The sad thing that has happened to Africa’s consumption and economic use of cannabis is how it is mostly banned in many countries across the continent. It is arguably one of the most ubiquitous herbs on the continent and yet, due to colonial regulations that are still being enforced, there are still barriers to the desired economic benefits that this herb confers on a society.
African pre-colonial societies were pretty much fascinated and intrigued by the powerful effect of cannabis such that its use was deeply embedded in their way of life. From recreational use to religious uses, cannabis could not be extricated from the African’s style of living in a time where there was a humdrum existence. The consumption of cannabis was an entrenched feature in the fabric of African society and it was only with the arrival of Europeans that the anti-cannabis sentiments gained momentum and in no time the herb was classified in the same class as cocaine, meth, and other hard drugs, thus being effectively outlawed when, to the African, it is just deemed as a harmless substance that had its desired effects.
There is quite a number of examples to substantiate how cannabis was valued in precolonial society. The cannabis plant is not indigenous to Africa, it was brought to the continent through contact with the Arabs. The earliest evidence of cannabis being used outside of Egypt is in 14th century Ethiopia. There, two ceramic smoking-pipe bowls containing traces of cannabis were recently discovered. Bantu-speaking natives, who originally were from North Africa, carried the cannabis seeds to the south, and thus the existence of cannabis in the southern part of the continent.
The use of cannabis as an intoxicant then spread to other African tribes such as the Bushmen and the Hottentots. By 1609, the plant was cultivated throughout Kafaria near the Cape of Good Hope. Natives were referred to as “Kaffirs” and they ate the leaves of the plant, often becoming intoxicated.
The Hottentots, who were a mixture of Egyptian soldiers who had deserted their posts in Ethiopia around 650 B.C. and Bushmen women intrigued the Boers due to their rudimentary lifestyle. But what drew their attention the most was their practice of using hemp, which they called dagga. Jan van Riebeeck, history’s infamous Boer and ‘first’ governor of the Cape, noted that “it [hemp] drugs their brain just like opium.” By 1705, through interaction with the white man, the Bushmen, and the Hottentots, as well as other neighbors, had mastered the art of smoking the hemp. The inhalation of burning dagga leaves rapidly spread to other tribes and pipes became the new thing to these societies.
It is interesting to note the peculiar attitudes of white ‘explorers’ especially by the end of the 18th century. One such Dutchman, C.P Thunberg wrote, “Hemp [is] a plant universally used in this country, though for a purpose very different from that to which it is applied by the industrious Europeans. The Hottentot loves nothing so well as tobacco, and, with no other can they become so easily enticed into a man's service; but for smoking and for producing a pleasing intoxication, he finds this poisonous plant not sufficient strong; and therefore in order to procure the pleasure more speedily and deliciously he mixes his tobacco with hemp chopped very fine.”
G. Thompson, in 1818, commented on the use of hemp in Africa with much disdain, referring to it as “poison.” He had his support in evangelists such as Hugo Hahn who maintained that the use of cannabis was not in the best interests of the African. To Hahn, the use of dagga was a vile habit that forbade one from entering the kingdom of God. Henry Stanely, the American journalist famed for his encounter with David Livingstone, harbored the same colonial mindset towards cannabis and this is manifested through his words: “Certainly most deleterious to the physical powers is the almost universal habit of vehemently inhaling the smoke of the Cannabis sativa or wild hemp. In a light atmosphere, such as we have in hot days in the Tropics, with the thermometer rising to 140 Fahr. in the sun, these people, with lungs and vitals injured by excessive indulgence in these destructive habits, discover they have no physical stamina to sustain them. The rigor of a march in a loaded caravan soon tells upon their weakened powers, and one by one they drop from the ranks, betraying their impotence and infirmities”
Historians have remarked about how Zulu warriors heavily relied on cannabis when going into warfare. “Young [Zulu] warriors were especially addicted [to dagga] and under the exciting stimulation of the drug were capable of accomplishing hazardous feats,” wrote A.T Bryant. Sothos also drew inspiration from cannabis for heavy and “effective onslaughts.” Tribes such as the Bergdama of South West Africa venerated cannabis to the extent that they bartered dagga for valuable commodities like cattle, goats, iron, and copper.
In Zimbabwe, cannabis was revered for its wisdom-imparting capabilities and it was used for curing ailments like epilepsy, known as “pfari” in the local Shona language. It was known for uplifting spirits and “opening doors to the spiritual realm.” In Zimbabwe cannabis was crushed up into a powder. From there it was mixed with snuff, known as “bute” in the local Shona language, and sniffed through the nose. The herb was primarily a preserve for the elderly as it was favored for increasing strength during work and confidence in battles. Cannabis was also preferred during traditional ceremonies, as the spiritual world favored mediums high on cannabis.
It is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that cannabis, throughout the whole of history, has been used for medicinal and psychoactive purposes. Cannabis was even used for fiber in other parts of the world such as Asia. These are trends that reigned supreme before the Europeans made it their mission to conquer and subjugate the continent. And up to this day, cannabis is still used for these purposes, enhanced by improved scientific and medicinal research. The earlier sentiments against cannabis which have been mentioned above were reinforced by whites who came to fully colonize after the ‘explorers.’
The existence of cannabis in Africa never sat well with the callous European settlers who were hell-bent on destroying every element of African society that had defined who Africans are. By 1870, the settlers in South Africa passed a law “prohibiting the smoking, use, or possession by the sale, barter, or gift to, any coolies whatsoever, of any portion of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa)..” This draconian move had been actuated by the increased use of the plant by the Indian immigrants who had been forced to come to work under the colonial capitalist system in South Africa. Europeans erroneously believed that cannabis made these Indian workers and the black population lazy and sick (meaning they could not work) and that it made these people liable to criminal acts.
There was no effort to try and analyze what cannabis really did on a person and this nonchalant attitude to marijuana (since Europeans highly favored alcohol and tobacco) resulted in punitive laws against the consumption of the plant. In 1922, cannabis in South Africa was classified and designated as a “habi-forming” drug. The issue was sent to the League of Nations’ Dangerous Drugs committees under the government of Jan Smuts so that cannabis would be bundled together in the same class as morphine, opium, and cocaine. Two years later, cannabis was put under international drug protocols.
In South Africa, cannabis was said to “increase sex between color lines” and calls for more stringent controls grew louder especially after the unification of the colonies in 1910. It is however clear that in African society, cannabis was helpful for socializing, relieving pain and anxiety, and symbolized mature manhood, too. The colonial public panics against cannabis that solidified into notorious statutes outlawing anything to do with cannabis need to be revised and be debunked for the greater prosperity of the continent. The potential that the African cannabis industry holds if these colonial laws that are still prevalent today are abolished is vast. By 2023, it is projected that the cannabis industry in Africa could stand at a mammoth $7 billion; money that should be funneled towards uplifting the livelihoods of Africans.
It is now time for the cannabis industry to be fully legal and regulated. It is now time to demystify the colonial attitude towards marijuana that is still holding our continent back. It is clear the continent has a rich history and legacy of cannabis consumption, but it is now imperative for policymakers in Africa to take heed of the growing demands to fully regularize the cannabis industry. So far, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa have made headway progress of varying degrees as far as regularizing cannabis is concerned.
Cannabis has always been in Africa, but the white man managed to twist that narrative so that the use of cannabis became evil. Cannabis is widely tolerated in Africa and it is time that African countries throw away laws that are “replete with racism.”