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The Muthi Pharmacy

Taxis vie for customers, vendors compete for attention, people are working, shopping, walking, talking. It is a typical busy street in downtown Durban. And if you step into the Commercial Herbal Centre you will find yourself inside a typical African "Muthi" apothecary.

Inside, it is as if all the movement, colours and textures of the street have been swept up and bottled and bundled into the shop. Jars line the shelves in a rainbow of remedies: bundles of roots, piles of bulbs, sticks and bark, all with an allotted function. Scrape this, boil that, calm the spirits, or reduce the swelling. Animal, vegetable and mineral: all form a bizarre collage from nature.

These are the tools of the trade for the African Sangoma or witchdoctor, and other traditional healers. The Sangoma is "called" to the art of healing and is closely connected with the ancestors and the spiritual world in which they live. Diagnosis of an illness or identification of a problem is usually done as a clairvoyant or in a trance. Bones are thrown and the ancestors or spirits are called on to aid in the process of divination.

The Sangoma is trained to know what works to fix the soul as well as the body. The basis of belief is that spiritual ailments are as common as physical ones and that these two are often inseparable; both need to be treated for a cure to take place.

This is also the place to come to gather your strength, appease your ancestors, or get your own back on an enemy.Another traditional healer is the lnyanga, or herbalist, who is involved in a simpler process of diagnosis and prescription of the necessary medicine or "muthi". There are cures on these shelves for everything from sinus to sexuality, and fertility to flatulence.

In the Muthi apothecary the plants are usually associated with healing the body's aches and pains while the animal skins and dried organs are more often used as amulets. For example, the roots of the Mukhukhu tree are cooked and the liquid is then drunk to increase fertility. On a more practical level, the wild ginger plant is used for bronchial complaints, while the aloe is an effective laxative. In another vein, it is a good idea to wear a snakeskin around the wrist to ward off the meddling mayhem of the thokoloshe (a mischievous gnome-like creature who does more harm than good).

It is the correct combination of the physical and the spiritual that makes a Sangoma successful, and the cures that can be found on these shelves are often empirical rather than mystical. Their knowledge is steeped in history and tradition as well as a rigorous apprenticeship. While often dismissed as witchcraft and superstition, the healing powers of the Sangoma are being looked at with renewed interest as society opens itself up to nature's alternatives.

There is an acknowledgement that what is strange and foreign is not necessarily sinister, but instead comes out of an ancient understanding of the healing properties that the earth can afford us.