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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the village plots, the plant makes its way to the regional capital of Goma and other urban centers. 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.