The cannabis industry is catching up in Africa, what with progressive developments in Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and with Canadian cannabis companies partnering up with African growers. Experts believe that this is just the beginning and is a sign of better things to come for the drug in the continent.
Now, let’s take a look at Africa’s cannabis culture and how things are shaping up as far as the continent’s cannabis industry is concerned.
History of cannabis in Africa
The cannabis plant is not indigenous to Africa. So, nobody can really tell when the natives started using the plant for either medicinal or recreational purposes. The only way Africans could have learned about marijuana would be through their contact with Arabs and other outsiders.
The earliest evidence of the use of cannabis in Africa outside of Egypt comes from Ethiopia in the 14th century. A couple of ceramic smoking pipe bowls that contained traces of the drug were discovered during an archaeological excavation.
A Dominican priest, Joao dos Santos, also wrote a book about the African people in 1609 and mentioned that the plant was cultivated throughout Kafaria, which is located near the Cape of Good Hope. The Kafirs had the habit of eating the leaves of the plant and that eating it in excess would cause them to be intoxicated. They also made bangue, which is an intoxicating drink that is made from the cannabis plant’s flowers and leaves.
The first governor of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, Jan van Riebeeck, also described in 1658 the use of cannabis by a tribe of yellowish-skinned people called the Hottentots. The Dutch were intrigued by the tribe’s unique use of hemp, which they locally called dagga. Van Riebeeck said that the Hottentots valued dagga more than they valued gold and that the using the plant “drugs their brain just as opium.”
Then in 1661, can Meerhof, a Dutch surgeon who had married a Hottentot woman, wrote that the tribe had tried to smoke dagga but could not master the technique. He said that by 1705, the Hottentots and their neighboring tribe, the Bushmen, were taught the art of smoking by the Europeans and were thus smoking dagga.
Theories on how cannabis reached Africa
Experts have cited a few possible scenarios that would explain how cannabis came to arrive in Africa.
1. It is highly likely that the marijuana plant was brought into the continent around 1300 AD, either by Chinese traders or by Arab merchants. Or perhaps both. The term bangue or the Swahili term bang may have an Indian origin because bhang is Hindi for an edible preparation of cannabis. This, of course, gives a point in favor of Arab merchants.
2. Ancient Egypt boasts of a long history of marijuana. Around 4,000 years ago, Egyptians were already enjoying the beneficial effects of cannabis. Upper Egypt possibly had something to do with those two smoking pipe bowls found in Ethiopia since that area in ancient Egypt also comprises Sudan today.
3. In around 1300, the nomadic breakaway group of Islam called Sufi, which had already been using cannabis for centuries prior, started to travel to the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the African East Coast. The Sufi saints, along with Arab merchants, may have brought cannabis to Africa.
All these could be true, but there is no telling for sure. What is definite is that by the time the Europeans came to Africa, the natives of the South-Eastern Africa were already cultivating and consuming cannabis and were referring to it as bangue.
And in Africa, cannabis was not just limited to recreational use. It was also used for spiritual and medicinal purposes — using it as an anesthetic and to help treat Malaria and other diseases. Cannabis was also traditionally used by the Basotho ethnic group to ease childbirth. (The Basotho’s ancestors have lived since around the 5th century and they now mostly live in South Africa today.)
The African dagga culture
Once the natives had learned how to smoke dagga, the technique of burning its leaves and inhaling its smoke quickly spread from tribe to tribe.
Intoxication through smoking instead of chewing changed African dagga culture. The drug was no longer consumed alone, as smoking had transformed the use of dagga into a communal event, especially for people in tribes where there are a very few pipes.
These pipe bowls were made from various materials like stone, wood, pottery, or bone, and they were often fitted to a horn that’s filled with water.
In a typical native smoke-in, the horn is filled with water and the mouth is applied to the horn’s large orifice. Smoke is drawn through the water and is inhaled quickly, three or four times. It is then exhaled in one violent coughing fit. The process would continue until the dagga fumes would produce a kind of delirium or intoxication.
