While cannabis is not indigenous to Africa, today it is a major cash crop in places such as South Africa and Malawi, as well as in North Africa, where cannabis history is more closely tied to that of the Arab world. Malawi Gold is in fact an internationally renowned sativa strain, acknowledged by (of all sources) a World Bank report as one of the finest, most sought-after cannabis strains in the world. Despite its current illegal status there, it is among the county’s top 3 exports, and is also responsible for a boost in tourism to the small nation in recent decades. It is said to go largely unpoliced there, thanks to the widely accepted role in the culture, where it is known as “Chamba.” South Africa is known for Durban Poison, another popular sativa strain that has worked its way into the genetics of American strains such as Cherry Pie. In recent decades, cannabis use has spread to nearly every corner of the continent.
Despite the long history of widespread cannabis cultivation, particularly in southern Africa, only now are changes beginning to take place on an official level. As with much of the rest of the world, prohibition has been the post-colonial status quo in countries like South Africa and Malawi for decades, despite what could be described at most as “uneven” enforcement. Now, Lesotho, a small nation of 2 million people entirely surrounded by South Africa, recently became the first African nation to issue a license for the cultivation of medical cannabis. This could be the beginning of something bigger since Malawi is now considering legalizing the less psychoactive hemp varieties of the plant, and Zimbabwe is even weighing full legalization of cannabis. South Africa apparently legalized home use and cultivation earlier this year, via an admittedly vague court ruling. Progress is happening, and the billion-dollar legal cannabis business could represent a much-needed economic boost for African nations if progress continues from here.
So, what are the origins of cannabis in Africa?
Cannabis use was already popular when Europeans eagerly began to exploit the continent in the early colonial period, but the exact origins of cannabis on the continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are unclear. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, it is likely that cannabis made its way to the region through trade and contact with the Arab world. The first evidence of cannabis in Africa dates back to fourteenth century Ethiopia, where archaeologists found two ceramic pipes with traces of cannabis. The plant likely traveled south with the Bantu migration to reach today’s cannabis hot spots such as Malawi and South Africa.
In 1609, a Dominican priest name Joao dos Santos wrote that cannabis was cultivated in the area near the Cape of Good Hope in modern South Africa, where the local Kafirs consumed this “bangue” by eating the leaves. By the 1660s and 70s, the new Dutch colonizers of the area were intrigued by the local custom of cannabis use, reporting that locals such as the Khoi people referred to the plant as “dagga.” At the time, they noted that locals were not yet smoking the plant, but by 1705 had adopted the European custom of smoking and applied it to cannabis. This practice spread quickly over the continent, and with that innovation, the consumption of cannabis spread more widely in general, and it also transformed cannabis consumption into a communal ritual.
Among European colonizers, attitudes toward cannabis were mixed, and were deeply tied into the rest of their prejudiced, dismissive, and exploitative attitude towards Africans. Some white landowners cultivated cannabis for their servants to induce them to remain in their service. Other evangelical Europeans believed it was their duty to save the souls of native Africans, including stamping out cannabis use, which might they felt might prevent their souls from entering heaven. The famous American journalist Henry Morgan Stanley believed cannabis use weakened Africans, viewing the strange custom as another reason they were physically inferior (he actually cited their apparent “inability” to carry his cargo for him as evidence for this claim). At the same time, other European colonialists described the use of cannabis by cultures such as the Zulus and Sothos to prepare for battle, contradicting Stanley’s view. Some historians believe cannabis played a key role in the Zulu attack on the Dutch colonizers at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. In any case, it is hard to pick out the truth from the early European accounts, which are rooted in the white supremacist attitudes and the economic agenda which they brought to the continent.
In 1881, the German explorer Herman von Wissman took note of the Bashilenge culture of the Congo, and their religion that centered around cannabis use. Wissman described how the tribe put their feuds and warlike history behind them when a cannabis “cult” was established, just 25 years before Wissman’s arrival. The “riamba”, as the Bashilenge referred to it, reportedly promoted peace and friendship among old enemies. Laws were established banning tribesmen from carrying weapons in villages, and members of the “cult” began greeting each other with the term “moyo,” which meant life or health. Communal cannabis ceremonies were used to celebrate important holidays, new alliances, and even nightly religious gatherings. The called themselves the Bena-Riambe, or “the sons of hemp.”
As colonial forces tightened their grip, as early as the late 19th century, prohibition laws went into effect in much of Africa. These measures intensified in the early 20th century, as European nations themselves began to outlaw cannabis. In 1923, South Africa tried to get the League of Nations (the post-World War I predecessor of the UN) to outlaw cannabis internationally. This failed, and despite plenty of domestic anti-cannabis laws, these efforts had little impact on Africa’s by then well-developed cannabis cultures. In fact, its use has continued to spread, becoming popular in West African nations such as Nigeria as recently as the mid-twentieth century.
After the difficulties faced in the post-colonial period over much of the continent, perhaps today’s legalization efforts are a sign of good things to come. When prohibition finally ends in Africa, it will be the end of one more vestige of the old systems of exploitation, and could even provide a new economic engine to help Africans determine their own future after centuries of colonialism.