The Backwards Ultra-Marathon Rastafarian Beekeeper
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 made it panic.”
He laments the ignorance that often results in people burning hives or spraying insecticide on them, though he says awareness about 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.
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.
“I’d like to produce premium honey, make honey accessible to everyone,” he says, adding that he wants to continue training young people in beekeeping and spreading the word about bee conservation, for the sake of future generations.
Also on his to-do list is to study environmental management science. “I’m already a national tourist guide, although I’m not practising now. But I would like to do bee tours for tourists.”
Chinomwe got the idea of running backwards for the bees a few years ago, when the old Peugeot he was driving broke down on an incline on Corlett Drive, during a bee removal in the early hours of the morning.
He knew he had to move the car quickly – in a few hours, its boot-full of bees might cause havoc in the peak-hour traffic – but he lacked the power to push it up the hill; “so I pushed it backwards, and found I had some strength”.
The next day, he found his exertions had given him an incredible workout. And he thought: What if I started training backwards – would it improve my running?
Chinomwe began his new regimen in the early mornings, on quiet roads and in open spaces; but he was worried that he would bump into things, and became discouraged.
It was only when he arrived late for the start of the Om Die Dam ultra marathon at Hartbeespoort Dam in 2015 that he made the big switch.
“I wanted to compete running forwards, but it was pointless. So I ran my first Om die Dam 50 in reverse – and I was so impressed!
“Guys kept asking me, ‘What are you doing?!’ – others would joke with me, that maybe I had smoked something.”
He decided to repeat the feat in the 56km Two Oceans that year, and in the Comrades, attracting more and more supporters with each race.
“I ran my first Comrades [forwards] in 8 hours 3 minutes in 2013, and my second in 7:06 the next year.
Then the bees took their toll, in 2015, and my time was 11:51. Last year I did 11:25 going down to Durban – so it was a bit easier running backwards for the plight of the bees!”
Chinomwe repeated his achievement this year, winning another Vic Clapham medal for finishing between 11 and 12 hours on the ‘up’ run to Pietermaritzburg.
Asked whether he’ll return to competitive marathon running, he says: “I want to do more than 10 Comrades in reverse. I love running. Every morning my breakfast is running – then I go into foodstuffs.
“The only trouble I have with running is that people want to do it the old-fashioned way!”