Muti and Traditional African Medicine
by Jarad Johnson
While at MTSU, I became interested in and wrote about the book Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. As it happens, I have already reviewed this book for Sacred Chickens. You can read the review here.
You may have noticed that sometimes we get a little sidetracked when we review books. Occasionally, this is for political reasons, sometimes we find a thread back to something else we’ve read. However, if you read through all of our posts, the most likely reason is that we got sidetracked by gardens, herbs, and/or witches. Recently, we discussed the use of plants and witchcraft in Horticulture and Witchcraft: Women and the Power of the Earth (which you can read here) an addendum to our review of the book The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (check that out here!) The book’s narrative was shaped by the lore of the female healer and all of the baggage that comes with it. But European and by extension American culture is not alone in ascribing medicinal and magical power to plants. One of the other books we’ve previously reviewed, Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, is set in an entirely different cultural context, and the traditions it references shape the narrative in a different way.
Zoo City is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, but in a version of the city where magic is real. (Much like some of its fictional counterparts set here in the U.S. or in Europe.) In Beukes world, people who are guilty of crimes like the protagonist, Zinzi December, are animalled, or attached to an animal familiar. Zinzi, a recovering drug addict, is animalled to a sloth after accidentally getting her brother killed. Although the familiars give their human associates a psychic power of some sort, there’s a downside. If the animal is killed, so is the human. The animal must be kept near at all times or the human attached suffers illness and pain.
In the background is muti, a South African traditional healing culture. We see it pop up several times throughout the text, but we never really get a sense of what it actually is, other than a vague impression of mysticism and magic. While the author may have intentionally wanted it that way, getting a basic understanding of what muti is can provide some context for the novel as a whole, especially for those of us unfamiliar with it. Besides that, it’s a very interesting topic in its own right. As someone who is interested in gardens, herbs, and witches, I knew I wanted to look further into the practice.
For one thing, it appears that common usage of this healing tradition is still prevalent in Africa, at least to a greater extent than our own herbal healing traditions. Brian King, with the Department of Geography, at Pennsylvania State University says that in South Africa, for example, the use of traditional medicine is, “relatively common,” and there are, “as many as 200,000 traditional healers in the country on whom 80 percent of black south Africans rely on for certain kinds of treatment”. If nothing else, muti clearly holds an extreme cultural significance. In Mzinti, South Africa, as many as, “6 percent of households report collecting medicinal plants,” and, “26 percent indicate that a family member had visited a sangoma for treatment” (King, p. 1176). That’s quite a few people still relying on the traditional ways of healing, and it demonstrates just how ingrained these practices are into the culture. Here in the US we have homeopathic medicine, the resurgence of paganism, and occasional forays into herbalism, but the old ways have not retained quite as much cultural relevance.
Firstly, the obvious question must be asked: What is muti? Robert J. Thornton, medical and cultural anthropologist describes it as natural substances, whether plant, animal, or mineral collected and used by sangomas, or traditional healers. The sangoma will diagnose a patient by, “experiencing the pain of the patient,” (Thorton, p.6). It is a term that encompasses many things, and it’s probably impossible to understand at a glance. Still, a broad overview is possible.
It is true that much of muti is about medicinal remedies, or herbal medicine; in fact, the word muti means medicine. Muti strikes a balance between the mystical and that which is based in reality, which we see with medicinal plants everywhere. There seems to be significance in the fact that the plants are simply there, “given” to us for our use. The use of plants as medicine, of course, dates back thousands of years through every culture on Planet Earth. In fact, almost all the drugs that we are prescribed originated with plants. A common example is Aspirin, or salicylic acid. It comes from the willow tree and was used for thousands of years as a painkiller. Another common example is the poppy which gave us morphine and codeine (and countless drug addicts from the 19th century onwards).
Sangomas and other healers have been using plants that have these specific medicinal compounds for a long time as have ordinary people who have plant knowledge passed down from ancestor to ancestor. Only later are the compounds and the reasons behind their effectiveness known. That is arguably one of the reasons why the study of muti and other indigenous cultures is important and widespread. Medical science is still learning from them. Why they use this specific plant, or these particular herbs is more than likely not just for magical purposes, it’s that through thousands of years of trial and error, these plants have been proven to work against certain ailments.
Muti, much like western herbalism, also has a mystical side. Sangomas defend the body and soul against assaults brought on by witches and bad luck, as well as healing through plants and herbs. In western folklore, the lines sometimes blur…in modern fiction we often look to our past to tease out the factors that caused communities to turn on their healers and declare them witches. Sangomas are not to be confused with witches. South African culture views them as very separate and distinct. Sangomas, unlike witches, are seen as inherently positive, put there to help the community. They essentially give, “protection through magic so that their, “natural,” health and luck can continue,” (Thorton, p.2). We might call them white witches. There is also a spiritual aspect to the healing. Sangomas have been described as, “a channel between the physical world and the afterlife,” and are, “guided by,” their ancestors in their healing work (Fihlani,“Witnessing A South African Healer at Work,”). The practice of muti diverges from the known into spirituality and belief. Sangomas rely on belief and spiritual teachings in large parts of their work, and there seems to always be an element of uncertainty surrounding them.
