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A visit to an African traditional healer

By Stewart McLean Johannesburg
Published online:
Wednesday, 22 June 2011

African healer

Animal skulls, tree bark, herbs, roots and bubbling pots - all have a role in southern Africa's traditional medicine, which is flourishing even in Johannesburg's central business district.

When I enquire about a cure for my cold, I am not expecting to be handed the head of a deadly black mamba snake. But that is exactly what Fikile Sikhali pulls from a plastic supermarket carrier bag as I describe my recent symptoms. Pointing to the reptile's fangs, gleaming proudly from a lifeless jaw that has been propped open with a match stick, she shows how me to grind the snake's head in a steel pestle and mortar, sprinkle the acrid grey powder on my hand and lick it off to absorb its nutrients. The Faraday market Faraday market is one of Johannesburg's two main muti markets Within hours, she says, I will feel stronger, healthier and better equipped to fight off that lingering sniffle.

The unusual prescription is one of hundreds given every day at the Faraday muti market in Johannesburg - a colourful, ramshackle collection of more than 100 stalls run by traditional healers from across South Africa and its neighbouring nations. Alongside the snake heads, Fikile's stock includes the skins of various mammals, cow bones, sheep trotters, and even the entire skull of a buffalo. Each item, she tells me, has its own particular use and value in the world of muti - the traditional medicine practised widely across southern Africa. And rising from her rickety bench - dressed in modern clothes and with her face vividly daubed with a layer of orange clay - Fikile eagerly introduces me to the offerings on the other intriguing stalls nearby. Life force One man's table is piled high with sacks of ground-up tree bark for curing headaches and impotence.

Another is selling recycled whisky and Coca-Cola bottles filled with glowing liquids. And his neighbour has hanging the huge skin of what once was a 20-foot (six-metre) python - to be ground into a powerful powder which can improve one's internal life force. The Faraday stalls form one of two established muti markets in Johannesburg. Both serve the needs of thousands of inyangas and sangomas - the local words for traditional healers - from the multitude of tribes which form the Nguni societies, including in South Africa the Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi groups. For the uninitiated, the stench of rotting animal carcasses in the sweltering heat, the presence of several thousand persistent flies and the lack of any conventionally-trained practitioners could make both sites seem unlikely places to seek medical assistance. Certainly, to visitors, the thronging markets can seem decidedly otherworldly and unsettling. Even after two years living in South Africa, I definitely feel like a foreigner as I watch the exuberantly-dressed sangomas adorned with strings of shells and bright strips of cloth shopping for the vital ingredients needed to treat their patients in the country's rural areas or densely-packed townships.

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