Samon Nwulu, a silver-haired, quirky man who has been selling muti since 1959, showed me around his shop. As he jumped from one pile of packaged herbal mix to the next—“You have a stroke? No problem. Steam this in hot water and breathe. Your heart will thank you.”) —I found out that he was just a child when an old man from his village started teaching him about traditional medicine. Muti must be learned thoroughly before practicing, he explained. He declined to provide information about specific ingredients, however. Education has its price.
At the next shop, I met two men in their twenties. They called themselves the “21st-century muti generation” and sold a mix of baboon claws, horse legs, homemade clothing and dried out black cats. Mtutuzi Mbele, 26, was open about the fact that he didn’t know exactly how to use many of the ingredients.
“I just sell the stuff,” he said with a shrug.
He was clear, however, on which ones were exclusively mixed for the purposes of putting curses on people.
Bad muti, as this is called, is a common specialty of young traders who are “after the money,” according to sangoma Elizabeth Makwana, who I visited several days later. (Bad muti encompasses other acts, as well, such as slipping a paste of ground-up pigeons hearts into someone’s food in order to make him or her fall in love with you.) People are willing to spend a substantial chunk of money in order to exact revenge or manipulate people, she explained. But she believes it will backfire: The ancestorsdon't like their powers to be wasted on hurting others. Sangomas are in the business of healing.
Makwana, who has been practicing for three years, received the calling through her dreams when was a young girl. The life of a sangoma comes with great responsibilities as well as restrictions and sometimes the chosen ones decide to ignore the calling. (Rumors of horrible accidents that happen to those who reject the gift circulate widely.) But despite some reservations, Makwana went along. Among other things, she explained, that meant extensive training and waking up at Godforsaken hours to play the drums.
A customer entered the shop. Makwana got up from the bench on my right and walked over to the counter. It looked like an information desk at the airport, built into a traditional, round straw hut. The curious part was that the hut, that offered just enough space to fit the natural meds, was located inside an actual, modern-tiled shop on a busy street in Johannesburg. There was a convenience store and a pub right next door.
During a typical consultation, a sangoma will listen to the customer's problem and then throw bones to predict whether she can help. Sometimes, Makwana explains that it’s possible to know right away. Other times, she asks the ancestors in her dreams—only to find the patient has committed too many bad deeds to be helped.
Fortunately that was not the case for this latest customer. After a little conversation, Makwana reached behind her and handed her a bottle. The customer said something to her in Zulu and left the shop.
“Any more questions?” she asked me, smiling. A beautiful, rotund lady with a brown mole just below her right eye, she emanated wisdom. Maybe it was her majestic calmness, or maybe it was the multitude of odorous bottles surrounding us. But as I thanked her and got up to leave, I told her that I'd be back very soon.