Warning: This post includes disturbing images. No joke.

Two friends of mine from D.C., Tricia and Ingrid, paid me a visit this week. I wanted to take them somewhere interesting in downtown Jozi, and Marie-Lais from the Melville Visitors Centre recommended the Faraday Muti Market. Marie-Lais’ friend, Jeaniene Dekker, is an artist who leads informal tours of the market. (Check out Jeaniene’s website.) I took Marie-Lais’ advice and scheduled a tour with Jeaniene.

To call the muti market “interesting” is the understatement of the century.

Monkey paws and other animal parts for sale at the muti market. Joe and I debated about whether or not to include this photo in the post. I finally decided I couldn’t leave it out.

Muti is a Zulu term for traditional medicine. Muti can be made from plants, roots, bark, or animal parts. Africans use muti to treat every illness and medical condition imaginable — from cancer and HIV to colds and erectile dysfunction. Muti are also used for good luck charms or (gulp) witchcraft and black magic.

For decades, the muti market was a warren of open-air stalls under the M1 highway. A few years ago it moved to a more permanent location next to the Faraday taxi rank, which has made the market safer and more formalized.

This covered area is just one section of the market, which includes hundreds of stalls. 

I was only at the market for a couple of hours, so please understand that this post is written from the point of view of someone who knows next to nothing about African traditional medicine or the people who work and shop at the market. There are aspects of this market that people (myself included) will find offensive. There are sights that make you want to close your eyes and smells that make you want to cover your nose. But Faraday is also a captivating place. It’s an important part of Joburg’s culture and I’m eager to share what I experienced there.

A selection of products at one of the market stalls. Each stall sells dozens of powders, plants, pastes, and parts. The brown paste in the green container is female lubricant — a traditional version of K-Y jelly.

You can’t photograph a stall without asking permission first. Some vendors say no. Most say yes, but only for a fee. The going rate seems to be R20 (about $3). I suppose it’s fair — the vendors pay rent for their stalls and they earn very little money. It makes sense that tourists should pay for photographs, since they’re unlikely to actually buy much. It can get expensive though, especially if you want to take lots of pictures.

We came upon a man chopping roots in the afternoon sun. We asked his boss if we could take photographs and she told us it would cost R20. After we paid up, the chopping guy said he wanted an additional R20 to be photographed in the act of chopping. When we said no, he stopped chopping and walked away.

That’s the cranky non-chopper on the right. The brown wreaths are made of wild sage, which people burn in their homes to cleanse the air. It smelled wonderful. The tower in the distance is the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa.

This guy asked me to photograph him as I walked past. Joe says this is a baboon skin.

The skin of a very large African python, surrounded by cowrie shells and other sundries.

Jeaniene explained that contrary to popular belief, most of the vendors at the muti market are not sangomas (traditional healers), but herbalists. Before coming to the muti market, a customer consults with a sangoma, who diagnoses the patient’s ailment and prescribes a treatment. The customer then goes to an herbalist at the market and procures the medicine recommended by the sangoma.

Felicia was a customer at my favorite stall at the market, which is run by an herbalist named Michael. Felicia told me that she works for the police force in downtown Joburg. I’m not sure what condition Michael was helping her with.

Michael was friendly and open with me, and he was one of only two stall owners who didn’t charge me for photographs. (I gave him some money anyway.) His stall was tidy and smelled like the forest. We chatted for a while and then he took me to the corner to show me something.

I’m not sure what kind of bird this is, or what it’s for. Michael told me it costs R120 for the head or R200 for the whole bird. Jeaniene says the animal parts are generally ground up into powder and consumed in liquid form.

When it first opened, artists were commissioned to create murals and other artwork around the permanent market site. Traditional healers are often criticized for advising HIV-positive patients to use traditional medicine in place of antiretroviral treatment. This mural suggests the two can work together — I hope the message gets through to the people using the toilets.

I’m glad we took this tour and I hope to visit the Faraday Muti Market again. I’m already kicking myself because I forgot to have my fortune told, which would have been really cool.

I don’t like thinking about where the animals come from. I’ve left out some of the most graphic carcass photos I took, and I’m sure there was a lot more that I didn’t see. Jeaniene says you can buy lion hearts at the market, and even rhino horn. Joe says lots of the plants used for muti are endangered as well.

Should I feel outraged by what I saw at this market? Is it wrong that I was fascinated, and that I empathized with the people I met there? I really don’t know.

Mr. Dlamini, whose stall is right at the entrance to the market, has a special aura about him. I asked him for a picture just before we left. He’s holding a portrait that Jeaniene took of him.

Check the Faraday Muti Market out yourself if you get the chance, and let me know what you think.

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