Why Pygmies Are Dealing Weed to Survive

Indigenous communities in the Congo have harvested marijuana as long as they can remember. Now, with no land to call their own, they turn to selling—with dire consequences.

NORTH KIVU, Congo — Nana sleeps on a pillow of marijuana. It’s a trick his grandfather taught him to make the buds more potent, he explains while tending his sparse plot at the edge of a mud hut village. The current offering of a few dozen plants is unimpressive. But his crop was lush, he says, before Congolese army soldiers came and confiscated it. Across this eastern province, the epicenter of the country’s conflicts, many Pygmy communities grow marijuana, eking out a meager, and dangerous, living.

Marijuana is illegal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which occupies the bullseye of Africa. But after a brutal colonial regime, decades of dictatorship, and more than 20 years of civil war that left 6 million dead, there are few laws that can’t be bent. (National Geographic is not using full identifications of those involved in the marijuana trade for their protection.)

In one of the poorest countries in the world, a population of around 600,000 indigenous forest people, widely known as Pygmies, occupy the lowest economic rung. They’re marginalized by the non-indigenous Congolese population they call Bantu, and sometimes even kept as slaves. A recent study of the nearly 27,000 Pygmies living in North Kivu found that the majority survive on less than $1 per day (the average Congolese income is only slightly higher, at $2 per day). For them, marijuana can offer a reliable income. Their treatment at the hands of Congolese military and police is less predictable. Sometimes, they say, they are beaten and arrested for growing the plant. Other times, soldiers and police officers are their customers.

A lone marijuana plant marks the muddy path that leads to Nana’s village, an hour’s drive from eastern Congo’s war-torn capital, Goma. Wooden scooters piled with firewood clog the road there, while on the shoulder women roast corn over smoking charcoal. The constant jolt of car wheels dipping into potholes provides what’s wryly called a “Congolese massage.”

Twice a week, a small group of Pygmies rises at 6 a.m. and treks three hours into the forests of Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga. Above them looms the volatile volcano, Nyiragongo. In 1952, when the area was designated as a park, they were evicted and the hunting and gathering that fed them was outlawed. Their journey into the park is illegal, but they continue to return to their former territory to gather honey, potatoes, and medicinal plants. One of the dozen members of this Bambuti Pygmy community trained to identify the correct flora goes along to seek out an important crop they say their ancestors grew long before them: marijuana. In the forest, the plants grow wild, and the Pygmies harvest plants and seeds when their village stock is low.

“There nobody could break our traditions,” Mubawa, the 36-year-old chief of the village, says of the forest. Worldwide, it is estimated that 20 million indigenous people have been displaced in the name of conservation. Today, the land’s new guardians, heavily armed rangers, interfere with those traditions. Survival International, an advocacy group for indigenous populations, says that across the Congo Basin Pygmies “face harassment, arrest, beatings, torture and even death at the hands of anti-poaching squads.” On these foraging journeys, Mubawa says members of his community have been arrested or killed by rangers of Virunga National Park.

In a region where the environment is threatened by armed groups, oil companies, and poachers, Virunga is hailed as an example of successful and sustainable conservation. Rangers are extensively trained, and a community development program called the Virunga Alliance has become one of the area’s biggest employers. But tensions remain between those protecting the park’s two million acres—one-third of the world’s mountain gorillas call Virunga home—and communities that have relied on its ecosystem for centuries.

Virunga’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, says his administration sees “the community’s sense of alienation as a major problem in terms of environmental and social justice” and has been trying to improve relations. In some cases, rangers even accompany those who were displaced into the park to extract natural resources.

More often, those found hunting or gathering in the park are arrested. The rangers make an average of 20 arrests per week, de Merode says. Ethnicity is not specified in these reports, but de Merode says his staff cannot recall arresting any indigenous individuals within the past year and records show no reports of any killings involving Pygmies.

There’s little work outside the forest for the indigenous Pygmy communities. Young men sell five-foot-long bundles of firewood gathered from the park or work as day laborers in the fields. Many have turned to marijuana. Mubawa strolls toward a small plot and grips a handful of plants, worth around 500 Congolese francs, the equivalent of 50 cents. Depending on how much a family grows, the plants bring $8 to $100 per week.

What they don’t sell is dried for medicinal purposes. When someone falls ill, a traditional healer is dispatched with marijuana. Ground seeds mixed with water cures stomachaches. Kneaded into a starchy tuber called cassava, they improve appetites. A tea of boiled leaves treats coughs, parasites, fainting, flu, and fever. Mubawa ponders a comparison for the all-purpose treatments. “Like in America,” he says, “you take coffee—it makes you strong.”

There’s new scientific backing for marijuana’s medical benefits. In a 2015 study researchers found that cannabis use among Pygmies in the neighboring Central African Republic actually decreased their body’s parasite loads.

But the medicine and extra francs come at a high cost. There’s a small wooden shack behind the perimeter of their huts. Mubawa says that villagers are often arrested by the Congolese army for selling marijuana and held in that hut. Soldiers patrol the village nearly every day—three or four wander the area during our two-hour conversation—but it’s never clear whether they are there as customers or law enforcers. Villagers say that if the soldiers have recently been paid, they will buy the marijuana. If they haven’t, then they confiscate it and demand the growers pay a fine.

“If you have money, you pay, if not, they beat you until they get tired,” Mubawa says. “He has a gun; I have an arrow.”

From Gatherers to Farmers

When and how marijuana first arrived in Africa remains a mystery. The plant is indigenous to 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.”

The International Women's Media Foundation supported Nina Strochlic's reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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