This aspect of sangoma healing can be difficult to explain, even for sangomas themselves. In her Tedx Talk, “My Life as a Traditional Healer,” Amanda Gcabashe describes her body as a “reflective mirror,” and an “antennae” that feels the sickness of other people, and through communion with the ancestors, helps to identify the problem. That is not something which can be explained logically. As she says says, “I don’t have the words for it, but I know it happens,” There is a blurred line between fact and magic, and ancient customs don’t distinguish the two. Gcbabashe says her practice is a “parallel universe.”
While I certainly have only a very beginning understanding of muti, I would like to revisit Zoo City for a minute. When a book is written, it is in some ways a look into the culture of the author who wrote it. This seems somewhat obvious, but it is important to point out in the context of this novel, especially since Beukes is playing with genre and narrative in the book. South Africa is a very diverse place and in many ways the novel is also fluid and diverse in form. In the context of the book, muti straddles more than magic and medicine, it sits between old and new, holding its place even as the culture changes around it. (If you haven’t already read Zoo City, you can purchase it through an independent bookseller here or through Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There will be spoilers ahead if you want to read it first!)
When Zinzi visits a sangoma in Zoo City, she’s not quite prepared to say what is magic and what is simply coincidence, at one-point hesitating to know what to blame for what happens. “It’s either the storm or the goddamn magic.” Whether it’s real or not, there is a sense of power about the sangoma, something the modern world can’t quite quantify. This uncertainty is probably to the advantage of the sangoma. During Zinzi’s visit, there are beaded curtains and burning herbs, tortoise shells and other animal skeletons. An atmosphere that has been intentionally created, whether for the tourists or as a ruse, it’s hard to say, and dependent upon which sangoma you visit. During Zinzi’s visit, the healer operates almost by instinct and is guided by dreams and visions. The belief system that surrounds the medicinal benefit lies outside the bounds of science, or more accurately modernity itself. The two are in constant conflict.
Because of this, Zinzi’s visit to the Sangoma is especially important. It very much represents the clashing of tradition and modernity. Early on in the novel, Zinzi attempts to dispel the mysticism around muti, of interpreting the ancient ways through a modern lens. When talking about a sick friend, she says that, “proper diagnoses,” are as uncommon as legitimate doctors, but there are plenty of the, “other kind”.
Clearly, she does not see sangomas as being on the same level as doctors practicing Western medicine. She goes on to point out that many of them are, “charlatans and shysters,” making fake medicine from, “crushed lizard balls and aspirin,” pointing out that the aspirin, “does all the work”. Is this obvious to most people? Perhaps, but there’s something important going on here. Zinzi has a point-there are scammers out there, giving people false hope and promising things that will never happen, but she herself is one of them. She writes email scams for an illegal organization and is quite good at it. she often meets with the people pretending to be a victim of some tragedy or the other. Also, she enjoys it, to some degree at first, and when she is confronted with the enormity of her actions, begins to regret it. Her email scams do exactly what they are intended to do- promise things that are never going to happen in the hopes of stealing money from people. Her high position of moral authority is interesting because it indicates to the reader that she doesn’t see herself that way, as a scammer, even as she accuses the sangomas of the same thing.
Zinzi then gives us an important piece of information-her comparison between her old job and muti, literally yet again the compounding of the ancient and the modern. She compares the, “big stuff they promise,” the, “AIDS cures, bigger penises, or death spells, are all placebo and nocebo.” Clearly, Zinzi doesn’t believe in that aspect of muti, and this is perhaps what the Sangoma meant by saying that the modern and the mystic couldn’t reconcile. Zinzi goes on to say that these placebos are, “Not unlike glossy magazines, which also promise a better sex life, a better job, a better you.” Not only is she pointing out to the reader that there’s a lot of illusion and trickery going on in the muti markets, but she is also refuting the sangomas claim somewhat. If muti and those glossy magazines are not so different, why must they be in constant conflict?
Despite Zinzi’s skepticism, she admits that some people have a real talent for healing, and there are people who can make genuine muti, but, “these are rare.” Not to beat the proverbial dead horse, but here again we see the reconciliation of the modern and the ancient. Zinzi can be seen as a representation of modern society, in conflict with the practices of muti, but still acknowledging that at least some part of it is legitimate, and not discounting all of it because of the charlatans involved in it. It cannot be definitively said that it works of course, the love spells and reading of the bones, that is up to the belief of the individual who seeks muti out, but the plants medicines that sangomas provide at least can be said to have merit, since Western medicinal compounds stem from plants. And on the flip side, Zinzi herself is a scammer, and she would not want people to discard her completely because of what she does, would she?
Narratives derive from the contexts in which they originate, and they open doors for us…new ways of thinking, new cultures, new thoughts about gardens and magic. And I’m always up for learning about any of those. Especially the gardens and magic.
Heres a list of links that Jarad used while writing this piece. They are pretty much in the order that they appear. Feel free to click on some and learn about Muti.
Thornton, Robert J “Apotropaic Magic and the Sangoma’s Patient. Healing the Exposed Being: The Ngoma Healing Tradition in South Africa"
Beukes, Lauren. “Zoo City.” Mulholland Books, 2010.
Fihlani, Pumza. “Witnessing A South African Healer at Work.” BBC News,
King, Brian. “‘We Pray at the Church in the Day and Visit the Sangomas at Night’: Health Discourses and Traditional Medicine in Rural South Africa.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 102, no. 5, 2012, pp. 1173–1181..
Tedx Talks. “My life As a Traditional Healer in the 21st Century”
University of Johannesburg. “Episode 4: The study of Botany in relation to muti plants (Uncut).”
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!