“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.)

“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.”

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.

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.