Oftentimes, though, a tribe could not afford the luxury of a bowl and so the natives had to improvise. Sometimes, they would dig a hole in the ground and place the dagga in there, mixed with burning manure. Tunnels would be dug into the sides of the mound, and smokers would lay down with their mouths over the holes to inhale the fumes. These earthen pipes were commonly used by the Bushmen, the Hottentots, and the Bantus.
Dagga combined with tobacco
By the end of the 18th century, African natives started using tobacco. However, they found tobacco too weak for their tastes, so they would usually combine it with the more powerfully stimulating dagga.
Dagga and the African tribes
The Zulus and the Sothos smoked cannabis before going into battle as they believe the drug made them capable of effective onslaught and of accomplishing dangerous feats.
There were tribes, however, that prohibited their warriors from smoking dagga before battle. Take the Ja-Luo of eastern Uganda, for instance, who do not believe that partaking in dagga before battle was in their best interests.
There were also tribes whose men forbade their wives to smoke the drug during pregnancy. And yet there are tribes, like the Thonga, that did not condone the use of dagga at all.
Meanwhile, the Fang of the French Congo, had a different use for the drug. Before warriors of the Fang tribe went out to battle, their witch doctor would build an altar in the forest and a human sacrifice to the war gods — usually a captive from another tribe — would be tied to the altar. What would follow is a ritual that involves chanting, painting themselves, and dancing around the victim. They would give the victim a concoction containing dagga in order to do away with the struggling.
The earliest documented account of African cannabis markets were from 13th-century Egypt and 17th-century Southern Africa.
Then, during the 19th century and early 20th century, European colonizers widely observed commercial and exchange cannabis markets in African continental regions. In the 1800s, markets were highly formalized in Maghreb. By 1870, pre-colonial Morocco and Ottoman Tunisia started selling annual monopolies to their marijuana trades. These monopolies carried on under the French rule until the mid-1900s.
The Europeans started to control trading under colonial contexts. There were three major cannabis trade regions. Other than the Maghreb, there was South Africa, where European settlers and merchants farmed and traded the drug from the late 17th century into the 1900s. In 1908 and 1913, South African laborers were supplied by Portuguese Mozambique via exports to the British Transvaal. Miners were prominent cannabis consumers in colonial Central and Southern Africa.
Then there were cannabis trades in western Central Africa during the 1870s to 1900s, which included local traders stocking up on both locally grown cannabis and on formal cannabis exports from Portuguese Angola to São Tome and Gabon.
However, even as cannabis trades in Africa developed, colonial regimes suppressed the drug.
How cannabis became a prohibited substance
By the time the Europeans came to Africa, the dagga was already a huge part of the native’s way of life. The continent had become a country of dagga cultures, thanks to the native’s quest for altered consciousness and for an escape from the humdrum characteristic of Africa societies. Dagga was a social lubricant, a relaxant, and an intrinsic part of religion.
However, “white Africa” considered “black Africa’s” consumption of dagga to be a morally reprehensible act and took no interest in it. But soon enough, the segments of white society in Africa started to find the native’s dagga culture quite alarming.
Shortly after 1843, the change in attitude took place. This was the time when the Republic of Natalia, located in South Africa’s northeast coast, became an annex of England and was made a part of the Cape Colony.
As the sugar industry developed in this new province, there was a need for more laborers to work the plantations. Native manpower proved insufficient and low-caste workers had to be brought in from the British colony of India.
These Indian laborers brought with them their cannabis habit, which did not go away due to the availability of the plant in Africa. And so the Europeans were always suspicious of them. Not to mention their dark skins, language, culture, and social and religious backgrounds set them apart from the whites, and even from the native Africans.
Europeans believed that cannabis made the Indian workers sick and lazy, and thus unfit for work. Because of this, many Indians resorted to criminality.
