Marijuana - an important traditional medicine in Binga District of Zimbabwe

Date: 04.08.2017

''As such, its use continues to be recognised only within local traditional cultures.''

The past few years have seen my interest in cannabinoids – the compounds that dominate the composition of Cannabis sativa (known colloquially in Zimbabwe as Mbanje (Shona), Imbanje (Ndebele) or simply as ‘weed’) grow. My interest in these compounds has, for the most part, been captivated not only by the mounting evidence of a myriad of health benefits that are attached to them, but also the conflicts that linger around cannabis in political, legal, cultural and health sectors of many countries across the globe. Of note, is the fact that the use of cannabis continues to be subdued by laws that were put in place without regard / knowledge of the herb’s full medicinal / traditional value. Despite the deliberate subjugation of its use, cannabis has continued to occupy the traditions of many communities on the African continent. While many African communities claim to use cannabis for its medicinal values, including the treatment of diseases such as cancer, headaches and high blood pressure, it is also widely used to increase endurance by manual workers. Many of these benefits have been reported in a number of research reports. Despite the mounting empirical evidence of its medicinal importance, its use continues to be recognised only within local traditional cultures. The story below highlights the quagmire that continues to surround its use, legality and acceptability in Zimbabwe.

Binga is a district that is located in Matabeleland North Province of Zimbabwe, close to Lake Kariba or Zambia. The population of Binga is dominated by Tonga people. The region has reportedly remained one of the most underdeveloped parts of Zimbabwe. Furthermore, the District, compared to the rest of the country, is characterised by limited accessibility especially during the wet seasons. Alongside its economic outlook, Binga has been coined as the cannabis capital of Zimbabwe. The Tonga people reportedly consider cannabis as an integral part of their culture.

While the local administration of Binga considers cannabis a cultural drug for its Tonga communities, its consumption has remained outlawed in Zimbabwe under the country’s Dangerous Drugs Act, CAP 15:02. In fact, this drug has remained outlawed from as far back as 1955 (colonial times) through a series of acts, namely: Act 28/1955 (Federal), Act 25/1956 (Federal), Act 61/1971, Act 18/1989 (s. 26), Act 3/1995; Act 1/1996, Act 22/2001 and Act R.G.N. 685/1963. Effectively, the acts have prohibited the importation, exportation, production, possession, sale, distribution and use of cannabis among other drugs considered dangerous to the people. Despite this limitation, the people of Binga (particularly the Tonga people) have continued to rely on cannabis and other traditional medicines to treat or prevent various diseases. The traditional use of cannabis in Binga is reportedly further enhanced by the poor communication linkages and poverty in the region. The fact that the people of Binga continue to follow their ages old traditions, which identify cannabis as panacea for their health challenges, should be given an exceptional thought by the country’s legislators. Certainly, I feel that we need to accumulate more data at least to prove the traditional claims and hopefully work towards the discovery of new drugs from this plant. I have taken the responsibility to study this plant for the sake of the Tonga people and other similar tribes in Zimbabwe.       

My team of postgraduate students at Bindura University, working in collaboration with Institute ICANNA and other international partners, have taken a central role in studying molecular mechanisms that are employed by cannabinoids in view of the traditional values and the conflicts that are highlighted above. Through our efforts we are hoping to inform policy and medical practice in Zimbabwe and the rest of the Southern African region. Incidences of cancer, diabetes and hypertension are known to be on the increase in the region. Such diseases were reportedly rare in the history of the populations that have lived on the African continent. An increasing number of scientists in the region view the formalisation of African traditional practices and ways of life as one of the ways to improve the quality of life on the continent. Certainly, the civil rights of such communities as the Tonga people continue to be trampled upon by the existing draconian laws. You can listen to an excerpt on cannabis from Tonga people via this link (external link)*. From the excerpt, it is clear that the Tonga people perceive cannabis as a gift from their gods and a great promise for healthier living. I feel motivated to have this opportunity seek answers that will potentially demystify the cannabis puzzle, and hopefully inform the national drug control policies.

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