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South African Healers Burgeoning

Traditional medicine offers cures, hope and jobs for thousands. But some conservationists worry about depleting plant species.

October 27, 2002|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

DURBAN, South Africa — On an unfinished freeway onramp that juts out of the Durban skyline and into nowhere, people come searching for cures to an assortment of maladies.

Loveness Bhengu, a 22-year-old secretary, wants a special bark to unblock her sinuses. Mashala Mkhiza needs some pineapple flowers to make a poultice for his teenage son's swollen arm. And Lewis Mkhezi is on a quest for the ultimate remedy: He is looking for the vendor who claims his potion of tree bark and hyena tails will cure AIDS.

In just a few years, the muti -- or traditional medicine -- market on Warwick Junction has exploded into an herbal superstore, providing tonics, hope and jobs for tens of thousands of South Africans. The United Nations has cited the muti market as a successful example of small vendors playing a major role in urban renewal.

The trade in bark, leaves and other exotic flora has boomed so much, in fact, that conservationists now fear it's threatening many plant species across southern Africa.

Only a few years ago, street vending was illegal in Durban. But city officials relaxed their rules after the unemployment rate soared past 30%. Muti vendors popped up like mushrooms across this Indian Ocean port city of 4 million people.

About 80% of South Africa's black population uses traditional medicine, according to Myles Mander, an economist with the Institute of Natural Resources, a research group associated with the University of Natal.

The 100,000 traditional healers nationwide who dispense cures from medicinal plants make muti a $200-million-a-year business, according to Mander.

Nowhere is the trade more vibrant than in KwaZulu-Natal province, where for centuries the Zulu people have relied on herbal remedies to soothe their colds, reduce their fevers and treat their diseases. Even as more people have moved to urban areas, tradition and a lack of affordable health care have sustained the muti trade.

About 30,000 jobs are created by the muti trade in KwaZulu-Natal, according to Mander, who has studied the business for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

"This is how I feed my children and grandchildren," said MaDlamini Khumalo, a prominent vendor and traditional healer at the Warwick Junction market.

Khumalo and others insist that their herbs and concoctions are effective. "I've been to a hospital only three times: to have babies," she said. "This medicine is good enough for me."

As the muti market has become more popular, more people come seeking medicine for various ailments. A common complaint is HIV/AIDS.

Khumalo said she simply refers clients to the hospital. But not far from Khumalo's stall, Beaty Mkhize boasted that she has helped many AIDS patients with her special ishongwe medicine, a concoction of three barks.

"I have a little something for everything," said Mkhize, pointing to her small mounds of green plants and dried tree barks. Raising a dried twig, she said matter-of-factly: "This could really help people with indolence."

Studies have shown that at least one-third of 700 plant species traded in South Africa have some medicinal effects, according to Geoff Nichols, a horticultural consultant with the Durban local government. Some also boost the body's immune system, he said.

Some muti remedies for allergies and prostate cancer have even been adapted by European and American drug companies, Mander and others say. But Khumalo and other muti vendors are wary of Western "bio-pirates," who they fear will steal their remedies, turn them into pharmaceuticals and put traditional practitioners out of business.

While the muti boom has been good for the economy, some conservationists are concerned about its effect on the environment.

A few years ago, researchers observed that over-harvesting had led to the disappearance, in some areas, of several plant species, including Natal wild ginger and the pepper-bark tree, used to treat colds and allergies. Muti dealers must now leave KwaZulu-Natal to forage in the forests of Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique for rare plant stocks.

As many species become scarce, conservationists are devising ways to conserve wild plant populations. Outlawing the indigenous medicine trade is impractical, Mander said, because replacing it would cost more than half of the $370-million annual health budget of KwaZulu-Natal.

So scientists and muti dealers have been working on other approaches.

Mander's colleagues at the University of Natal are compiling the first encyclopedia of medicinal plants traded in South Africa. The book will be used by muti dealers, conservationists and hospital workers who often treat patients who ingest toxic plants, they say.

A team led by Nichols has been painting the bark of some trees to prevent plant gatherers from harvesting it. Nichols also has worked to establish the Silverglen Medicinal Plant Nursery, a two-acre plot on which horticulturists grow the top 20 plants traded at Durban's muti market.

Nichols often invites muti dealers to see how to grow their own medicinal plants rather than harvest them from the wild. Some traditional healers have grumbled that cultivated plants are less potent than their cousins in the wild, he said. But many are supporting the conservation efforts, recognizing they must protect their livelihoods and their traditions.

"Most realize that this is the way to go," Nichols said. "If we don't work together, we could lose a large part of our culture."

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