The farms spread as far as the eyes can see. From afar, you may mistake them for tobacco plantations. But as you get closer, the picture is more sobering.
Young men spring out from the bushes, each pleading with us to buy their ‘crop’.
“Ignore the others, let me show you my farm. I have the best quality, plus I will give you a great discount,” one lanky young man sells himself as he points to dried heaps of recently harvested bhang.
We had just arrived in Tanzania, about one kilometre from the Kenyan border. This area is reputed as the number-one bhang growing region in Tanzania. According to Kenyan police, it is also the main source of marijuana that is imported into Kenya.
But marijuana is openly grown here, even though, like Kenya, bhang is prohibited in Tanzania.
Despite reports of police in Migori nabbing marijuana peddlers often hitting the headlines, the drug continues to find its way into Kenya.
Migori town makes news almost every week about marijuana trafficking. It is believed that the drug, worth hundreds of millions of shillings, is smuggled along the Isebania-Migori-Nairobi highway almost every day.
Investigation by Sunday Standard reveals a well-orchestrated racket that allows bhang to easily cross into Kenya through porous border points in Migori County.
To get an insider perspective of the illegal trade, this writer and his photographer posed as buyers in search of supplies. We crossed into Tanzania through Suna West, into neighbouring villages, which for decades have been the main producers of the bhang consumed in Kenya.
We started by identifying contact people from the Kenyan side, whom we asked to link us to suppliers in Tanzania.
After two weeks of negotiations, we got a reliable contact who agreed to travel ahead and make arrangements with the Tanzanian suppliers to ready our consignment. On May 12, we set out for Manyera village in Suna West sub-county, where we met our contact around 11am.
To win his confidence, we told him we were working for a Kisumu Member of County Assembly (MCA) who has been in the business for long, but had recently found it difficult to move his illegal cargo from Tanzania through the Isebania route due to the many police roadblocks. We were, therefore, looking for a safer route and new suppliers.
He led us to the border, about one kilometer from his home, to a swampy thicket. This, we learned, is the main panya route to Tanzania.
The crossing point is located between Kogaja Border Police Station and Buembu Police Post, which are about five kilometres apart along the border. The, police, our contact revealed, stopped patrolling the area after they were threatened by local youth.
“A lot of goods are smuggled through this point. Our main worry is that increasing police presence could hamper our business,” said our contact, who happens to be among the youth who keep the wheels of illegal business running at the border, and works closely with contacts on the Tanzanian side.
Just 500 metres into Tanzania, at Luanda village, we arrive at the source of it all. Sprawling farms of bhang, stretching to the horizon.
Our contact introduced us to one Mr Martin, one of his ‘long time’ suppliers.
“These are the clients from Kisumu I told you about two weeks ago. They have some good business and I wanted them to come and see what you have to offer before they can place their order,” he told Martin who was weeding his one-acre marijuana farm.
We tell Martin that we would like to buy a few samples to take to our boss, who will then place an order if he is satisfied with the quality.
Martin welcomes heartily and takes us on a tour of his two other farms; one is due for harvest, while the other acre will be ready within a month.
According to Martin, most dealers prefer buying an entire farm before harvest. He employs people to harvest, package and transport the drug across the border.
“Kenya is our main market. We do not sell any bhang in our country because it is available in plenty. A half an acre worth of bhang fetches between Sh30,000 and Sh60,000, depending on the quality,” said Martin.
He assured us that moving the cargo will not pose any problem because they have ‘local arrangements’ with police officers in their pay. Apparently, the officers get a cut from every farmer once the crop is harvested.
“The officers have the names and contacts of all the bhang farmers. Anyone who wants to venture into the business must register at the police station to be safe,” Martin claimed.
“To be safe, you must come clean and declare the particulars of your farm and what you earn after each harvest, otherwise if they discover you have been dishonest, they will come down on you so hard and you would probably end up in jail,” he told us.
Since Martin did not have enough marijuana that was ready for harvest, he introduced us to another farmer, a Mr Jacob, who is based in the neighbouring Ikoma village, about one kilometre from his home.
Jacob has a two-acre farm whose crop would be ready for harvesting within a month. He says he has some ready stock however, but cannot sell it because a Kenyan buyer had already placed an order for it.
The bhang is in house, packed in heaps they refer to as ‘broom’ and ready for transportation.
“I can spare a few brooms for you to appreciate your visit and for considering me as a supplier. It will be a shame to go back home empty-handed after coming this far,” said Jacob. He sells us 10 brooms.
He also assures us that it would be safe to move the commodity within Tanzania, even mentioning a few names of clients from Kenya whom he has been dealing with for years, and have never been nabbed.
According to Jacob, once the brooms are packed in sacks, they are loaded into lorries that is loaded about three-quarter full with the bhang. The remaining space in the lories is taken up with omena or charcoal, and driven into Kenya.
“There is no problem on our side. But you have to make sure that you take care of your side to avoid run-ins with the police,” Jacob tells us, adding that some dealers are even escorted by police officers from Kenya.
He nods when we remind him that in our case, the boss is an MCA who has connections within the police, and is mainly worried about movement of the cargo on the Tanzanian side.
We bid Jacob goodbye and make our way back to Kenya, passing through other bhang farms, with our point man explaining to us the details about the owners of the farms, and when and where they sell.
After a three-hour tour of the two villages, we make our way back home, openly carrying the brooms of bhang we had paid for. At the border, we change our route as advised by our point man who carries the bhang packed in a 50-kilogramme cement bag.
We cross the border and finally get to the point our journey had started. We load the luggage into the car and begin the trip back to Migori town through Piny-Oyie, Masara and Migori-Isbania road, passing through two police roadblocks unnoticed.
It is at this point that we inform Migori County Police Commander Joseph Nthenge of our successful mission, and request to meet him and handover the illegal substance.
During the handing over, Nthenge admits that fighting the smuggling of bhang into the country through the border has been a big challenge due to inadequate officers to man the border, as well as lack of cooperation from their counterparts in Tanzania.
“We know bhang is illegal in Tanzania, and we have tried several times to engage our counterparts to help us from their side, but they have been very reluctant and do not only do want to attend any meeting we invite them to,” he said.
Tightening the noose
Martin further claimed that there was no political goodwill in the fight against the drug, such that any time the police tighten the noose, politicians come out to criticise them for harassing other people.
“We have discovered a few loopholes and want to change the way we operate. We know Migori may not be the main market for the bhang, just the highway,” he said.
Bhang farmers at Ikoma and Kogaja villages claimed that they got into the trade after their stint in tobacco was messed by their government.
“We used to spend nine months in our farms growing tobacco, only to harvest and find no market. Bhang takes two to three months to mature and fetches more money compared to tobacco,” said Jacob.