“I Don’t Believe in Magic Potions, But My Friend Used Some To Turn Into a Fly”

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 6 2012 12:08 PM

“I Don’t Believe in Magic Potions, But My Friend Used Some To Turn Into a Fly”

Making sense of traditional healing culture in South Africa.

If you spend enough time walking through Johannesburg this time of year, you'll eventually get a provocative New Year’s greeting: a pamphlet promising “penis enlargement.” Besides solutions to a man’s bedroom anxieties, the advertisements promise all sorts of other tools for a grand 2012, including aides to win jobs, court cases, and lovers’ hearts.

It was these pamphlets that first got me wondering about South African traditional healers, known as sangomas, and their alternative medicines, referred to as muti. Some may call them witch doctors, but for many in South Africa, sangomas are trusted advisers on matters of the body, mind, and spirit. High cholesterol, infertility, infidelity, a broken heart—these are all issues that sangoma are accustomed to treating with some blend of herbs and animal parts. (See examples of muti—including herbal Red Bull and a protective hippo tail—in the slide show below.)

Muti Slide Show

“I don't believe it,” a South African friend, Kenneth, said when I asked him about muti. With a totally straight face he then added, “But there is this friend of a friend of mine who got out of jail in Pretoria once, because his father brought him muti wrapped in a book, and he used it to become a fly and escape through a hole in the wall.”

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Kenneth's attitude mirrored how most people I spoke to thought about muti: It probably doesn't work, but you don't want to mess with it, just in case. And regardless of what you believe, you might as well try to understand it because sooner or later it’s going to come up in conversation. Just last week, for example, police declared that a poor young boy who had his penis and ear sliced off in Soweto was the victim of a muti crime. (In other words, they suspected that the missing body parts were sold off to be used for its traditional healing—or perhaps aphrodisiacal—properties.)

Johannesburg's muti market is located in the southeast, in an area of the city, where you will rarely find tourists, though Joburg's tourism website claims otherwise. Traders had been squatting under a highway bridge next to the Faraday Railway Terminal for decades, and in an attempt to formalize the market in 2001, the city allotted a nearby space to about 300 traditional healing shops. Until this day, however, the market continues to spread beyond that small, official space.

Every proper muti shop features animal skins hanging from the ceiling, rows of animal fats in ancient brandy bottles, belts, sticks, bones, and other mysterious piles that would make a vegetarian cringe. Most of the medicine, however, actually consists of different types of tree bark and other plant parts. The word muti, after all, is derived from the Zulu word for tree, umuthi.

Much of the medicine at the Faraday Market is supplied by traders from tiny South Africa-locked country of Lesotho, a Mecca for herbal medicine (and horror stories surrounding its misuse). They come every Friday, and everyone else comes the next day to get the newest stuff. When I went, on a Thursday, there were barely any customers in sight. Just the traders and two security men who, for some reason, were cruising around on brand-new Segways.

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