Monkey Paws, Anyone?

by | May 13, 2011 | Johannesburg, Johannesburg City Centre, Markets/Shopping, Tours | 34 comments

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.


  1. Jeroen

    Really interesting, but sad too. Not just for the bushmeat (monkeys etc) that’s traded here illegally, but the damage that is done. Should you respect traditions that cause suffering and sustain ignorance? Sure, some herbs may have some effect, but many uneducated end even educated people turn here for all kinds of ‘traditional medicine’ (which like ‘alternative medicine’ is not medicine) instead of going to a real doctor, and not curing themselves – and worse, possibly passing it on to others. When belief in this kind of quackery is upheld, people remain gullible and will swallow more nonsense about spells and ancestors (misused by SA’s president to threaten people to vote for the ANC just a few days ago). There was a trial this week of a man, here in SA, who found a 9-year old girl who had been raped, and deciding she was a goner anyway, cut her up for body parts (worth R3000 to a sangoma apparently) while she was still alive. The sooner it stops, with good education and some progress, the better. But maybe I should just grind up a dead bird and calm down!

    • 2summers


      Jeroen, you have some valid points here. But as Jeaniene pointed out when we were chatting at the market — what, exactly, is in the prescription and OTC meds that we all take every day? Do we really know? They could contain a lot of the same things that these herbalists are selling. There is certainly a lot of bad medicine being given out at markets like these. But there is also a lot of crap being prescribed by conventional Western physicians and pharmaceutical companies. The quacks are everywhere.

      Not that I don’t agree with you on many fronts but just playing devil’s advocate.

      • Jeroen

        Sorry to set a critical tone in the responses here Heather 🙂 I’m not a subscriber to ‘big pharma’ conspiracy stories, and any other such tales (isn’t the rapture planned for today by another group of quacks?). As long as you stay away from the bottles of water sold in in pharmacies (oops, I mean ‘homeopathic remedies’) you can trust these medicines have been through rigorous and expensive testing.
        Education and solid science are the only foundations we have for good living. If herbs can be proven to contain chemicals that help us – or if they have a placebo effect that actually helps the patient, I’m all for it. But look around at these markets and you’ll realise it’s mainly quackery. And belief in this stuff will only get money to the quacks, keep people away from real medicine and cures – and will lead to the spread rather than the cure of diseases, which is why I tend to disagree with people like Tilly who suggest we need to respect this aspect of local culture; certainly not if it endangers the lives of others. Another good example: the initiation rituals in the Eastern Cape where every year several to dozens of (poor, uneducated) young boys actually die due to botched circumcisions by unwashed sangoma types. Tradition shmadition!

      • Jeroen

        Oh, sorry to alarm people with plans for this weekend, the rapture is set for next week Saturday.

      • 2summers

        Thanks Janey, I’ll definitely check it out!

      • Dick

        Sade, when one thinks of all the domestic pets that get stolen, then brutally treated to fuel a system that has no real scientific evidence at all

  2. amblerangel

    Having dealt in depth with distribution of AIDs drugs to Africa, there are significant barriers to stopping many of things that you mention. Which also prevent the influx of modern healthcare and ideals. Infrastructure for healthcare delivery such as hospitals clinics etc., doctors and nurses that can deliver it, a population that can understand or even read a clock to know how and when to take medicines that aren’t traditional and therefore explainable by an elder, and that’s just on the healthcare side. I’m excluding the social barriers, governmental issues, and economic problems. Of course there are the culture issues overarching all of it.Until the basic systems are up and running to deliver basic healthcare, people will continue to get it the only way they can- or afford. And by the way- the medicine we were distributing was free.

  3. eremophila

    Congrats on tackling this extremely complex situation, and for including confronting images.
    I believe in herbalism, but not when it involves animal parts.
    There is a darkness to humanity, that seems to surface in some places in greater visibility than in others.

  4. lisa@notesfromafrica

    Fascination post and photos! It’s interesting how the “sangoma – herbalist” roles mirror our western “doctor – pharmacist” roles. We had a muti shop in the main business area of a town I lived in previously. The guy who ran it looked interesting and friendly (i.e. would probably have been quite happy to show a curious white person around), but I never had the guts to go inside.

    I agree with Jeroen on the use of animal and human body parts as being despicable (my word). I have no problem with herbalism – although like most western “alternative medicine” it is also something which I do not believe in.

  5. casinoviembre

    Wow. Thank you for the story. I did not have an idea of what of these markets looked like.

  6. Tilly Bud

    I understand the anger expressed here but we must remember that the people who use the markets live in a different culture to us; we don’t have the right to judge them.

    The answer is education. Attitudes change slowly but irrevocably once people begin to be educated.

    A challenging post; thanks for sharing your discoveries.

    • ian_gappie

      i agree… we are from different cultures and we should respect that. cultural bridges are needed 🙂

  7. ian_gappie

    oh my!!! poor animals.. 🙁 isn’t that illegal? selling animal parts? oww… heart breaking 🙁

  8. 2summers

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. I’ve been gone all day and fallen behind in the debate! But I knew this post would evoke a lot strong opinions and I’m glad that it has. Suffice it to say it was an interesting experience and I’ve tried to present what I saw as accurately as possible. Ian: Yes, selling animal parts is illegal, at least when it comes to animal parts of protected species, which many of these animals are. I’m not sure how the vendors get away with it — maybe the authorities just turn a blind eye.

