By Emily Ledger
Cannabis cultivation in the poverty-stricken kingdom of Eswatini – formerly known as Swaziland – is becoming a necessity for many vulnerable people, including grandmothers who have become carers to children orphaned by the deadly HIV/Aids Epidemic.
The Guardian reports that the illegal farming of the Kingdom’s “Swazi Gold” is being taken up by a generation of grandparents. The risk of prosecution for illegal cannabis cultivation is one that many are willing to take to make ends meet.
Cannabis fields are a common sight in parts of Eswatini – Africa’s last absolute Monarchy. The cannabis collected from the crops is sold to dealers in South Africa and Mozambique, where it is sold to consumers for 10 times the price.
Speaking to The Guardian, one Eswatini grandmother, who is the sole carer of five grandchildren and two more children left with her after the death of extended family, told of her experience in farming cannabis in Eswatini: “Poverty led me into this business. There are no jobs,” explained Noncedo Manguya.
“These children need to go to school but there is no help at all from government. I have to commit crime, farming weed, to ensure I take care of them.”
She continued: “I had three children but they all passed away, leaving me with five grandchildren to care for. All my children were HIV positive and they died because of that. I also take care of two other children, relatives to my late husband, whose parents are also dead.”
Manguya’s case is far from unique in Eswatini, with many women turning to the risk and uncertainty of the cannabis business.
Eswatini has a population of around 1.1 million people – ruled for the last 10 years by King Mswati III. The Kingdom has an unemployment rate of almost 24%, a poverty rate of 52% and GDP growth of -3.3%. It also has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, leaving an estimated 150,000 children orphaned, often left to the care of siblings or grandparents.
According to the International Labour Organisation, 23.7% of women in Eswatini are unemployed, with at least half of that number turning to illicit trades, including sex work, cannabis cultivation and smuggling.
“Yes, we farm the Swazi gold. I have been in this marijuana business for 11 years. My garden of Eden spares us from dying of hunger. Children have something to wear, something to eat every day, and our lives have become better,” says Manguya.
The country’s government and Royal family have been the subject of much criticism in recent years, with King Mswati and the rest of the Royal family – including his 15 wives – of living lavishly while much of the population suffers.
Earlier this year, Eswatini was rocked by protests in which many people died, as demonstrators demanded democratic reforms and criticised King Mswati’s leadership. Many call for grants to be made available to those affected by the HIV/Aids epidemic, as well as the introduction of policies designed to prioritise the welfare of women and children.
Despite the risks involved, however, many of those involved in the illicit cultivation of cannabis are opposed to the introduction of a legal market as they fear it could drop prices and force them out of the industry.
There is currently only one legal cannabis grower in Eswatini. US-based producer, Profile Solutions Inc, has a license to grow and process hemp and cannabis for medical products in the country for a minimum of 10 years.