Eastern Cape’s cannabis crops offer alternative to poverty

Dagga is one of the few ways in which people are able to 'feed their families' in some areas of the Eastern Cape.

Bongi* was a pestilential child. The youngest of three brothers, the stories of his antics border on legendary among the homesteads dotting the green hills of Mpondoland where he grew up.

His mischief spanned from naughty (he would often take handfuls of isixwantshu – a thick, mossy plant whose roots hold the soil together like loam – and toss them with unerring accuracy at his friends’ heads, where they exploded in clouds of dust) to devilish (emvungelweni – peeing into dry soil before making a nearby friend laugh, scooping some of the newly soaked soil up on a finger and hooking it into the laughing friend’s mouth – was a particular favourite).

Bongi’s teenage years are just as notorious, albeit for different reasons. While herding cattle with his friends, he often initiated unprovoked brawls. His renown as a prankster was eventually replaced by his status as the best fighter in the region. Bongi describes himself during that time as “cruel”.

But today, standing in the doorway of one of the huts at his parents’ homestead, where he still lives with his brothers, Bongi is modest, almost bashful. “Weed has changed [all] that for me,” he says about his raucous youth, “and people appreciate it.”

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Unemployment in the Eastern Cape hovers at about 46%. The rate is closer to 70% in the former homelands. But thanks to Mpondoland’s ideal climatic conditions, Bongi is one of many residents who have turned to growing marijuana to secure their livelihoods.

In a region that has been largely ignored by government, Bongi says dagga is one of the few ways in which people are able to “feed their families [and] build their homesteads”. The herb serves as an important economic stepping stone. Income from dagga sales has funded many educations, according to Bongi, and has opened up wider opportunities, particularly in the local taxi industry, for many residents.

181206_Mpondo Gold_MC005.jpg20 November 2018: Dagga seedlings. Mpondo Gold and skunk are valuable income earners in Mpondoland, an area of high unemployment.

To Durban and back

Bongi dashes out of his front door, waving his arms – a falcon has appeared in the otherwise clear afternoon sky, and is swooping down menacingly on the clutch of screeching chicks darting around his yard. Then he returns to tell New Frame how his family has grown dagga for as long as he can remember. His parents used the herb recreationally, but would sell small amounts to their guests now and then.

His father, who began working as a conservationist in protected areas along the Wild Coast in 1994, was the family’s sole breadwinner. When Bongi was 13, he walked into one of the huts at the homestead to discover that his father had hanged himself. Bongi was forced to leave school. It wasn’t long before his childhood mischief warped into adolescent malice.

Three years later, Bongi made the 250km trip northeast to Durban in search of work, repeating the pilgrimage amaMpondo have been making to the port city since the second half of the 19th century, when they took the place of Indian workers whose indenture on the sugarcane plantations had come to an end. It remains the only time he has left his home in Mpondoland.

But it didn’t take long for the shine of the city to wear off. Bongi soon realised that the money he made selling the crayfish and mussels he caught near his home in a week was often more than what he earned in a month of working in Durban’s suburban gardens.

Fields of gold

Worried that his economic horizons were increasingly becoming defined by crime or begging after returning from Durban, Bongi put to work the memories of his parents’ guests buying handfuls of dagga, and slowly began to cultivate it in the fields around his homestead.

He now lives off the proceeds of a small but healthy crop, which yields about 300 litres of weed (he measures it out by large, plastic wash basins) for each year’s harvest, the majority of which is skunk. Twenty litres of first-generation skunk plants fetches him R16 000, while 20 litres of second-generation product goes for R12 000.

A small stream runs behind the homestead, alongside which Bongi has cordoned off alternating fields of amadumbe (taro root) and dagga. He darts back and forth from the stream, filling a watering can and dousing the lush bushes growing in the three small fields, none of which are taller than hip height. The fields are fenced in with palm fronds and banana leaves, but the hilltop is exposed, and strong winds pose a threat to the plants. Bongi splits taller plants at the stem so that they fall over and grow along the ground.

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It is difficult to tell exactly what strain of skunk Bongi grows (its chubby leaves suggest it may be a cannabis indica-dominant hybrid). Named for its strong smell, skunk began as an award-winning hybrid between Afghan, Mexican and Colombian strains, but has gone on to become a catch-all phrase (specific strains now stretch from Lemon Skunk to Island Sweet Skunk) for THC-heavy strains of dagga that deliver a knockout high.

Bongi says the first skunk seeds were brought to this region of Mpondoland by white dagga tourists, and that the strain has since thrived thanks to consumer demand for its high levels of THC.

