Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Wednesday, 22 June 2011 12:46 UK

A visit to an African traditional healer

A sangoma (traditional healer)

By Stewart McLean
Johannesburg

Animal skulls, tree bark, herbs, roots and bubbling pots - all have a role in southern Africa's traditional medicine, which is flourishing even in Johannesburg's central business district.

When I enquire about a cure for my cold, I am not expecting to be handed the head of a deadly black mamba snake.

But that is exactly what Fikile Sikhali pulls from a plastic supermarket carrier bag as I describe my recent symptoms.

Pointing to the reptile's fangs, gleaming proudly from a lifeless jaw that has been propped open with a match stick, she shows how me to grind the snake's head in a steel pestle and mortar, sprinkle the acrid grey powder on my hand and lick it off to absorb its nutrients.

The Faraday market
Faraday market is one of Johannesburg's two main muti markets

Within hours, she says, I will feel stronger, healthier and better equipped to fight off that lingering sniffle.

The unusual prescription is one of hundreds given every day at the Faraday muti market in Johannesburg - a colourful, ramshackle collection of more than 100 stalls run by traditional healers from across South Africa and its neighbouring nations.

Alongside the snake heads, Fikile's stock includes the skins of various mammals, cow bones, sheep trotters, and even the entire skull of a buffalo.

Each item, she tells me, has its own particular use and value in the world of muti - the traditional medicine practised widely across southern Africa.

And rising from her rickety bench - dressed in modern clothes and with her face vividly daubed with a layer of orange clay - Fikile eagerly introduces me to the offerings on the other intriguing stalls nearby.

Life force

One man's table is piled high with sacks of ground-up tree bark for curing headaches and impotence.

The Traditional Healers Association claims to have almost 30,000 members who each see, on average, 30 patients a day

Another is selling recycled whisky and Coca-Cola bottles filled with glowing liquids.

And his neighbour has hanging the huge skin of what once was a 20-foot (six-metre) python - to be ground into a powerful powder which can improve one's internal life force.

The Faraday stalls form one of two established muti markets in Johannesburg.

Both serve the needs of thousands of inyangas and sangomas - the local words for traditional healers - from the multitude of tribes which form the Nguni societies, including in South Africa the Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi groups.

For the uninitiated, the stench of rotting animal carcasses in the sweltering heat, the presence of several thousand persistent flies and the lack of any conventionally-trained practitioners could make both sites seem unlikely places to seek medical assistance.

Certainly, to visitors, the thronging markets can seem decidedly otherworldly and unsettling.

Even after two years living in South Africa, I definitely feel like a foreigner as I watch the exuberantly-dressed sangomas adorned with strings of shells and bright strips of cloth shopping for the vital ingredients needed to treat their patients in the country's rural areas or densely-packed townships.

Good money

Yet the dilapidated stalls lie inside Johannesburg's Central Business District - the bustling city centre which contains the skyscrapers and office blocks of Africa's richest city.

Sangomas at Faraday market
There is a traditional healer in almost every community

And the presence of the healers' markets at the heart of modern Joburg is striking proof that traditional medicine in South Africa is anything but a marginal industry or sideshow.

The country's healers are strictly regulated by law and represented by the Traditional Healers Association which claims to have almost 30,000 members who each see, on average, 30 patients a day.

It says around three-quarters of South Africans use traditional medicine each year, and claims the number doing so has increased considerably over the last five decades - suggesting that as the country's population has grown so too has the faith in the healing techniques of the ancestors.

The healers themselves, by all accounts, make a good living in a country where millions survive on a pittance.

Counselling

There are concerns in some quarters about patients, including pregnant mothers who choose to remain disengaged from state-run sources of treatment.

But those who support the vibrant trade maintain traditional medicines - when taken in conjunction with a traditional lifestyle - can be a solution as powerful as anything the multinational drugs companies can produce.

And in a country where public healthcare for the poor can be patchy or too distant, the presence of traditional healers in virtually all local communities means that someone is, at least, on hand to offer guidance and counselling.

Perhaps the biggest current threat to the industry, like so much in the world, is the global economic crisis.

Back at the Faraday market stall-holder Mamphumelo Dladla admits trade recently has slumped.

"We used to have many customers a day," the Zulu salesman tells me from his perch on an upturned crate.

"Now people do not have jobs and the business is far less," he says.

"At the moment many people are so poor they cannot afford treatment."

Surrounded by snake heads, animal carcasses and pots bubbling with unidentified liquids, that remains the most unsettling thought of all.

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