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16 July 2023

Jess de Boer’s Q&A: “Our bees are tough beasties to work with”

The farmer on the Kenyan political activist Wangari Maathai, SAS Rogue Heroes and why we need ego-less politicians.

By New Statesman

Jess de Boer was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1985. A farmer and beekeeper, she works on regenerative agriculture across the east and Horn of Africa.

What’s your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is walking down the long, straight dirt road that ran below our house, with my brother during the rainy season. He had a small yellow duck and I had a fat blue whale, and we’d race them down the drainage ditch.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was the cartoon legend Captain Planet. He would diligently fight the environmental baddies, polluters, poachers and others. My adult hero is my mum. She has an exceptional lightness of spirit and a killer giggle.

What book last changed your thinking?

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Running is something I do to switch off, but a persistent knee niggle has made it more difficult. This book taught me to rethink my form – and the reason why our species evolved to run in the first place.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan social, environmental and political activist who founded the Green Belt Movement. I still benefit from walking in her forests today.

[See also: How forests are helping Rwanda heal its climate and its communities]

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

African beekeeping. Our bees are tough beasties to work with, requiring full protective equipment and management in the wee hours or late at night. 

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to have lived in a society deep in a tropical forest 200 years ago. I’d survive beneath its canopy by reading the plants and animal tracks, among people living by the same guiding laws, codes and beliefs.

What TV show could you not live without?

TV doesn’t feature much in my day to day. But the last show I found hugely enjoyable was SAS Rogue Heroes.

Who would paint your portrait?

Gary Larson of The Far Side. His humour and style are unique.

What’s your theme tune?

“Impi” by the South African singer Johnny Clegg. It’s about a warrior and it makes me jiggle inside every time I hear it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To live for, and in, the present. Following this is a lifelong endeavour, at times blissfully easy and at others a truly impossible discipline.

What’s currently bugging you?

The bombardment of irrelevant information. We live in an age of ceaseless chatter from news, social media and advertising. I think it stops us finding peace inside ourselves, and therefore among one another as a collective, too.

What single thing would make your life better?

The rise of a team of ego-less politicians, who stood for much more than the otherwise single-minded pursuit of securing their next term in office. 

[See also: It’s hard to be a “tree-hugger” but progressive politicians must try]

When were you happiest?

This morning. I leapt into a freezing cold river after a run along a Scottish loch. I got brain freeze and it made me chuckle.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

An explorer, travelling the world for new land and life forms.

Are we all doomed?

I ask myself this on an almost daily basis and always come back to a belief that every species on this extraordinary planet has a time span. Will we be here in 100,000 years’ time? Probably not.

“Sister Nature: The Education of an Optimistic Beekeeper” by Jess de Boer is published by Jacaranda

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world