As you step into Swaziland, the Kingdom currently known as Eswatini from any direction everything around you starts to change, the skies become greyish blue, the greenness of the vegetation somehow deepens and becomes vivid to bring out the breath-taking landscapes. The tiny Kingdom which is like a dot on the map between the vast Mozambique and South Africa has a micro climate of its own, it has a feel of the only air-conditioned room in the house
With an economy that hinges on two products both coined “Swazi Gold”, the first being sugar which is the anchor of the formal economy and the Kingdom`s biggest export with major sugar corporations from around the region having set up operations in Swazilandand employing thousands in the sugar value chains, sugar cane is being largely cultivated in most of the known lands. The second Swazi Gold refers to the crème de la crème of the cannabis world, a strain that by default identifies with Swaziland and for over a century it has been cultivated by “Amaswati” the Swazi people in hard-to-reach crevices of the mountainous Kingdom and has anchored the informal economy for over half a century.
Swaziland has been one of the flagship countries, as far as cannabis is concerned, and has been exporting tons of cannabis globally. Cannabis initially formed part of the household crop every ploughing season cultivated alongside maize, sorghum, sugar cane, millet and other Swazi staples. The crop was cultivated mainly for seeds to feed the chickens or for use as a dog contraceptive, where it is believed a handful of seeds on a dog`s daily ration will shut the fallopian tubes and furthermore humans use fresh leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory infections. A belief used to exist that a cannabis plant will ward off any evil in the area and the smoke from a dried branch is used to purge the house and remove negative energies.
Recreational use of cannabis is, in Swaziland, and to this day, being associated with hooliganism, rather the use has been associated with military use with much of the oral traditions attributing the origin of the Swazi Gold in Swaziland to their ancestors who were actively involved with military work, hence the rumour that most present day barracks have hidden plantations of the finest Swazi Gold reserved for elite units . It was smoked before the battle to evoke ancient warriors and inspire bravery within the troops and it is believed Swazi warriors had always migrated with the plant as part of their seasonal seeds.
One of the areas the Amaswati stayed before they headed to Swaziland was present day Xai Xai in Mozambique where there is plenty of wild cannabis on the shorelines. The Amaswati have also been linked to another cannabis capital being Nkhotakhota Bay in Malawi where the Maseko clan had previously stayed before migrating down south via Zimbabwe and Mozambique and finally getting absorbed into the Amaswati Kingdom.
A conversation on cannabis or its rich history would not be complete if the name Swazi Gold would not be mentioned and if any country in Africa had a real opportunity to make fortunes from cannabis it would Swaziland. For one reason, Swaziland has thousands of naturally gifted generational growers, favourable weather patterns with gentle rains and and humus-rich, foot-deep, arable soils.
Cannabis remains very much illegal in Swaziland and the security forces have been at war with the growers for decades. Cannabis has been illegal in Swaziland since 1937 when British government passed a law with an intention to oust hemp cultivation in favour of cotton and all the British colonies adopted the law and the innocent plant became illegal. What was once a backyard crop moved to the mountains and valleys in hard-to-reach areas to counter security forces operations and the efforts to reverse this colonial law have been futile. For years the government of Swaziland and its sponsors have deployed semi armed security operatives to slash and burn all the cannabis fields and in some cases a herbicide sprayed from an aircraft. The effects of these operations have been felt even decades later and the genetics base of the Swazi landraceis almost extinct ,the soil has remained barren where the herbicides were used and natural water sources have been contaminated.
The first time the Swazi Gold growers got attention from the law enforcement agencies was at the height of the South African apartheid armed struggle when Swaziland was believed to be an entry and exit point for Umkhonto We Sizwe (armed wing of the ANC) insurgents who were sneaking out of South Africa to join ANC sleeper cells across the region. After the famous power station bombing in Secunda in 1980, it was discovered that the suspect who went by the alias Patrick Chamusowas trained on guerrilla warfare in Swaziland and a web of how ANC guerrillas were operating within Swaziland buying cheap cannabis from the peasant farmer and smuggling it to fund their training camps within the Kingdom and Mozambique.