But dotted among the fields of hybrid aliens, Bongi is also growing exactly what the tourists had come looking for – igolide kaFaku (Faku’s Gold), more popularly known as igolide yamaMpondo (Mpondo Gold) – the fabled endemic strain of cannabis sativa that is becoming increasingly endangered by skunk’s colonisation of the dagga economy in Mpondoland.

Associations between Mpondoland and gold go far back. Mineral deposits richer than any the world had known, yet or since, were discovered on the Witwatersrand about the same time the amaMpondo were cutting sugarcane on the plantations around Durban. Sugar and gold generated a migration of labour from Mpondoland that came to define the contours of dispossession in South Africa in the 20th century. But the story of Mpondoland’s “pure gold”, as Bongi calls it, is even older.

One of Southern Africa’s lesser-known landrace varieties (its close cousins, Swazi Gold and Durban Poison, enjoy greater renown), Mpondo Gold has grown in the region’s hills and valleys for centuries. This is the dagga Bongi’s parents and grandparents grew.

‘Skunk can’t sleep’

At first glance, there is little to distinguish between Bongi’s 100 or so dagga plants. But there are telltale differences between the indigenous, heirloom Mpondo Gold and the alien, hybrid skunk. Some of these are cosmetic. Mpondo Gold leaves always have seven slender fingers, for instance, whereas first-generation skunk plants have five broad fingers. Second-generation skunk plants have nine.

But consequential differences come in at the stages of cultivation and smoking, the most immediate of which is in the high. If he feels like “sleeping all day”, Bongi jokes, he will smoke skunk. But to stay awake and productive, he prefers pure gold.

Mpondo Gold shares Durban Poison’s reputation for a lucid high (rumour has it that real Durban Poison is actually grown in Mpondoland). “It makes you clever,” explains Bongi. Whereas skunk’s pungency and high level of THC have mind-altering and often exhausting effects on the smoker, he says, the understated Mpondo Gold brings clarity. “If you are Bongi, you stay Bongi. It does not change you or give you weird or dangerous thoughts”.

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Some of this has to do with how the plant is cultivated. Skunk plants have been through countless hybridisation for the express purpose of producing a stronger high. Mpondo Gold grows in the same way it has for centuries.

The soil here is fertile, says Bongi. Plant something and it will grow. But the endemic Mpondo Gold is particularly prolific. Once the seeds are planted in a shallow hole in the soil and covered with “cow shit”, they grow unencumbered. Skunk, on the other hand, requires constant tending: some of it foreign and chemical (a few tattered boxes of fungicide are scattered along Bongi’s shelves), but most of it highly localised and personal.

Bongi does not plant skunk seeds directly in the ground. Rather, the fallen fruit of the umkhomba – the Pondo palm – which grows naturally on the banks of only two rivers, including the nearby Mtentu, makes for the ideal incubation environment for the seeds. Once they have grown into seedlings and have been transplanted into sand from the banks of the river, Bongi keeps them under a bright light powered by a set of car batteries in the corner of his hut.

“Skunk can’t sleep,” he explains as he dips his fingers into a plastic jug of water and affectionately sprinkles the crate of budding plants beneath the light. Constant exposure to light at this age means they will produce higher-quality dagga later on.

181206_Mpondo Gold_MC008.jpg20 November 2018: The corner of Bongi’s room in which he keeps young skunk plants under strong lights at night. Skunk, brought to the region by so-called dagga tourists, is grown and sold by Mpondoland residents to boost their meagre income.

A whole new world of weed

Bongi’s dagga cultivation might lean on practices that remain largely undisturbed by modernisation, but the herb’s place in the world is changing dramatically.

In California, where the recreational use of marijuana is now legal, peanut butter for dogs infused with a chemical sourced from marijuana can now be bought, and misdemeanor convictions and charges related to dagga from as far back as 1975 will soon be wiped clean in San Francisco. Early signs, however, suggest the corporate competition that will come from exposing marijuana to market forces will be devastating for small-scale farmers.

Closer to home, South Africa’s Constitutional Court recently ruled that the right to privacy includes the right to grow and use dagga at home.

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But Bongi is worried about what the unintended consequences of normalising dagga might be, and says that the ruling has left dagga growers between the devil and the deep blue Indian Ocean, lapping the shore only a short distance from his home.

The current situation – in which people cannot sell dagga despite their newfound rights to grow and use it – will pit growers against one another, according to Bongi. Rival growers, he says, will resolve competition by reporting others to the police.

Bongi is even more distressed by a future in which dagga is fully legalised. Once selling it is legal, he fears, state bureaucracies and corporate forces will put the futures of both the ancient Mpondo Gold, and the livelihoods it helps to sustain, at risk.

*Not his real name.

First published on New Frame

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