Yamba: Cannabis in West Africa

By Daryn Alexandria Fouther

DUS International Correspondent from Senegal, Africa

Senegal, West Africa is known for its rich culture, beautiful beaches, stretched deserts, and welcoming locals. Located at the western-most point of the continent, Senegal is adorned with a multitude of terrains. Dakar, the country’s capitol, is exposed, on three sides, to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Travel east from Dakar and you’ll run into desert-lands, populated with the country’s prized baobab trees. Head north and you’ll find Saint-Louis, known for its French-colonial flair and historic roots. And if you head south, you’ll reach the Gambia known for its wildlife, including monkeys, leopards, hippos, hyenas and rare birds.

When examining the color of cannabis, otherwise known as “Yamba” in this country, there is not much to see, legally that is. All forms of cannabis are illegal in Senegal and there are strict laws and heavy police enforcement for usage of the substance. But, if you travel south, you’ll find a different scenario. Casamance is located in the southern region of Senegal, in between the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. It is home to the Casamance River that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Nikola-Kola National Park of Senegal. Its climate is more sub-tropical than the other regions of the country, resulting in more rainfall and lush greenery. Miles of rice paddy fields and palm trees line the outer portion of the city while swamps, forests, and mangroves line the inner.

The majority of Senegal speaks and follows the language and customs of Wolof, but Casamance is different. It is a Diola (or Jola) country with languages and a culture far from the Wolof. While many other Senegalese societies, like the Wolof, are hierarchical, the Diola society is egalitarian. They have no known history of slavery, no historical practice of Islam, and every villager takes to the type of employment they want or need. All of these characteristics of Casamance help explain how they create their own rules with regards to business and commerce.

If you look deep enough through the swamp lands and forests of the city, you’ll find a village of 200 people living in virtual seclusion: the Kouba. Going against the vigorous laws of the country and practicing their own means of employment, and this village relies completely on the cultivation of cannabis for their livelihood. The village is inaccessible by road, and due to the distance and difficult nature of passing through the swamps (crocodiles, etc.) there is minimal contact with authorities. In fact, according to locals, not a single police officer has visited since the 1980s. 

In stark contrast to the thousands of tourists and expatriates Senegal brings in each year, the vast majority of the Casamance lives in poverty. For the Kouba villagers, cannabis is their only viable economic option. They are able to harvest and grow their own fruits and vegetables but do not have roads close enough to them to market such produce. Cultivating a kilo of cannabis alone can garner them a return of 30,000 West African Francs (roughly 50 American Dollars), a figure much more attractive to the villagers when compared to the 500 Francs earned from selling a kilo of onions. 

In order to grow enough of the plant to support their whole population, the village has numerous fields reserved solely for hemp. The fields have not been measured numerically but are much larger than any fields they have for their produce. Women are responsible for helping gather the hemp stalks from the land, separating the seeds from the stalks, and placing them on metal roofs, exposed to the world from above. Those who would like to purchase the cannabis from them spend hours travelling by canoe to reach the village. Villagers use this money to aide their construction and for the education of their children.

While the Kouba villagers live without fear of repercussions, those who live outside of the village fear the 10-year prison sentence for cultivation of cannabis and the stigmas around drug use in the predominantly Muslim country. While this doesn’t stop the consumption of cannabis by many, it does motivate participants to be discreet in order to dodge arrest. On your next visit to Senegal I suggest passing up the jail house, however, and going for a swim instead!