It was at this point that the South African government pressured and assisted the Swaziland monarch to take action against cannabis growers who were at the time families living in remote Swaziland and some were hosting Umkhonto We Sizwe operatives. That was the start of the war on cannabis in Swaziland. All the cannabis fields were destroyed, roadblocks were set up and border security was tightened and every corner of the country with a diameter of 100km was turned upside down.
Farmers eventually moved their crops from their backyard into the bush. Some would try to disguise it with other crops. It was from this time that police would do sporadic field raids and farmers would keep retreating to the mountains in search of secure growing areas.
The number of growers have increased over the years as the economic value of Swazi Gold increased and so has the demography of growers changed. Cannabis has grown from being a family grown crop to being controlled by people representing cartels based outside Swaziland. This has its perks as they would be able to get tipped off on upcoming raids and at times the police have been fed intel and given money to destroy rival gardens. This helps with the selling of the product though at very low price.
Cannabis cultivation in Swaziland was first concentrated around Pigg’s peak area where the most potent phenotypes of Swazi Gold were found and dealers would also emphasize that their stuff Is from “speaky” as locals call it. Growers from other areas would come to collect seeds from Piggs Peak growers. The footprint has since grown countrywide with almost everyone in Swaziland having a grower relative if they are not the grower themselves.
The Swazi Gold strain has, over the year, been relegated to an almost extinct strain with the locals preferring the much faster and “stronger” hybrids. This has been a result of the fields getting destroyed by both fire and herbicides and the purer form of Swazi Gold becoming less available to the farmers. Swazi Gold takes over 6 months to mature and produce a sizable harvest.
The appetite for the classic Swazi Gold grew as old tokers demanded the strain that popped their cherry. After the 2008 dry season old farmers took up their very old Swazi gold seeds and moved to an area far from anyone and spent time there growing this strain to perfection. To this day Swazi Gold is cultivated by old farmers and it’s very hard to find. This is also due to the fact that males are often removed as Swazi cannabis is also known for being seedless too . The younger generation of famers went on a hunt for superior seeds and various cannabis houses also brought their redundant strains to Swaziland to test a process which tainted the local genetics. Currently cannabis grown in Swazi is classified in three categories; the first being called “MSWATI”(pronounced mmn-swa-thi )which Is the original Swazi Gold nicknamed after the King himself. Then a cross which is a F1 Swazi Gold crossed with any mainstream hybrid. Then “high grade” which is any mainstream hybrid usually imported or bought from any local reputable breeders. The process of producing sinsemilla crop has brought seed scarcity and created a seed market for the locals.
The Swazi Gold remains a crop of choice among the older generations who believe over 2kg per plant in 6 months is better than 30g in 85days from hybrids. The Swazi Gold is a wide branching strain with very strong thick stems and branches that offer support to its gigantic flowers, a trait Swazi Gold easily passes on to its crosses. It will require lots of space as it etiolates easily when tightly grown. The main cola will weigh anything over 100 grams (dry weight) of tight sweet-smelling nuggets packed into one RPG sized cola. The strain can be grown horizontal to manage the height and the side branching will produce thick colas with very little support.
The most known Swazi Gold phenotypes are still found around Piggs Peak and Maguga area, the dark green tree with 7 to 15 fingers depending on the stage of growth and has a flowering period of almost 20 weeks but can still get frostier and denser if left up to 25 weeks with bright orange pistils at almost a 1:1 flower leaf ratio that can smell anything from sweet floral, woody and minty aromas all at the same time. It is a strain with a long-lasting high that promotes deep focus and it is very gentle on the throat. It remains a firm favourite for real sativa connoisseurs who take time to enjoy purer terpene profiles.
The other equally known phenotype is the Swazi “rooibaard” which is Afrikaner for red beard, making reference to the buds covered with red pistils. This phenotype has conflicting origins. The Afrikaner farmers in areas around and within Swaziland claiming to have discovered this rare phenotype, while Amaswati believe Rooi Baard is a Swazi that originates in Lower hotter parts of Swaziland around Siteki where it used to be common and they call it khanda-mbovu or red head reasoning being it Is everything like a Swazi and the red hair only means that God is rewarding the grower for his excellent green thumb.
