The honeybee community loses one of its celebrated researchers in Africa: Professor Isaac Kirea Kigatiira.

As they say in this part of the world, he was promoted to glory on 25th September, 2016.

I had idea of this physical transition of my mentor and friend. I can’t even recall who told me of this.

An excellent mentor, highly intelligent, exuberant in energy, gregarious fellow who seemingly feared no one. The man hailed from Kibirichia, Meru on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, graduated from the University of Nairobi in 1971 (the year I began my secondary school education), completed Masters at Guelph University, Canada in 1973 and earned his PhD from Cambridge in 1985.  He later taught at Egerton University and lastly at Nazarene University.

The man had passion for research on Apis mellifera (African honey bee). His legacy is the Kenya Top Bar Hive (KTBH) which is a product of his Master’s thesis. It is during his drive for his PhD that linked Bosco Ole Sambu (Chief of Staff for Samburu County), Cecilia Katunge Nzau (Ministry of Education) and myself to him.  We are living testimony and products of his sound mentorship.

My working life started in December, 1982 after returning from the University of Poona (now Pune, Maharashtra, India) with a BSc in Zoology. Those were the days when fresh graduates could get a job soon after leaving university. I was offered three: counting elephants in Tsavo, controlling tsetse flies in Kiboko and a researching into bees in Nairobi. My choice was made for the oddest od reasons. I was broke and could not afford sufurias (cooking pots) and did not want to bother my parents who had already sacrificed so much for me. I decided to take the Nairobi job to gather financial momentum while squatting in my uncle’s house in Shauri Moyo.

I was posted to the National Beekeeping Station off Ngong’ Road, next to Lenana School. Kigatiira (then Mr.) was the founder head who administered the station with firmness and skillful zeal and passion as I had never seen before. The man towered over us, in height as well as intelligence. Having cut his teeth in the field, the man loved outdoor work and loathed graduates who preferred desk tasks. Kigatiira efficiently led the bilateral Government of Kenya (GoK)/Canadian CIDA funded project that built the station from scratch and extended beekeeping to the rest of the republic. Such was his leadership that we were soon swamped by farmers’ demand for bee hives. I and the late Dr. Mbaya were in charge of Coast Province leading research work in Lake Chala (wonderful tilapia fish found in that crater lake) and Lake Jipe (where we carried colonized beehives on a late evening very suspicious that venomous snakes maybe hiding within the cargo) in the then Taita Taveta District. Bosco, Katunge, myself were identified as his personal research assistants working in his PhD project which was establishing the migratory paths that bees followed when they swarmed. One of the astounding findings of that research work was the discovery that the bee dance that worker bees perform outside the hive prior to their departure was actually communication on the direction and duration of flight the swarm will need to make before finding a more habitable site.  

 Tough talking, hard driving, early rising, Kigatiira taught us how to fence, site and set up apiaries (collection of hives) as well as have a jolly good time at end of a hard working day. Needless to say, I travelled and saw more of this wonderful country of Kenya between 1982 and 1984 than I have ever done again. I must say it his training that prepared me for my successful entry into ICIPE in November 1984, to take postgraduate training and earn my PhD.

Kigatiira was internationally recognized and consulted. It was during his leadership at the National Beekeeping Station that he attracted the a major international conference on beekeeping in this part of the world. This was the First International Conference on Beekeeping in Tropical Climates that was held in Nairobi in August, 1984. The organization of that conference was a big feat, undertaken during the reign of President Daniel Arap Moi and where the Chief Secretary and Head of Public Service was Simeon Nyachae. I must tell that story sometime.

It is during this period that I made lifelong friends such as Bosco and Katunge, friends that I cherish and keep in touch to date. I must confess, my early contact with Kigatiira was rough (I had been posted to his station without his knowledge, and he read malice) but over time I earned his friendship and confidence. I was later to award him with a travel grant to present a paper at the University of Ghana. This was in 1990-1992 when I was Secretary of the African Association of Insect Scientists (AAIS).  During that trip, Kigatiira was pleasantly surprised to find one of his KTBH hives hanging in an orchard at the grounds of the university in Legon. This is the ultimate reward for any researcher: when you see your own work adopted widely.

So we bid bye to a born leader and a first class human being. The man took me under his canopy, turning me from an inexperienced researcher to someone who could grow to where I now am.

Fair thee Prof. Till we meet again. And for you ‘Face to Face at Last!’

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