Not long after, legal steps were taken to curtail the use of cannabis. European settlers passed a law in 1870 that prohibited the use, possession, and trade of any part of the hemp plant. This law was unsuccessful, and so are identical laws in other African countries.
In Madagascar, the Merina royalty forbade cannabis by 1870, which was decades before the French.
In Egypt, conservative authorities suppressed cannabis since 1868 in order to control laborers.
South Africa tried to enlist the League of Nations in 1923, to help them outlaw cannabis on a global scale.
Needless to say, European colonialists considered African cannabis trade and consumption as an Eastern hindrance to their civilizing mission.
Generally speaking, cannabis-control laws had been enacted — and are stricter, too — in Africa earlier than in other parts of the world.
Initially, laws focused on improving public health by prohibiting behaviors considered to be detrimental to the health of the natives. Clearly, many of these laws served ulterior motives, specifically labor control and religious proselytizing.
For one, British Natal’s 1870 law was aimed at controlling Indian laborers.
Portuguese Angola’s 1913 law, meanwhile, targeted colonial troops as well as pushed farmers toward the production of tobacco.
By 1920, cannabis was banned in most African colonies.
The drug was first discussed in an international level during a global drug-control convention in 1925, at the request of the white minority government of South Africa. This was supported by Egypt, which was newly independent. Colonial authorities accepted and even encouraged stimulating crops like tobacco, coffee and tea, but they excluded cannabis despite the existence of an international market for Western pharmaceutical preparations of the drug, which was primarily supplied by British India.
A glimpse of cannabis in African countries now
Africa plays a role as a cultivation area, a transit territory, as well as a consumer market, where cannabis is concerned.
South Africa is very possibly one of the leading producers of marijuana in the world. In fact, in 2003, South Africa was rated by Interpol as the world’s fourth-largest cannabis producer, and the Institute for Security Studies had reported that majority of the cannabis products seized in the United Kingdom and a third of the drug seized globally had origins in South Africa.
It is worth noting, though, that most of South Africa’s output is consumed at the domestic level. The domestic market also absorbs the cannabis products of neighboring countries like Lesotho. The plant is Lesotho’s main cash crop.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Africa is Algeria, whose cannabis market is supplied in the form of hashish from Morocco as well as in marijuana from West Africa.
In some countries like Congo, there is a boom in illegal crops — cannabis included. These crops have become the prize of rural conflicts, and war is largely to blame for this.
Local African and international syndicates are also involved in the trafficking of hashish, as well as Mandrax and heroin, from Southeast Asia, and even cocaine from South America. These organized crimes distribute these illicit substances on booming African markets.
Cannabis-friendly legislative reforms in Africa
Africa may be moving towards progressive cannabis reforms and considering tapping into a natural resource that is lucrative. According to a United Nations survey, the continent produces over 10,000 tons of cannabis each year — which advocates say could be worth billions of dollars in the growing global market for legal cannabis.
Zimbabwe has legalized the drug for medical and scientific purposes, but only for those with approved licenses. With these licenses, companies and individuals can grow cannabis to be used for medical reasons and for research.
Meanwhile, Lesotho became the first African country to offer licenses for companies to grow cannabis, thereby signaling a shift towards more liberal policies. The high-altitude mountainous Lesotho has the perfect climate, humidity, terrain, and overall growing conditions for cultivating cannabis, so the plant is grown almost everywhere in this country.
In fact, Lesotho’s cannabis industry is a leading contributor to the country’s poverty-plagued economy. This is mainly through the country’s illicit cannabis trade with its richer and larger neighbor, South Africa.
Now, Lesotho has awarded licenses to Verve Dynamics, a South African alternative medicine company. Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth Corp. also entered Africa by acquiring Lesotho-based Highlands, which carries a license to cultivate, produce, supply, export, import, and transport marijuana products.
There is also a growing interest in South African and Morocco to cash in on marijuana.