Marijuana's origin in Africa remains a mystery. The plant is originally from Asia, and the word Pygmies use for marijuana, bangi, comes from India. Some theories place its introduction with Arab traders as early as the 1st century A.D.; others put it much later, with the rise of the ivory trade in the 1700s.
At some point marijuana reached the Pygmies, who traditionally are hunter-gatherers and don’t cultivate crops. In the early 1970s, Barry Hewlett, now an anthropology professor at Washington State University at Vancouver, walked across the Congo Basin and drafted the first census of Pygmy marijuana use for his master’s thesis. He found the eastern Congo grew the most marijuana and offered the best quality. At that time, Pygmies were getting marijuana from farmers and only a few groups had begun to settle down and grow their own. But he isn’t shocked to hear that Pygmies have become the dealers. “In some cases it was their first domesticated crop,” he says.
From the village plots, the plant makes its way to the regional capital of Goma. There, in pulsating nightclubs, it’s easy to find a variety of illegal substances being peddled, mostly to wealthy local businessmen and foreign aid workers who power a luxury economy that exists alongside the typical Congolese one.
In his spacious office in Goma’s police headquarters, Police General Viral Awachango lists the issues he’s dealing with: armed militias, internally displaced people, natural disasters, a lawless border. He seems to have little time for the question of marijuana. “If Pygmies are using this marijuana as medicinal plants and limiting to just them, that’s fine, but we have to investigate,” he says. “Today marijuana is not only for Pygmies, but it has become a national issue.”
Behind the one-row tourist market, which provides last-minute baskets and masks to visiting foreigners, is the couch-stuffed clubhouse of a man known around town as the “King of Marijuana.” He talks shop with a group of young men as a woman expertly rolls a joint. He is one the biggest players in a flourishing illicit business that relies on Congolese soldiers, the United Nation’s largest peacekeeping force, visiting diplomats, and philanthropic celebrities. The 20 pounds a day that he moves comes from lawless rebel-held territories, and, he claims, the best strain is grown by Pygmies. Their technique of letting it sit for months makes it extra strong, he says.
In public, large quantities of marijuana are confiscated and burned by law enforcement. But many members of the Congolese army and police both use and sell the drug, according to interviews with Pygmies, soldiers, and the police general. They’re often underpaid and sometimes not paid at all, leading to widespread corruption—many extort civilians or run businesses on the side.
When JP is not clad in his tasseled blue army uniform, he dons the red, yellow, and green clothing of Rastafarians, smokes pot three times a day, and listens to reggae. For nearly two decades, the 41-year-old military sub-lieutenant has been supplementing his $100 a month army salary with a side business. “Instead of going to steal or loot it’s better that I sell marijuana,” he says. “I do it for my family to survive.” Marijuana, he adds, sends his six kids, ages four to 18, to school, where fees for books and uniforms can be prohibitive for the average Congolese.
Most of his stock comes from Pygmies, he says, pulling a bag from his pocket and pointing at the dark seeds, an indication that they’ve been stored for a long time. He pinches off a mess of buds and rolls it into a quarter-size ball. He sells up to 50 of these per day, mostly to members of his platoon, and makes around $10.
His bosses know that he sells, and he’s occasionally arrested, yet he says a $50 bribe guarantees he’ll avoid jail time. “If you arrest me today, I sell tomorrow,” JP says. “My children have grown up because of marijuana.”
Pygmies view marijuana in a similar vein. The region is flooded with international aid organizations, but few groups are focused on indigenous rights. Holding the attention of the government, located 1,000 miles away in the capital of Kinshasa, has been unsuccessful.
“They forget they have native communities,” says Nicolas Mukumo Mushumbi, one of nine staffers at the Program for the Integration and Development of the Pygmy People, which lobbies for the rights of indigenous people in the Congo and maintains that Pygmies should be allowed to cultivate marijuana. “It was the tradition even before laws were written.”
There are few options for survival in the Pygmy shantytown outside a camp for internally displaced persons called Bulengo. “I’m sitting here because I have no job,” says one father with 10 children. He gestures at the plants growing beside his tiny mud-packed hut. “Because of selling this marijuana our children can get some food.”
On the outskirts of the camp live 65 Pygmy families. The makeshift community arrived in 2007 after fleeing rebel fighting in nearby territories. Since then thousands of other Congolese families escaping similar violence have settled in the camp.
But only the six Pygmy families who agreed to stop growing marijuana are officially listed as internally displaced people and receive humanitarian assistance, says the camp president. The others refused, and so are not registered. While they can access water and the health clinic, they’re not on the food distribution list.
“This clinic won’t stay here forever,” the community’s president reasons. “We will always have marijuana.”
Source: National Geographic