Cannabis is illegal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it nonetheless grows wild there and provides a much needed source of income for the land’s marginalized population of Pygmies.
Native to the Congo, the country’s 600,000 Pygmies have been been subordinated by the non-indigenous Congolese, or Bantu. The majority of Pygmies who live in the eastern province of North Kivu make less than $1 per day, according to National Geographic, while the Bantu make only twice that.
The Congo’s Pygmies call cannabis “bangi,” derived from “bhang,” a marijuana potion made in India. It’s likely the plant was introduced to Africa by Arab traders some 2,000 years ago; others, however, estimate that the weed came to Africa much later around the 1700s.
They have cultivated cannabis for generations, despite the fact that doing so is now criminal. Nonetheless, the worldwide cash crop provides a much needed source of income for those brave enough to continue harvesting and selling it. Dealing weed can earn a family anywhere between $8 and $100 per week — but at a high price, as well .
Soldiers and police often beat up or arrest the Pygmies for growing weed. Yet, when they’re not abusing them, they’re buying the bud off them.
Especially when the village supply is running low, the Pygmies cultivate cannabis in Virunga, the oldest national park in Africa, where it grows wild and where they tended the crop for centuries. In 1952, however, the land became a national park and the Pygmies were removed. Now venturing into the forest to forage for cannabis there means risking legal and physical consequences.
The Pygmies don’t only cultivate cannabis for sale, but also use it medicinally in the community. One study from 2015 found that cannabis helped curb the number of parasites in the Pygmies’ bodies. They commonly use it for stomach aches, appetite stimulation, coughs, flu, fever, and fainting, as well.
Despite international aid and pop-up clinics to help the Pygmies with daily survival, the general attitude is that while foreigners from abroad come and go, with varying degrees of success, they can always rely on cannabis.
The Pygmies are not the only ones surviving off weed. Police officers and soldiers also sell cannabis. In the face of arrest, a simple bribe could easily get them out of going to jail. “If you arrest me today, I sell tomorrow,” one officer tells National Geographic. “My children have grown up because of marijuana.”