Zulu Muthi Market

A dead, dried-up monkey hangs from the shop, next to a gaping set of shark jaws.

Strips of dried animal skin dangle in a row, and as I walk past, I guess at each remnant’s former animal life: a crocodile, an antelope, a vulture, and several long black mambas.

Beneath the display, on a hand-constructed table, there’s a kind of discount bin of dried animal parts: broken horns, fuzzy pelts, lizard feet and rodent heads. One whiff smells a lot like very dead animals, but these are actually all ingredients for muthi — traditional Zulu medicine.

Durban’s muthi market is one of the largest in South Africa and represents a key aspect of Zulu culture: using the magical qualities of plants and animals to cope with the supernatural world around us.

Ailments are both physical and spiritual, natural and supernatural. Whether you are afflicted by an earache or an unknown evil curse, muthi can solve your ills. All you need to know is the right kind of muthi.

Umlomomnandi is a root that when you chew on it, blesses you with quick wit, a poetic voice and a silver tongue. “If you have this with you in court, you will surely be acquitted!” I am told.

Likewise, every chopped-up bit of bark and root has great magical qualities, and I am amazed by the sheer number of medicine available in this vast outdoor marketplace:

After you take a dose of Istunzi, people will respect you. Iqonqo rids your surrounding of evil spirits. Izinyamazane soothes crying babies, and protects them through the night from evil design. Uvulakuvalike will help a struggling business, and Umuthi Wenhlahla brings good luck.

Knowing what to take and how to take muthi, one consults the inyanga and sangoma. Inyanga are traditional Zulu doctors, or “medicine men” — healers who attribute their trade from father to son. Sangoma are more spiritually-inclined, fortunetellers and diviners (the proverbial “witch doctors”), who offer guidance and can sniff out any evil that may be troubling you.

Most of the people selling muthi in Durban are neither inyanga or sangoma, but are merely herbalists who fill orders. Most of the medicine I saw was made from chopped-up bark or roots. Usually, patients are counseled to make a brew from it, which they ingest and then vomit back up again. They might also steam their muthi and breath in the fumes, or bathe in it.

As a traveler, visiting Durban’s muthi market is a mind-blowing experience, and I am mostly struck by the similarities with aspects of Zulu medicine and the Vodou practice I witnessed back in New Orleans last year. The fact is, African beliefs and medicine have traveled across the world and still play a very real role in many societies today. Even here, in the shadow of Durban’s big city skyscrapers, the buying and selling of traditional muthi is a big business and Zulu rituals are as much a part of city life as surfing and shipping.

I end up buying two bags of muthi: some fuchsia-colored good luck medicine, and a very large concoction mixed just for me, consisting of many different kinds of tree bark, blended specifically for my own personal magical needs.

I look forward to enjoying the results.

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A bag of good luck medicine in the Durban Muthi Market (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)