Between the cannabis plants, two little girls chase each other, laughing out loud. Soon, and like twice a year, their favourite playground will be harvested: the women will separate the seeds from the branches that their mothers watered every day. In the Karones Islands, the rural scene is usual: the cultivation of Indian hemp is the main resource of this archipelago located in Casamance, in the south of Senegal.
On these remote islands, far from tourism and fishing, only women and children remain. « They leave as soon as they reach adulthood in Kafountine, more than an hour away by pirogue. The men of the island become fishermen or tourist guides. The land of the Karones Islands is more salty year after year because of global warming. So what is left to keep the villages alive? Nothing, except cannabis », explains Joël, a child from the island who has become a driver in a hotel two hours away by pirogue.
The village square is crushed by the sun. Three young women are chatting in the shade of the branches of a large cheese maker. « Cannabis is a family story. Our great-grandparents grew it. The whole village, from the children to the grandmothers, is involved in growing the yamba: the children separate the fruit from the stems, and the grandmothers water the plots », Marie explains, while grinding the big golden cross that hangs around her neck.
Legislative respite for producers
The green gold helps to finance the studies of the village children, but does not ensure an inordinate amount of prosperity. « This is not Colombia, » says Joël, looking at the low houses. Life here is harsh and the housing modest. « Cannabis is for survival, and that’s it.
In living memory, the police only came to disturb the peace of the village once, in the 1980s. Under the aegis of President Abdou Diouf, punch operations are carried out in the Karones Islands. « They came screaming, they tore up all the plants, they beat up my father, » recalls Joël, bitterly. Peace returned to the village, which has since been protected by fetishes. « See that? » he says, pointing to a baobab decorated with shells. « These are our fetishes. The police are afraid of them, they would never dare to come here. » A Catholicism tinged with animism prevails on these islands, where even the men of the church are not opposed to the cultivation of cannabis. And with good reason: the latter helped finance the last church built on the islands.
A legislative reversal also explains the relative peace enjoyed by the Karoninkés: in 2007, the Latif Gueye law gave producers a break and attacked demand rather than supply, punishing anyone in possession of hemp with prison sentences of up to ten years. Benoît paid the price. This bricklayer by profession improvised himself as a cannabis grower more than twenty years ago and spent more than two years behind bars after being checked for possession of a few grams. « It was horrible, we were huddled together like pigs, » he recalls as he describes the overcrowded cell where he was held in pre-trial detention.
As soon as he was free, he found his wife and his half-hectare plot of land, well hidden behind a green cathedral. On large white sheets are laid out the fruits of the last harvest: nearly 50 kilos of grass, which can be changed for 25,000 CFA francs (38 euros). The curfew decreed by the government in the spring has not hindered the comings and goings of pirogues from Guinea Bissau, Mauritania or Gambia to stock up on yamba.
« These are just families struggling ».
The customer of the day is an exception: he is a European, living in the region for several decades. « One wonders why they don’t legalise. Wherever they have done it, it has worked! We mustn’t believe that the inhabitants of the Karones are big traffickers: they are just families struggling to get something to eat », plagues the sexagenarian who came to stock up on « dumplings » with Benoît.
These small resin balls, sold at the unbeatable price of 250 CFA francs each, are a novelty in the island’s trade. « Before, we used to end the day grumbling against all the resin we had glued to our hands and thrown away. It was a tourist who told us that we could sell it too », Benoît is delighted.
« You mustn’t think it’s a quiet job, it’s a lot of work, » he says, playing with the knife on the stems. « You have to water several times a day and fetch water from far away. It’s exhausting, but it gives you enough food. What is the state doing for us here? Nothing. If it wasn’t for cannabis, we would die of hunger ».