Guns and Ganjaby Kimon de Greef / 03.02.2014
A First Foray into the Transkei Marijuana Economy
In the Transkei, a subset of the rural poor prowl at the edges of the tourist economy, waiting for scraps. There are fishermen selling mussels and undersized crayfish, small children asking for small change and sweets, boys offering guided hikes and little-league hustlers flogging ganja and fresh hallucinogenic mushrooms for cheap.
I’ve developed a strange fascination with illicit trades over the last few years so I was mostly interested in the narcotics. I wanted to visit a marijuana farm to see how marginalized subsistence farmers were bolstering their livelihoods by supplying the criminalized drug market.
It was a hot, soggy afternoon and I went for a walk to Hole In The Wall, an hour’s ramble from the backpackers I was staying in. Upon arriving I noticed three men sitting beneath a tree at the river mouth. I waved; they nodded.
There is a certain look about people who are about to offer you drugs which I’ve been trying to pin down without success: something in the posture, the dress, the quick eyes.
“Brother, want weed?” One asked.
“Don’t do them.”
“It’s okay, man.”
“Sorry. I’m going to swim.”
I was drying off on the riverbank, talking to some Americans I’d met at the backpackers, when one of the men walked over to try again. I hung back and when everybody had finished making polite excuses I stepped closer.
“Your ganja grows around here?”
“I’d like to talk to you.”
The Americans left for dinner and I remained behind.
The man’s name was Ben, or Simphiwe, depending on whether you asked twice, and he was twenty-four. He had three children and lived a short distance away. He sold matchboxes of grass for R100.
“Do you grow it?” I asked.
“No. Other people do.”
I explained that I was interested in visiting a farm and that I wanted to see where ganja comes from. Ben looked perplexed but said cool, no problem. His friend had a small crop growing between mielie plants right near where he stayed. He was happy to take me.
“But you’ll have to buy some,” he added. “Bring R200.”
We climbed the steep path together and stopped where it branched away from the sea. The sun had set and the thunderclouds were stained purple and gold. “I’ll meet you here tomorrow,” he said. His head was surrounded by a swarm of tiny flies; they were bouncing off his cheeks and he was swatting at them without luck. He wore no shoes and his shirt was ragged.
“See you in the morning,” I promised. I turned away and saw that the flies were circling me too.
“It’s a myth,” the owner of the hostel insisted that evening. He was drunk. “The Transkei ganja trade is a myth.”
We were sitting at his version of the generic rough-hewn wooden table that can be found at any backpacker joint along the east coast. He slapped his palm on the varnished surface.
“If people wanted to grow marijuana here then the hills would be covered with it. The cops wouldn’t do anything. Nobody cares.”
“But they would, surely. I’ve read stories about aeroplanes spraying Transkei ganja fields with herbicide.”
“That was near Port St. Johns,” he countered, veering off into a story about lawsuits and how anybody in South Africa was now legally entitled to shoot at pilots that flew over their property without permission.
“So they can’t do that anymore,” he ended, downing the rest of his beer.
“The farmers just wait with their guns.”
“The money must be attractive, though,” I said, ignoring the fact that he had just contradicted himself.
“People are kind of poor around here.”
“Poor!” he spluttered. “This is some of the wealthiest land in the country! Next time you take a walk just count the livestock. Each goat: R600. Each cow: up to R15 000. The mielie cooperatives cut big deals with the major food companies. Why would people risk growing something illegal when they can make money doing other things?”
I woke ill on the morning I’d arranged to meet Ben and had no way of letting him know. I lurked around the dining area to see if anybody was hiking in that direction, so that I could send him a message, but no one was.
“Sucks being that tourist who breaks his promises,” an acquaintance taunted. I hated her, but she was right.
Two days later I returned to where we’d parted. Incongruously, a Chinese girl from London came along. She was wearing sunglasses and carrying a camera. It all suddenly felt like a tremendously stupid idea.
Two women sat outside the hut Ben had pointed out from a distance, sifting mielie kernels. They spoke no English and had no idea who we were looking for. When our conversation faltered they yelled and two boys came running down the hill.
Aaron and Joseph were sharply dressed and bilingual. Aaron wore a heavy chain with a padlock around his neck and an open shirt that revealed a ripped torso. Without asking too many questions they led us up into the fields. The Chinese girl was playing it cool.
“This man,” said Joseph when we arrived, “is who you must speak to.”
A lean young Rasta dipped out from an open doorway and gazed coolly at us. He was winding a piece of thread onto a matchstick. I greeted him and he ignored me, then turned and said something in Xhosa to the boys.
“Come,” Joseph beckoned. We ducked through a wire fence into a small mielie field.
“Here’s a small one,” he said, pointing out a ganja seedling near the edge. In the middle stood a shoulder-high bush with thick serrated leaves.
“You want to take a photo?”
The Chinese girl snapped one – the boys posed without smiling – and said nothing. I asked who would buy the crop when it was ready in winter.
“White people,” Joseph mumbled. “They pay R5 000 for a big bag.”
Exiting the field again, we met a friendly young woman with a baby on her back. The Rasta with the cotton thread was her boyfriend, she explained.
“It’s those boys who grow this, not him” she gestured at our two guides. “They make good money, maybe R10 000 a year. A lot of people grow this stuff around here. It’s easy.”
The boys had sat down in the shade of a thatch building and were playing on their cellphones. Beside the open front door a small solar panel was attached to a metal box. A Nokia charger was plugged into it. I thanked them for the tour and paid them a small fee. We all shook hands and someone laughed.
“You think we’re crazy, right?” I said as we left.
“No,” said the woman, but the corners of her eyes said otherwise.
A goat bawled at us from a dry riverbed as we walked away. We’d gone in search of the fabled Transkei ganja fields and been shown a single bush.
“I feel a bit silly about this,” I started explaining to the Chinese girl, but she cut me off.
“Maybe they keep their guns hidden for when the aeroplanes fly over,” she teased, smiling in the hazy afternoon sun.