The colonisation of Africa and the subsequent apartheid regime that is entrenched in our south African history is partly to blame for the lack of knowledge around African healing, traditions and practices. In 2017, we are still faced with the misconception of what ‘muti’ is and what it is used for, furthermore as a black nation we are still shunned for visiting a traditional healer or a sangoma.
Our own cultural practise of healing through herbs has been molested by western terminology and has become increasingly taboo. Cases of ‘muti’ killings and other atrocities of society that are heralded as muti murders further perpetuate this false assumption of what muti is.
‘Muthi’ or ‘Muti’ derived from the isiZulu word for a tree is an all-encompassing word used to describe a package one gets when coming from a traditional healer or sangoma. It is also used to describe the different ingredients used to make a concoction namely: the leaves or bark of a tree. Muthi is a word used to describe solids, liquids, oils and mixtures and has nothing to do with eating or cutting of human flesh. The traditional healer’s role in society and their communities is that of herbalist, counsellor, psychologist, a library of our root knowledge and keeper of African healing customs and traditions.
The association of African healing with witch-craft, voodoo and black magic is understood from a non-spiritual frame of mind. It is also vital to remember that these terms where used by colonisers who did not wish to understand natives in Africa. This was further enforced by The Witchcraft Amendment Act in the 1880’s. Tasha Davis 2012 (Traditional African Healing-Medicine and Africa) “While the western propaganda machine would lead those who don’t know to believe that African traditional healers are practitioners of witchcraft, it is important to note that African beliefs do not encourage or condone witchcraft, it merely accepts that witchcraft exists in Africa; the same way that a particular religion does not support or condone adultery, but must except that some of its practitioners partake in it”. Some would liken such killings to the serial killer phenomenon in western terminology. “Muti killings” (also called Muthi killings or medicine murder) are instances of murder and mutilation to harvest body parts for incorporation as ingredients into medicine. They are not human sacrifice, nor are they religious in nature. The victims, often very young or elderly (male or female) are most often killed for their soft tissue; eyelids, lips, scrota and labia though entire limbs have been severed; many while the victims are still alive since their screams are supposed to enhance the medicines power. It is said to be believed that medicines made from these killings will increase one’s ability to excel in business or politics, improve agriculture or protect against war” (Tradition African Healing 2012).
The earliest documentation of muti killings in South Africa can be traced to the 1800’s, at the time of great political strife. “Though it is difficult to find precise statistics on muti killings, the earliest documentation appears to be in the 1800’s and in the 1990’s opportunistic assassinations of political opponents were deemed muti killings. Many believe that these killings were, at least in some instances, politically sanctioned at the local level. Mutilation of corpses in medical facilities has also been attributed to muti” Tasha Davis 2012 Traditional African Healing-Muti.
The use of natural herbs has always been a part of the African nations’ healing systems. Depending on which parts of Africa one comes from, the names and methods may vary, but the ethos remains the same. Medicinal use of herbs is sacred knowledge that has been used to heal the mind, body and soul. Sickness and disease is considered an imbalance in one’s body, therefore in Africa it is impossible to divorce African healing and spirituality for they work hand in hand. It is through the spirit that a person is awakened to new ideas and notions, it is through the spirit that each religion communicates with God and it is through the unseen spirit where we communicate with our inner-self. Therefore, the spiritual well-being is just as vital as the physical and the mental.
Africans have long been in communication with the ancestors. Communicating with one’s ancestors requires that one be in-tune with their spirit. As M.G Mogobi (Understanding traditional healing) states, “the ancestors are the ‘living-dead’ compassionate spirits who are blood-related to the people that believe in them”, therefore harmony of mind, body and soul is vital in ancestral communication. Africans have long since believed that ancestors are a gateway to communicating with God, which is why it is important to note that African do not praise ancestors but believe that they are the gate-way to God. They are the delivers of all news.
African spirituality and customs have always played a vital role in the existence of the indigenous African. Although western culture has infiltrated the daily lives of most south Africans, more and more people seek solace and peace of mind and African healing can provide this. The blatant disregard by western colonisers of African healing methods did not kill the tradition, but instead Africans found a way of incorporating African customs with new religions brought into the continent. Such cases are still visible today.
The shunning of African healing methods with the enforcement of the Witchcraft Suppression Act which dates to 1887, with amendments in 1957 and 1970 displayed false notions of how muti is used in Africa. This act was to provide for the suppression of the practice of muti/witchcraft and similar practices and any one practicing healing or claiming to have ‘supernatural powers’ would be considered a criminal and charged. This psychological indoctrination is still visible in black communities today. More and more people became afraid of displaying their true African beliefs from fear of being killed or incarcerated. This lead to pharmaceutical companies harnessing the ancient wisdom of Africa, transforming it into a money-making industry that feeds people drugs to heal and break the body simultaneously. Pharmaceutical drugs contain side effects that cause further dis-ease in the body. Studies show this exists in anti-biotic medications that end up eroding the body’s immunity to the point of resistance. Products such as Paracetamol, Aspirin can be highly addictive, while simple antibiotics are known to cause severe cell harm and DNA change. Yet African natural remedies which are based on plants and natural elements have not been given a true reflection in the past. Some Natural herbs contain psycho-active properties that work hand in hand in the healing and cell rejuvenation process. Most if not all over the counter drugs and prescription medicines contain plant extracts that are known to heal and rebuild body cells. These plant extracts have been in the African Healing system since ancient years.
It is a fact that natural remedies could be playing a more vital role in the health industry. Sangomas (shaman ancestor worship) and Inyangas (herbalists) of Africa still use indigenous practices to heal a substantial number of people in Africa and in south Africa alone. “South Africa’s trade of wild medicines has been estimated at R2 billion per year, based on 200,000 practitioners serving 27 million South African consumers. The traditional medicine service has high consumer demand” (The informal Economy of wild Harvested Traditional medicine in Cape Town). The high demand for medicinal plants in Kwa-Zulu Natal was recorded by Cunningham 1988: McKean 1996 “In Kwa-Zulu Natal over 400 plants are actively traded with an estimated trade volume of some 4300 tonnes per year. As the market is large and dynamic, several segments have developed in response to the user demands and supply of plants”.
The demand for tradition medicine’s is increasing due to various socio -economic factors such as high cost of pharmaceutical drugs, expensive health care services like medical aid, accessibility of plants, intensive harvesting which can lead to local extinction of plants therefore increasing the need to access remote plant populations.
Furthermore Ellis (1986) found that 100% of a random sample of hospital patients in Estcourt area (typical rural area) used indigenous medicine. In peri-urban Bushbuckridge a more recent study estimated that 58% of the clinic patients used indigenous medicine. However, this number is due to the persecution of people suspected of witchcraft in the area, and consequently and unwillingness to admit to the use of indigenous medicine (Mander 1997a).
As an African nation, we need to look back into our history, our ways and traditions to understand fully what our Africanism means and represents. Our collective consciousness is enough to awaken the sleeping giant in each one of us as we start to unlearn some misconceptions of the past and we build to a brighter future in Africa.
M.G Mogobi -Understanding Traditional Healing
Mrs. Ntuli – Tradional Herbalist
Livelihood.org.za “The informal Economy of Wild Harvested Traditional Medicine in Cape Town”
Forestry department “Demand for medicinal plants in Kwa Zulu Natal
Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957
Tasha Davis 2012- Traditional African Healing – Medicine and Africa
- F. Sobiecki – A review of plants used in divination in southern Africa and their psychoactive effects
Personal experiences and knowledge
By Nokwanda Tina Mdluli