey’. I wish that we could continue working together to push us as far as possible especially by updating Slow Food PGS for the Ogiek honey presidium, because this will surely strengthen the Presidium and raise its profile, making it a more attractive driver of income generation within the community.
How do you imagine your community in 10 years?
In 10 years to come, I imagine the Ogiek Community with a very well developed Ogiek Honey Presidium with Slow Food PGS certification, selling the best honey in the region. I see members adding more hives, this may translate into higher honey production, better market penetration, better income and, eventually, improved lives for the community. Additionally, I imagine a presidium with more youth to ensure its sustainability and continuity . And finally, I imagine that the Government of Kenya will have honoured the African Court verdict that stated that the Mau Forest is the ancestral home of the Ogiek community, and an area which they rely on for their livelihoods, traditions and culture. I hope the community will be resettled by the government thus making eviction a thing of the past.