The Backwards Ultra-Marathon Rastafarian Beekeeper
Er… that kind of says it all.
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’.
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).