If you are an American (North or South), what comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase “Africanized Killer Bees”? I’m sure there has been a B-Movie (pardon the pun) made capitalizing on the fear that fills the body when hearing this term—visualizations of hundreds of bees swarming on tiny poodles, children in playgrounds and adults helplessly falling to the ground thrashing violently before finally succumbing to the inevitable.
Meanwhile, here in South Africa, I sit quietly on the veranda listening to the soothing hum of bees flitting from flower to flower collecting their nectar and adding to the peace of the morning. Interestingly, these are the same bees that engender such fear in America.
That’s right. What we have been trained to fear as deadly “Africanized Killer Bees” are simply known as “bees” here in northern South Africa. There are two types of bees in South Africa. The Cape Bee comes from the southern part of the country and is a less aggressive bee, more like what we are used to in North America. At least we were used to them until they started dying off and leaving us practically bee-less. The bees in the northern part of the country, up around Johannesburg, are the more aggressive variety that we have been taught to fear.
But here in their natural habitat they simply go about their bees-ness. They pollinate flowers, make honey and are even kept by bee-keepers commercially and personally. Yes, they are aggressive, and yes, they can kill animals and people but it is not an everyday occurrence and people here don’t give it a second thought other than giving them due respect and being aware of their presence, much like people in America might treat Dobermans or Rottweilers that they see on the street.
When I was living in Mesa, Arizona, I had a hive of bees that had taken residence in/on the portico of my home. I called a beekeeper to come and relocate the hive. He identified the bees as the African variety and concluded that the only solution was to destroy them all. That conclusion was formed from the North American perception that these bees were too dangerous to leave alive. Yet here in South Africa, beekeepers relocate hives of the identical bees all the time—frequently domesticating them in the sense of moving them to hives from which they harvest honey.
I began to ponder how this might be an example of something larger. What are the things that I fear due to lack of familiarity and understanding? Hmmm … sounds a lot like where wars come from, even those “small” wars between cultures, neighbors, siblings and even friends and lovers.
The first thing that pops to mind for me is the flame of Muslim-phobia that is currently being excitedly fanned by some of our politicians. (I don’t want to trump the intent of this article by naming names.) Why is there such fear in the hearts of many Americans about their Muslim neighbors? Well, we can point to the obvious terrorism that has been perpetrated by Muslim terrorists, but broadening that to all Muslims is like saying we should destroy all African bees because some of them have killed people or we should destroy all powerful dogs because some of them have killed people or, for that matter, destroy all Christians because look what happened during the Crusades and Inquisition.
People, like bees and dogs, can be dangerous. If that is our emphasis, then we will build walls and other defenses to protect us from them. In that case, fear has won us over and controls us. Another approach is to foster understanding of that which was feared. I lived in a Muslim village in northern Ghana for two years and found them to be wonderful, friendly, kind-hearted, people. As I strove to understand their culture more deeply and they asked me questions to understand my culture better, we developed a closeness that transcended the differences. We learned to respect the ways in which we were different rather than trying to eliminate them. They learned from me and I learned from them. Fear receded and love won out and had control.
Think of the last dispute you had with a neighbor, child, parent, lover or co-worker. How much time and energy did you put into understanding their point of view? How much time and energy did you put into trying to hammer home your own, not understanding how they could be so stubborn and unreasonable as to not see how you were right? The latter is driven by fear—fear that you might actually NOT be right, fear that you might lose face if you had to back down, fear that you might lose control over the situation. These are usually hidden fears that we don’t see and find it hard to acknowledge, yet they control our actions. When we become aware of these fears, we can change our approach to any dispute or misunderstanding.
It doesn’t mean that we simply accept what anyone else says or that we ever have to come to the point of agreeing with them. It simply means that we open our minds and our hearts to receive and understand the other person more. This is like the scene in Avatar where the giant blue lady with the cool tail looks at the small white tailless human and says, “I see you.” This is what it means when the old Indian Sikh bows with hands pressed together and says to the young American Christian, “Namaste.” We are no longer interested in that which divides us but more interested in what makes us One. At that point, we will have a different perspective of whatever the dispute is and it will get resolved.
What if an American beekeeper had spent time in South Africa and realized that African bees are not to be feared, merely respected and treated appropriately? Instead of killing hundreds of bees, he or she might rather have known that they could be moved to a fitting location, away from a concentration of people and there could have produced wonderful honey and pollinated many flowers. The bees would have served their function in their own way and people would have benefitted from the results.
Hmmm … how many ways can I incorporate that thinking into my life?