We were driving down a rocky road in southern, rural Ethiopia when I asked the driver to stop. “Wait! Are those the beehives from that book about the Ethiopian beekeepers!?” I said to my husband, while the driver answered “Well, I don’t know the book, but they are Ethiopian beehives. They hang in the trees so the insects and animals don’t get the honey.”
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I knew that I wanted to buy some honey, so at the next market I innocently asked a young man we met if he could show me where to buy some. In my naivety, I imagined buying little jars of honey as souvenirs for my mom and sisters. As we zigzagged through the women selling gourds, potatoes, coffee beans, onions, my excitement grew… When the boy swung around holding the open gourd heavy with beautiful, raw, sweet honey, I hope he didn’t see my face drop as I immediately thought of all of the TSA and customs rules I would be breaking taking it as a carry-on (or worse, trying to pack it in my checked bag!). Needless to say, and much to our chagrin, we did not buy the honey in Ethiopia. We still chuckle about my giddiness in the market while walking to the honey section. When we got home I re-read “The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela” while showing my kids pictures of the beehives we saw, and we even made honey bread, albeit with local honey!
The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela is written by award-winning author Cristina Kessler, who has lived in many countries of Africa. She bases her books in places she knows well, on experiences she has had with people she has met. It is significant that this book takes place in Lalibela, in a holy town in northern Ethiopia famous for its monolithic churches. It is believed that these amazing rock-hewn churches were commissioned by King Lalibela (and thus given his namesake) in the early 13th Century. In the legend, he was named Lalibela by his mother when she saw a swarm of bees surround him as a newborn, and “recognized him as a king.” Lalibela is one of many towns in Ethiopia that produces sweet honey, though you will see hanging beehives across the country.
In this story, a young girl named Almaz is discouraged from being a beekeeper because she is a girl and is unable to climb the trees to gather the honey. She is encouraged by a local priest and through determination she develops an ingenious way to protect the honey from insects- and indeed becomes the best beekeeper in Lalibela. It is a lovely book to introduce a tiny piece of Ethiopian culture into children’s lives.
After reading the book and talking about the prevalence of honey in Ethiopia, show your children where Ethiopia is on the map. You can probably even find Lalibela (north of Addis Ababa). Africa is so diverse, with 2000 languages and innumerable ethnic groups, in its 54 countries!? Distinguish to your kids that this is one country called Ethiopia (instead of referring to this story as “African”).
Would you like to be the one to climb the tree and gather the honey?
How old do you think Almaz is?
Would you be scared of the bees or would you do like Almaz and use “a steady hand and a clear heart” to take out the honeycomb?
How did Almaz feel when they laughed at her?
How do you think she felt at the end of the book?
How do you like to eat honey?
Now that you learned about Ethiopian honey, try making this delicious Ethiopian Honey Bread!