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Old Habits Die Hard: Women and Snuff (ugwayi) in Tsolo

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

By Bonelwa Nogqaza

Transkei 1978 - FDC - Smoking Pipes of Transkei Source: CollectorBazar

Left image: A woman holds her snuff jar. Right image: Women in Tsolo socialising while consuming snuff

Drug and alcohol use and addiction reportedly mounted in response to increased stress, social isolation, and unemployment under COVID-19. Against this background, the use of alcohol and drugs has also mounted in rural areas of the Eastern Cape over the past few years, especially among the youth. Meanwhile, even as new pharmaceutical substances and concoctions circulate in these places, older, traditional addictions and drug habits persist – in particular, the use of snuff (ugwayi) among rural women of all ages.

During my fieldwork in Tsolo, I noticed that many old and young women use snuff, which costs about R7 for a full spoon, daily. While we sat and talked, they would take out their small glass snuff jars and inhale or imbibe snuff. Talking to the women about their snuff use, I became aware of just how old this tradition is, and how it is particularly associated with women. To this day, few men take snuff on a habitual basis.

From colonial times, there has been a significant demand for snuff and tobacco in the Eastern Cape. Iconic images of women smoking snuff and tobacco in traditionally crafted wooden pipes, which were redolent of how upper-class European men would smoke their pipes, became a staple of tourism brochures of the early 20th century. The cultural importance of snuff, and its association with women, resulted in the production of beautifully crafted pouches and pipes for carrying and using tobacco and snuff. This paraphernalia was produced in several different styles that were particular to different areas, much as women’s beadwork was.

For women, snuff and tobacco were more than just everyday stimulants which calmed their nerves and soothed them in times of stress. Their use was also believed to help women remain close to their ancestors. It was common practice for women to sprinkle bits of snuff on the ground as they smoked or sniffed, sharing the drug with the ancestors, in the same way that men would spill beer in the kraal to allow the ancestors to sip. This is also why women were so often pictured with their pipes while wearing traditional dress at rituals and events.

Figure 1: Transkei, 1928. Women in traditional dress smoking tobacco/snuff. Source: Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin Collection

Figure 2: Transkei, 1952. Woman smoking pipe with baby and ox. Source: SAR Publicity and Travel Department

Today, women keep their snuff in their pockets in small glass jars which they purchase from local stores. There are two ways of taking the substance. Some place it in the mouth and hold it against the lower lip for some minutes, constantly spitting and only removing the residue once they feel that the active ingredient has entered their blood and their tension has been eased. Others inhale the snuff through the nose. Sometimes when women inhale the stuff, they shed tears. The women who sniff snuff describe how it produces a feeling of pleasure.

The women described how their snuff habits had derived from stressful moments in their lives when they had first taken the drug to ease tension. Having developed the habit, they said that they now experienced headaches; were unable to think properly; and even found it difficult to eat unless they took snuff. One woman described how taking snuff helped calm her nerves and put aside her everyday cares. Another said that taking snuff helped her to think properly and calmed her. Another said that she took snuff when she was not feeling well – that it helped her to sneeze, open her nose when it was blocked nose, and cured headaches. She saw snuff as a medicinal herb preferred by women: “It is something we know well in the rural areas, and when times are stressful, women use snuff.”

There are different types of snuff used by local women. Most preferred the type of snuff which is commonly sold in the local shops and which is described as strong and effective. In this regard, most said that they had lost their taste for traditional snuff (umdlutha) which is lighter in colour and only used it when they did not have the money to buy the strong stuff.

The rural women who used snuff employed a number of terms and phrases and engaged in a number of behaviours that set them apart, indicating the production of a kind of sub-culture around the habit in which only these women could participate fully.

I observed that those who were using snuff generally knew each other and would approach their counterparts if they had run out of snuff and needed some. The sharing of snuff among these women was called ukungcazela. Sometimes, at ceremonies or social gatherings, women who were craving snuff, which was called ukunqanqatheka, would stand to one side to take it. In general, I noticed how women taking snuff would carve out spaces in their daily lives – such as when washing the dishes in the home – to take snuff and talk among themselves.

The women taking snuff described a number of causes of stress in their lives. In particular, they talked about being stressed by debt, which included not being able to pay their monthly membership fees for credit clubs; not having food in the house; not having money; and being unemployed. They also talked about being stressed by their children, some of whom were addicted to hard drugs; and by the deaths of loved ones during the pandemic.

In this context, the women were using snuff as a way of relieving stress and also as a coping mechanism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the physical and emotional support derived from snuff use, it was clearly a hard habit for them to break.

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