As I heard the gate clink, the guard transmitted my name over the radio. Blood drained from my hands as I shuffled to the next gate. Like the Mighty Oz, some person in front of a screen controlled the mechanism that automatically sealed the doors behind me. I wondered how did I end up in federal prison. As the guard escorted me to the next station. I couldn’t take my eyes off the rows and rows of razor wire that trapped me inside.
I have a problem. It’s not a problem that most sixteen year old’s have. The problem isn’t boyfriend drama because he doesn’t exist, he lives in a book. Teachers aren’t driving me crazy because they cook my dinner and kiss me on the forehead at night. No, my problem is rather unique to my generation. First of all, I live in Africa which could be a problem in itself. My family and I have lived in Uganda for over a year now but we’re originally from Texas. My current issue, is a beehive I inherited. The hive itself has been abandoned for years on end and is contaminated with leaves and dead bugs. It’s falling apart. The bees don’t really understand that I’m on their side so I never walk away without stings.
I first got excited about beekeeping several months ago. My Dad went to an agriculture school and I got to sit in on the two days of beekeeping classes. The teacher made it sound so easy and goodness, all the beautiful systems! I’m sort of OCD so I was fascinated by these tiny but meticulous creatures. After the classes, I was ready to hit the ground running, build a hive and buy equipment, and start making some honey. Then I learned that the organization that we work for already has a hive and the proper equipment but no one knew how to take care of it. I volunteered, wanting to help in some way. The hive belongs to a group my Mom leads called Women of Hope. The group helps women who are HIV positive and/or have AIDS. The hive was going to help them financially since most of them are too sick to make money the traditional way. Missionaries came, built and filled the hive then left, passing it in the hands of caring but easygoing Ugandans. Six months turned into a year, then two years. Now three years later, a sixteen year old girl is trying to find something to salvage. Even though none of this is anyone’s fault, it’s hard not to feel frustrated at people just abandoning the hive. Harder still is resisting the urge to patronize the Ugandans as if they’re children that don’t know any better. It’s simply the culture. If it’s raining, nobody goes to work because it’s raining. If the man with the keys doesn’t come, everybody else sits outside and waits. There’s no hurry. It’s not the end of the world. “African time” means a few hours after the agreed time and its common for everybody to show up late. That is just the way it is. So the hive has been sitting, the bees have been improvising and now I’m scared out of my wits.
When Dad and I walk down to the hive, you can hear the bees before you can see them. Dad comes along because the hive is made up of three wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. They’re way too heavy for me to lift. Through the banana trees you see it, the small white tower of hives with a swarm of bees all around it. We set down all our equipment a few yards away and I begin to question just what I’m getting myself into. How will the bees react this time? We have to start a fire in a bucket to generate smoke. The smoke is supposed to sedate them, to make them sleepy and want to consume lots of honey so they become sluggish. I’ve come to believe we have the only bees that are immune to smoke because it seems to be doing zip. The fire is started and I’m filling up my smoker. We’d rather do it with the smoke than without because we want to believe that the smoke is helping a little.
Dad lifts off the top box and the bees immediately start going crazy. The humming starts at a lower frequency and gets higher and higher as we carefully cut around the wooden bar that the honeycomb is attached to. No one has been taking care of these bees so the combs have all grown together. When we try to pull the bar out, the honey comb breaks. The mayhem that was going on before this incident looks docile now. Honey spills out all over the rest of the combs. The bees are landing and stinging in mobs faster than you can blink. Dad sets down the top box on the ground and we quickly but cautiously flee the scene. Once we’re out in the open and the bees have stopped chasing us, we breathe and discuss our options. Of course, there are no options. We have to go back and put the top box back on. We calm down a bit then head back.
It’s a mad house. Bees are swarming all around the spoiled honey and I feel really bad. This is their life’s work and because of our neglect, it’s splattered all over their home. But there’s no time to fix it, we’re getting stings all over the place and the buzz is up five octaves since we arrived. Dad picks up the top box and I feel bees crawling all over me, even in my boots which I swore I taped up. I knew I should have worn socks. Then I look at Dad and I don’t feel so bad anymore. His face mask is covered with bees, all of them swarming and angry. We put the top box back on, probably crushing a few bees but we have no way to brush them off. Then we run away with many stings but no honey. We’re both pretty shaken and discouraged.
The main problem is I know exactly what I have to do. I have to kill the queen which means I have to find the queen. This means I have to go through comb by comb, bees swarming me, and cautiously but quickly find the aggressive queen whose bad mood is spreading throughout the entire colony. My pulse quickens just thinking about it. I can’t get the image out of my head of Dad’s face mask black with angry bees. It’s not so much the pain that scares me, I can take stings. It’s more of the swarm that’s almost cartoon-like. I’m sure if I wasn’t behind the mask, it would be hysterical. But I am so it’s not. Sweat pours as you feel them buzzing in the palms of your gloves or when they come right at your face stingers blazing. I feel so vulnerable even in my suit. When there’s only one bee, perhaps one caught in our house, I’m not afraid at all. I’ll even carefully grasp it with my bare fingers and set it free outside. But all of them, with the high pitched buzzing and eerie sensation of them crawling on you, it is the stuff of nightmares.
Responsibility. That’s all I feel now. And guilt. That too. This is my project and I’m the only one here with any book knowledge at all. I doubt the women even know about this whole endeavor. Still I can’t help feeling like all the women in the group are counting on me. Beatrice needs school fees for her children, Grace can’t pay for housing, Joy needs money to pay for transport to the hospital to get her antiretroviral medication and it kills me. To our family, these women are more than just names on a page. They’re ladies who come to our door and kneel at our feet and ask for $6 to pay rent for the entire month. The worst thing is I feel so… philanthropic. I’ve grown accustomed to it, this is my life now. I’m the white Oprah Winfrey of Africa. You come to a point while you’re here when you say, “It’s okay that I have nice things. I don’t have to feel guilty. God doesn’t love me more than them or vice versa. This is my life, and that is theirs.” But when their faces looking up at me? Goodness it makes my stomach clench just thinking about it. I don’t know what more I could do. I don’t want to be another white person perceived as being a big-shot hero. Taking pictures of suffering infants, passing out candy and yet doing nothing practical or lasting. I’m probably over-thinking this but I can’t help but worry about what kind of person I am in their eyes. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. It’s a horrible feeling.
We’re constantly handing out money because they need it but our resources are running low. That little voice in the back of my head keeps saying, “If I could just kill the queen, if I could just clean up the hive, if I could just process the honey faster, then I could fix everything.” But could I? Let’s face it, Dad and I, we’re just two people. And even though he literally does all the heavy lifting, I’m the one who’s got the book knowledge and so a lot of this is on me. Frankly, I’m terrified.
Why am I afraid? I’m not afraid of bees and wasps, I’m usually the one to shoo them out. Really, my only fears are spiders, body parts being where they don’t belong and clowns. However, when you’re in that suit and the hum of the bees is so loud and high and the swarm is coming at you with their stingers pointed right at your face, I might as well be the seven year old girl I used to be. The one who screamed her head off when she got her first sting.
I am completely impressed by this young lady’s determination to make an impact on her community. I hope we can all consider fostering this young lady’s drive and talents by going to www.beeinghopeful.com. We are hoping to get updates on the progress and ultimate success of her endeavors.–Chad
“You really should stop smoking. It is bad for you.” Sound advice, right? HOGWASH!