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Honey, Beads, and Peace for the Yaaku

March 20, 2023
Edwin Pokisa
Edwin Pokisa is the fourth SESP student to win a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant.

Northwestern University’s Edwin Pokisa, a member of the Yaaku tribe in Kenya, received a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant to implement a honey-harvesting and beading project in his hometown of Doldol in Laikipia County.

Pokisa has long wanted to do more for his community, an indigenous minority whose language has been declared extinct by UNESCO. Assimilated into the Massai culture after Kenya declared independence from Britain, the Yaaku have battled discrimination, poverty, and unequal access to resources, Pokisa wrote in his proposal.

“The Massai people look down on the Yaaku, because we are hunter-gatherers and beekeepers, while they care primarily about livestock,” Pokisa wrote. “They call us by the derogatory name dorobo, meaning ‘poor people with few cattle’ in Maa.”

The region where the Yaaku live is underdeveloped and lacks access to clean water, social gathering places, and basic infrastructure, Pokisa wrote. “This history motivates me to do more for my community and create awareness about our people, heritage, and culture, especially to other Kenyans,” he said.

The Yaaku have long practiced beekeeping, and the harvesting is done by the men at night. Pokisa used the Projects for Peace funding to secure protective gear, beehives, and a honey refining machine. He also purchased beads and strings for the crafters.

beaded sandlesPokisa assembled a group of community members who selected and trained the project participants. Anthony Kogondu, a community-based developer with the non-profit Small Scale Farms, helped connect the group to a few markets, supermarkets, and safari camps where they sold honey.

The project had its challenges, including a drought in the Kurikuri area, which meant honey wasn’t readily available. But honey jars had already been bought and branded with the history of the Yaaku community, and the rain eventually came, Pokisa said. Select Yaaku ambassadors did the first harvesting, refining, and honey production and sales in October, when Pokisa was back at Northwestern.

Pokisa originally found Northwestern through the Kenya Scholar Access Program (KenSAP) program, which helps high-achieving, low-income high school graduates attend selective colleges and universities in North America. For his projects, KenSAP connected him with several branding and marketing professionals in Nairobi and a few alumni who work in marketing and similar fields. Using social media, they promoted the program and tried to raise awareness about the Yaaku community through Facebook, Instagram, and the Jiji app.

In the short term, the project gave the families a stable income and a ready market for products. Pokisa hopes to eventually reinvest the profits from honey and bead making into the community to create programs that empower young people, including tutoring groups, youth mentorship programs, and youth sports competitions.

“Once we the Yaaku people have a stable source of livelihood, through sales of our own honey and beadwork, then we can have some (economic and even political) power in raising our voice to the leaders,” he said.

Pokisa is currently studying learning and organizational change and data science at the School of Education and Social Policy. He also participated in The Activate Mentorship program at The Garage, an 8-week experience designed to make entrepreneurship more accessible to Black Northwestern students, and is a Compass mentor.

“I've always been passionate about in my community,” Pokisa said. “The project really brought out leadership and communication skills, and I was able to work with people that I love and care about – people who know me.”

Projects for Peace is a global program that supports young adults who develop innovative, community-centered, and scalable responses to the world’s most pressing issues. It was started by Kathryn W. Davis, who, when she turned 100 in 2007, told college students, “Come forward with your ideas, shape them into actionable projects, and I’ll give you the resources to do your projects.”

While the projects take place around the world, they’re all built on person-to-person relationships, the role of leadership, and finding ways to improve the human condition in the quest for peace.

Pokisa is the fourth SESP student to win a Projects for Peace grant. The others include:

  • Julia Borland (2021). Project: Sustainable Farm Apprenticeship Program: Environmental Justice Education Initiative, US.
  • Cesar Almeida (2018). Project: Solidarity Through Traditional Music Preservation, Ghana.
  • Daniel Perlman. (2010). Preventive Health for Peace, Ghana