The Back­wards Ul­tra-Marathon Rasta­far­ian Bee­keeper

Er… that kind of says it all.

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents - WORDS: GUY JEP­SON

Farai Chi­nomwe waves as he bounces up the sand track in a bor­rowed Mercedes. “OK, let me get these guys out,” he says, point­ing to the bees that have es­caped from the box in the back and are swarm­ing in the car’s win­dows.

There’s a rea­son Chi­nomwe’s known on Jo­han­nes­burg’s streets as ‘ Rasta Bee’. The dread­locked bee­keeper has lost count of the num­ber of hives he’s res­cued and re­lo­cated, or per­suaded peo­ple with big prop­er­ties to ‘ adopt’.

But it’s his re­mark­able ex­ploits ( in the name of bee con­ser­va­tion) as a back­wards long- dis­tance run­ner – start­ing in 2015, in races such as Om die Dam, Two Oceans and Com­rades – that have brought him na­tional at­ten­tion.

Chi­nomwe ran his fifth Com­rades Marathon this year; and for the third year in a row, he ran the pun­ish­ing 90km race back­wards, to draw at­ten­tion to the plight of the world’s bees, threat­ened by habi­tat loss, viruses, the in­creas­ing use of in­sec­ti­cides, and cli­mate change.

Dur­ing races, as the tail-en­ders take turns for a chat and a pic­ture with the ‘back­wards guy’, it’s easy to for­get that in 2014, he ran his sec­ond Com­rades the ‘nor­mal’ way in a lit­tle over seven hours – good enough for a sil­ver medal.

“I like to en­cour­age the so­cial run­ners. I tell them when I over­take them, ‘Don’t feel of­fended, you’re in front of me, you’re do­ing al­right’. I also get in­spired by the de­ter­mi­na­tion I see on their faces,” says Chi­nomwe, 38.

Born in Masvingo, south-eastern Zim­babwe, he moved to Cape Town in 2000, and em­braced Rasta­far­i­an­ism – be­cause, he says, he wanted noth­ing to do with a ‘flashy life­style’.

Bee Con­ser­va­tion

Af­ter fail­ing to raise the money to study for a BCom at UCT, Chi­nomwe moved to Jo­han­nes­burg and joined a band, play­ing tra­di­tional Zim­bab­wean mu­sic.

The story of how he de­cided to take up bee­keep­ing, and later be­gan run­ning back­wards for bee con­ser­va­tion, reads like a para­ble.

“We were re­hears­ing in 2006 or 7, and when we came back from a break we found bees had oc­cu­pied my drum; so we had to stop play­ing. Some of the band mem­bers wanted to get rid of them. It was kind of su­per­sti­tion – they felt that it might fore­tell some­thing bad – but as a Rasta­far­ian, I couldn’t kill them.”

The band folded. But Chi­nomwe kept the bees; he be­gan re­search­ing them, their in­dis­pens­able role in pol­li­nat­ing plants, and the com­mer­cial benefits of honey.

“I thought this was a good time for me to get into bee­keep­ing full-time,” he re­calls.

He re­ceived some train­ing and equip­ment from es­tab­lished bee­keep­ers, but says he’s mainly self-taught.

His bee-re­lo­ca­tion and man­age­ment com­pany, Blessed Bee Africa, also pro­vides train­ing to young­sters from poor back­grounds, and is based on a small­hold­ing ad­join­ing Lyn­d­hurst, north-eastern Jo­han­nes­burg.

“We did a har­vest this morn­ing,” says Chi­nomwe, open­ing the door of the Mercedes. “These bees come from a ceil­ing, some­place in the neigh­bour­hood.”

He wasn’t stung by any of the es­caped bees as he drove them back to the small­hold­ing. His as­sis­tant, 19-year-old Brighton Maketo, is suited up in pro­tec­tive gear; but he’s not wear­ing gloves as he scoops hand­fuls of the in­sects out of the car, be­fore they move the new ar­rivals to one of the 50 or so hives Chi­nomwe keeps on the prop­erty.

“Let me tell you one thing: these bees have no in­ten­tion of sting­ing any­one – they’re scared of ev­ery­thing right now,” says Chi­nomwe.

He ad­mits, though, that that he’s been stung many times over the years, even though he’s ex­tremely care­ful when he works.

“When you get stung by a bee, it’s usu­ally af­ter you in­ter­fered with its flight zone, or

“The story of how he de­cided to take up bee­keep­ing, and later be­gan run­ning back­wards, reads like a para­ble.”

made it panic.”

He laments the ig­no­rance that of­ten re­sults in peo­ple burn­ing hives or spray­ing in­sec­ti­cide on them, though he says aware­ness of the need to safe­guard bees for the sus­tain­abil­ity of the en­vi­ron­ment is slowly start­ing to in­crease.

“We are hu­man be­ings be­cause of bees. Even rhi­nos and ele­phants would not sur­vive without them,” he says.

Chi­nomwe has res­cued bees across the city, keep­ing them on the small­hold­ing for a few days to make sure they will sur­vive be­fore re­lo­cat­ing them to an api­ary he works with in Midrand.

But many of his clients can’t af­ford to pay for his ser­vices, and the old yel­low VW Kombi he nor­mally uses for the re­lo­ca­tions has packed up. Lo­cal Honey Though he pro­duces and sells some honey in the neigh­bour­hood – “lo­cal honey is good for pre­vent­ing al­ler­gies” – and works with a few young­sters from nearby Alexan­dra town­ship, he be­lieves his busi­ness has a long way to go.

Re­verse Gear Farai Chi­nomwe, run­ning back­wards through the sub­urbs of Jo­han­nes­burg in train­ing (top); and working hard with his as­sis­tant, clean­ing hives and trans­por ting bees at his small­hold­ing (above and left).

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