Mining the muti in Durban, South Africa
Lark Gould discovers another side to the South African city of Durban
If you find yourself in Durban, South Africa with nothing to do, trying mixing a little ‘muti’ into your plans and see what happens.
I was on a trip to South Africa to cover the Indaba, a travel expo held every May that shows what’s happening in the land of safaris and acacia sunsets. What was unexpected was the unscheduled day and a half I was given to fritter away, without media handlers, before the work began.
To travel writers in a foreign country a free day like that is akin to finding a wallet full of money and no ID in it, on a remote forest path. I was in Durban, a charming town on the Indian Ocean and I was determined to get my day’s worth. Off I went to find magic in this town.
I followed the golden beach walk that lines the city between its busy port area and bustling hotel section. The walk is lined with cafes and ice cream shops and plenty of colour to break the wide ocean vistas. This is where families go, where lovers meet, where village mamas come to gossip and collect plastic bottles, and where tourists amble. It all comes together with spots of entertainment here and there. I watched a group of Zulu boys, barely old enough to shave, don warrior costumes and dance like devils to the infectious beats of powerful drums. Bystanders all around remained mesmerised, unaware of the passing hat.
But this was Africa, not Brighton Beach or Blackpool, and I wanted to get my full Africa’s worth for my day without handlers. The moment called for magic.
In South Africa, black magic is big. The arts are under the trained hands of ‘sangomas’, who inherit these skills and are held in high regard for what their magic can do. It requires knowledge of ‘muti’, the powers of herbs, bones, carcasses, shells, rocks, dirt and tiny dead creatures with mysteries that come together in potions dictated by the ancestors.
Finding a worthy sangoma is not easy. You cannot just ask for this at a street pharmacy. So off I went to a spot I managed to find only on one map: the muti market.
Out on the edge of the city in an industrial section marked by a confluence of parkways, the muti market was far and forbidding. You had to cross rivers of freeways to get to it and my search came with warnings like: “You do not want to go there alone! Be careful! Watch your things or they will disappear!”
Perfect, I thought. It’s a real muti market. The only other one I have been able to find is in the bowels of downtown Johannesburg, but well worth braving the caveats for the photos alone. And then there was that powder I bought …
I found the muti market in Durban near a roaring underpass on a squalid acre of dirt marked by stall upon stall of muddy mushy slime kept in jars, piles of sticks, mounds of stones, strings of dead rodents hanging from eaves of tin, goat heads rotting in the sun. Women worked in odd rhythms, beating rocks and sticks into powder. Cameras were forbidden here, although I managed to get in a few shots on the sly. There were few shoppers on the path. And I clearly stood out as, well, a tourist. The only tourist.
I stopped at a stall and asked a few questions. The muti man did not speak English but an associate tried to translate. I asked for something that would bring luck or money, and the muti man laughed. He could not help me, despite the wolverine like creatures with teeth hanging from his roof.
However his assistant told me of a true sangoma to whom I could talk and he volunteered to take me there. Her ‘office’ was a few blocks away, near the Victoria Market that sells souvenirs. I followed him into a building that had only one crowded and very slow lift. I thought about the luck it would take to not break down along the 10 floors up.
I passed ramshackle rooms of workers, sewing mostly. Africa sweatshops. Surprisingly, this sangoma spoke some English and welcomed me into her bright, windowed, clean quarters lined with lit candles but no furniture. She led me into a padded room behind a curtain, had me remove my shoes, then picked up what looked like a Colobus monkey’s tail and a box of jacks.
She asked me what I wanted. I told her and she proceeded to put pepper in her nose. A few snorts later the ancestors started talking to her. She threw the jacks – bone fragments, small cockleshells, pieces of metal, a rock with a red string around it.
Your ancestors are with you all the time, she said. Do you feel the weight on your shoulders? They are sitting on you and sometimes they feel heavy. This one, it means you are lucky and successful, don’t you see it is smiling? She pointed to a small spotted conch-like shell that seemed to be cracking a vague smile at me. And this one – she pointed to the red stringed rock – this one is no good and you are trying to run from it.
Yes, perhaps that is true, I told her. She seemed pleased. And then asked me for 100 rand – the equivalent of about US$12. She told me that her potions cost up to 5,000 rand but I could pay her what I wanted to pay. She told me she would make a cream for me that I would have to wear on my face day and night (rub it up, not down, she warned) but it would ensure good luck and make me attract good things.
However, I would have to come back tomorrow. Big mistake in muti land. Something told me that as much as I would like to wear magic attraction cream on my face day and night and watch the waves of luck and wads of money materialise all around me, I would not be coming back tomorrow.
Still, that shell was clearly smiling at me. Sometimes just a little magic is enough.