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Medicine Shop Casts a Spell on Visitors

South African locals and tourists come to seek cures or just to marvel at the bones, roots and other items that many rely on.

October 05, 2005|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Plunging into the dim little shop through a curtain of perfumed smoke is like tumbling into the pages of a Harry Potter book and finding yourself in the hidden alley in London where he acquired his caldron, wand, potion ingredients and spell books.

Two baboons bare their teeth in hideous death's-head grins. Hooves, horns, bones, skulls of various shapes and sizes, snakeskins, eagle beaks and talons, animal tails, ostrich heads and bird nests all hang so low from the ceiling that tall customers reflexively bend. Peter Naidoo, the shop's third-generation owner, arranged his displays that way to elicit a bow on entry, as a sign of respect.

The incense, designed to ward off evil thoughts, quickly burns out and the fragrance is overtaken by an earthy odor that wrinkles the nostrils.

A man squats near a split elephant bone, sifting through one of many piles of half-decayed vegetable matter that will go into potions. Another assistant chops chunks of dry wood into small pieces, to be slotted into large pigeonholes containing roots and branches from various trees and bushes.

A row of jars behind one counter contains small squares cut from the pelts of animals: lions for power, oxen for strength, baboons for cunning.

A big jar of dice resembles something from an old-fashioned sweets shop. But this isn't a place for children. This is a place for sangomas, dismissed by some as witch doctors but sought out by the majority of South Africans as traditional healers.

And you're not on Harry Potter's beloved Diagon Alley, but on Diagonal Street, a rundown road in central Johannesburg.

Customers trickle into the shop soon after opening time, 7:30 a.m., and tourist buses arrive in a stream a couple of hours later. On Friday mornings, beggars pass through in a steady flow, each pocketing a coin handed from the counter.

The shop is a source of charms and ingredients for potions and medicines, or muti, prescribed by sangomas.

According to tradition, sangomas use psychic and supernatural powers, contacting dead ancestors and casting bone tablets to divine a person's maladies and prescribe cures. They treat not only physical ailments but psychological ills and even misfortune in love or business. People consult sangomas when a relative dies, or even if they are planning a long journey.

In African ritual, the perceived power in plants and animals is used to treat illnesses, ward off evil, bring luck, offer protection or guarantee the fidelity of a spouse or lover.

South Africa has about 200,000 sangomas. According to the country's Health Ministry, 70% of the population regularly consults them. Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in June that 80% of patients visit traditional healers before going to state hospitals or clinics for care.

The South African Parliament last year approved legislation that recognizes and regulates sangomas and herbalists.

One regular customer at Naidoo's muti shop, Ruth Mahlobo, 59, popped in for some powdered Kalahari devil's claw (an intriguing name, but it's actually a desert plant, Harpagophytum procumbens, with medicinal properties). She planned to burn it and hold her 2-year-old granddaughter, Sphokazi, in the smoke.

"It's just making her strong," she said, explaining that the child was going to be traveling a long way. She said she had more faith in traditional medicine than conventional Western therapy.

"It's not powerful for everything, but in some things it's good," she said. "If I have a cough or a headache or stomachache, I'll come."

Another woman came into the shop to buy plants to boil in a widow's potion for her mother, whose husband had died several days earlier. Widows must drink the potion for a year to cleanse themselves, according to tradition.

Fikile Kumalo, 23, came to buy some seeds and incense to be burned at a Methodist church conference. "I'm a Christian, but I believe in traditional medicines," Kumalo said. "I think there's quite a relationship between Western medicine and traditional African remedies."

The shop has a consulting room in the back, with a mat on the floor -- along with bones, tablets and dice -- where a sangoma sees patients and recommends cures. But most customers bring a list of ingredients from their own sangoma, who will brew up a potion.

Muti medicine has a dark side in Africa. Slayings to extract body parts are common, and the victims are often children because organs of virgins are considered purer. The victims' screams are supposed to attract the spirits, thus enhancing the medicine's power. Johannesburg even has a police unit devoted to muti killings.

Naidoo said his shop's main trade was herbal cures but that it also attracted some customers interested in black magic -- mainly young white people.

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