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Why we love living among trees: Ogiek community

David Kimsoi uses fire as he harvests honey in a traditional beehive for breakfast during a day to day life of Ogiek in the Mara forest. (Photo: Jenipher Wachie, Standard)

When morning comes….

At Mau Narok Forest, the sun streaks in small ribbons through dense vegetation, marking a new dawn.

An old belt, cracked calabash and foot prints on the damp ground signal human activity in the otherwise deserted forest.

“In a few minutes, they will start walking in. This is where they get their food,” says Saruni Saaya, a 26-year-old member of the Ogiek community.

He is guiding us through the forest to meet Ogieks who live in hidden caves at night, and roam the forest during the day.

Kimusoi Nagol, 49, is the first to arrive; slightly after 9.00 am.

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He says when he wakes up, he sits still to listen to Kecheyiat; the honey guider birds that direct him to their staple food – honey.

“The birds fly in front of us and lead us to the tree full of honey,” says Kimusoi.

He tells of many days when they walk for hours across the forest, anxiously following the bird till it perches. “Our lifestyle revolves around bees and honey,” he explains, then pauses to listen to the distant chirp of the birds.

Lighting the fire

To get honey, he needs to smoke the bees out. Due to dampness in the forest, match sticks don’t light up. He has mastered the art of making his own fire.

“We do it like our fore fathers did before technology,” says Kimusoi.

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With the help of his friend, he twirls a stick on his palms and rubs it against a piece of wood. He starts in slow motion, then gains momentum till a distant whiff of burning wood permeates the air. In no time, tiny smokes emerge from the end of the stick.

“It is now time to look for food,” he says.

Getting food

Getting honey from the bee hives on tall trees requires two things: A rope made of buffalo hide, and a sling bag from the skin same animal.

Kimusoi says they are gifts from his great great grandfather; dating back to precolonial days. With the rope secured around his waist, he climbs on the slippery tree trunk and reaches for the hive. He lowers it, but realises the honey is not enough.

“The prolonged dry seasons we experienced recently caused withering of flowers, and bees did not get enough nectar for honey,” he explains. He has another plan: underground honey.

Digging dirt for more food

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Kimusoi says when he was a young boy; before he was circumcised under the Saptet tree, his parents showed him how to identify underground bees – the rare insects that burrow into soil to make honey. He walks around the forest and when he stumbles upon a small hole on the ground, he starts digging furiously. He suddenly stops and pulls out a muddy clump.

“I found my food!” he exclaims. “This is earth honey. The most delicious kind in the world,” he says and squeezes it in his tongue.

Herbs, wild fruits, and game meat.

Ogieks who live in the forest used to hunt for Ndirit, the hyrax, whose meat they would eat, and skin use as bedding and clothing.

That was before Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) intensified their campaigns against killing wild animals. Slapping hefty fines and legal charges on anyone found handling game meat forced the hunting community to drop the habit and focus on gathering wild fruits.

Kimusoi says the most popular is the Lulukwe fruit; a tuber like plant resembling carrots. It is the forest plants that they also turn to when they are ill, or need protection against diseases.

He believes the indigenous plants have given him unmatched masculine prowess that has enabled him to father more than ten children.

The trudge back home

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When the sun starts withdrawing its last rays behind the surrounding hills, Kimusoi begins his trudge back home into the caves about 50 kilometres from the forest. He says even though most ogieks now have shelters in the periphery of forests, they still maintain caves for rituals such as special prayers and offering sacrifices for when they need the God of the forest to provide more.

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