It grows like Swazi Gold up until the mid-bloom where the newer pistils will develop beneath the initial ones and by the end of bloom the first would be covered in brownish red hairs that even fall off to a point where you can smoke them alone. It has a very strong piney, gassy smell and delivers a strong giggly high that will last all day long and have you greet the entire neighbourhood several times even, something that most African onlookers will have you committed to a psychiatric ward for insanity. The RooiBaard has often been equated to the Angola Red, the Punto Rojo and another Rooi Bard that is grown in the South African highlands very close to Swaziland. It is a very rare phenotype and sought after by growers for its unique deep orange-coloured extracts.
Another deformity that has been spotted in the Swazi Gold which remains very rare is the Swazi albino which is everything but a Swazi Gold except for the white marble variegated patterns on the leaves and these changes occur overnight in a random manner spotted at an area around Mankayane which is a highland and has had, at times, temperatures as low as -5 degrees Celsius and also purpling in some crops is spotted at the heights of winter in that area.
The grow technique in Swaziland has been perfected to a tee and it keeps improving as information globally gets availed. Spacing remains one metre between and within. The plants are watered morning and evening except on days when it rains. The herb coming out of Swaziland is organic, with a foot deep mycorrhizae rich leaf mould forming part of the top soil. One would understand the formula behind the best tasting weed in Southern Africa, any form of manure is used in Swaziland from animal manure all the way to old sewage pits provides a buffet of nutrients, molasses from the sugar factories is used regularly on crops, a belief is that it will make the crops tastier and stickier. Occasional usage of store-bought organic nutrients can be observed like kelp, guano, bone and blood meal, but chemical fertilizers remain a no-no as it is believed they make the herb burn with difficulty and the smoke becomes harsh.
Site selection plays a very critical role, a stream between mountains is followed and where it has the most gradient it is funnel capped and water diverted to the gardens which are established on either sides of the stream and the growers will stay there for a whole season with some growers staying for years in those hard-to-reach mountains. The inaccessibility is nothing compared to the peace of not worrying about your crops getting destroyed.
Processing is a simple hang dry, trim and cure as is the in the world. Previously trees where just hung with hung dried and hand thrashed to remove excess foliage and also starved goats were fed fresh herb and droppings collected but the system has since fallen out of favour due to the element of abuse in the animals. During trimming the resin is scrapped off the scissors and sold off to the niche resin users.
Swaziland has the biggest and most informal cannabis value in Africa if not the world. The process starts with the seeds supplier who are well known old school growers with a reputation for quality crops, then it proceeds to the farmers who are usually male family members working together. Unlike other countries where you can find large areas of grow space belonging to one person, Swaziland guerrilla growers share the space to a point where one farmer can own as little as a thousand plants in a hectare, the local strongman would provide protection from both the police and crop thieves whom, when caught, a had is chopped off or beaten severely.
Once harvest is done the plants are slow dried upside down in a makeshift tent not far from the field and trimmers are called in to manicure the herb perfectly for the picky Southern African market, trimming would usually produce 0.5 to 1 kg per day per trimmer and each trimmer gets paid one hundred per day. Once trimming is done the herb will be taken to the local strongman whom together with the farmer would grade the cannabis and wait for cartel representees from either Botswana, South Africa and Namibia who would buy the cannabis at a fee they have set themselves and the money oull pay the trimmers and the farmers. The buds are sold in a “ligogogo” a 20 litre bucket which will weigh approximately 2 kilograms , inside Swaziland they still prefer to sell cannabis by the litre.
The complex value chain would then move up to smugglers, from the on-foot guys who go over the border fence under cover of darkness and deliver to nearby towns in South Africa all the way to motorists who use cars with concealing pockets which can be made at any body shop in Swaziland up to truck drivers who deliver legit goods in Swaziland and exit with contraband. The herb is then shipped to two distribution centres in major cities. The smuggling process is a cat and mouse game between the smugglers and the police, with police seizures doing very little to disturb or disrupt the processes.