Durban, South Africa
July 29, 2016
“If your husband likes another woman” she said, “You use this mixture here. You must stir it in boiling water, but mind, you must stir with a sharp knife. You must keep repeating the words as you stir. Continue doing it for two months and he will come back to you”.
In my meanderings through the local market in the heart of Durban I had wandered into a shop of traditional medicine. The dim-lit interior was festooned with branches, leaves, bags and bottles. Called umuthi, they hung from the rafters, from nails driven into the walls, stuffed into cubbyholes and heaped in crates on the floor. But bringing back an errant husband (or wife) is not the only use. There are spells which can bring good health, increase fertility, get rid of enemies, inflict boils on the particularly annoying ones and incite love in the bosom of a difficult mother-in-law. She was not a Sangoma, or a traditional healer, but her father used to be one. But she had been helping him all her life and knew which herbs to use.
And it is not only herbs that are used. Wandering past the market I saw stalls – some are ramshackle ones made of cardboard shored up with tin and plastic sheets. Some were simply a tarp laid out on the pavement. Bones and hooves lay on the tarp, some crushed up into buckets, some mixed with intestines and fat and sold in little vials. There are snake-skins, dried snake flesh, porcupine quills and elephant dung. There are dead birds – black feathers of dead crows seem to be in particular demand. Snails and the odd worm is also on display.
A couple of days later I did meet a Sangoma. She was buying some of the vials and seeing my interest stopped to give me her phone number. Makhosi Xaba Nombuso studied traditional medicine and clearly does well for herself. She and her husband were in a shiny new car, at the market to stock up on vials she had run out of.
Yet another at a village some distance from Durban was of a different mold. Wearing a beaded hat, she beamed at me with all of her three teeth. “Oh yes,” she said, “Many people come to me. They come because the hospitals cannot cure them. Come to my house and I can make all your troubles go away.” I almost asked if she could make her teeth grow again but refrained.