    • ian_gappie

      ooh…maybe the authorities are having a hard time; or maybe who knows what they are doing. 😉 thanks for sharing this with us! 🙂 this can be an eye opener to a lot of people 😀

  9. Keisen

    These are similar to markets in Asian countries and, although many people are still in the dark about Traditional Chinese Medicine, it has been subjected to rigorous scientific study and, as a result, many “western versions” of these drugs are now coming to the market. The downside of western medicine is it takes what it considers the effective component of these cures, not realizing that the other components may off synergistic or protective support when using the effective component. Hence the many problems the western versions often turn out to have.

    In no way do I support the destruction of wildlife or practices that clearly are wrong(such as murdering people for their parts), but I do think we all have to accept that modern medicine grew out of exactly the same kind of beliefs, practices and markets we are seeing pictured here. More important, there are probably a large number of African cures here which when studied scientifically by ethnopharmacologists will turn out to have huge curative value and ultimately be embraced by western medicine. This has already happened with South American, Austrailian, Native American and Asian traditional herbal cures.

    Western drugs have often in the past (and still often do) come from the slaughter and torture of animals. Think bovine bile salts for gallbladder, hormone replacement from horse urine, the “rabbit test” for pregnancy. Millions of animals are tortured and killed every year for western medicine and medical research, we just don’t see it so plainly as in these pictures.

    Western Medicine is a messy, ugly, and still developing art. Everyday western medical professionals discover something they thought they knew was actually wrong. Look at Fosamax, which was supposed to help make bones strong. Just yesterday the annouced: Oops, it actually destroys them! Drug companies and doctors spent years not admitting this, but patients who were suffering the effects knew.

    Before we can wing off at traditional medicine, we need to take a step back an look at what we today do in our medical research field or study the history of medicine in the West. Remember when opium was prescribed to cure alcoholism? And then morphine was prescribed to cure opium addiction? And then later still, Bayer Pharamecuticals actually sent people free samples of heroin through the mail because modern western medicine at the time thought it would help people kick opium! This is the history of western medicine and pharmacology write large. And people want to work themselves into a lather over this market? Really?

    Remember the western practice of vivesection? The cutting up of live animals so doctors could “learn” about how that body worked? Remember when a broken bone in the west meant automatic amputation? The art of setting bones was developed in Europe by “traditional healers” (who were generally blacksmiths) in the 17th century. But bonesetting was not and accepted “medical” practice until well into the 1870s — and it only became accepted because so many average people prefered to keep their limbs they abandoned those doctors who recommened hacking them off willy nilly (without anethesia!).

    It’s average people that make the most medical breakthroughs. We have aspirin today because Native Americans taught Whites to chew on willow bark. Whites didn’t know about it. But some of them were in enough pain that they ignored their western doctor’s recommended (valueless) leaching, tried the bark, and realised it worked. Western medicine is just as sucky as traditional medicine, even today. It’s all still a process of weeding out the bad cures and practices.

    I respect Western medicine. It has many good points. But I’m able to be open minded and say, yes, it also has bad ones. I remember in 1910 when they were perfoming complete hysterectomies for “moodiness” (as defined by men) in women. I remember the thalidumide (not spelled correctly) babies of the 1960s. I remember when Welsh miners were given vigara because doctors thought it would lower bloodpressure and prevent heart attacks. I’ve seen how many times each year, every year, for decades now, bad western drugs that never should have been on the market, are pulled off because they’ve finally killed too many people and consumer groups protested the FDA into banning them. And let’s not even talk about the medical testing of western drugs that goes on in third world countries such as India.

    Western medicine can be as impractical, irrational, destructive and deadly as traditional medicine. We do a good job of hiding all this from our own view behind the veil of “science” but it’s not the reality. We need to get over ourselves and accept that the medical cultures of non-white or non-western europeans are in many ways as sophisticated and as rigorously tested (through trial and error over thousands of years) as our own.

    We need to look at markets like this one in Joburg and say, “Ok, this is just what I would have seen in a chemist’s shop in Paris or London only a couple hundered years ago. I’m a little weirded out, but there are probably real cures here. I’m going stay, ask questions and find those cures, so I can refine them, and help improve the way traditional medicine in this culture is produced and consumed in this culture so that ultimately the bad practices and valueless medicines can be rooted out.”

    The thing we absolutely must not do is condemn a traditional culture’s medicine system as useless just because we are ignorant about our own culture’s history with medicine or find how a traditional culture does medicine offensive to our pampered modern sensiblities. We cannot throw a baby out with the bathwater. We must respect what others know and can do, because probably they do have many cures and techniques that can contribute to the health of all people everywhere.

    Ethnopharmacology has in the last 25 years become a huge branch of Western study and medicine. Most major Western medical universities offer this as degree topic. Big Pharam companies often underwrite and support this major, as well as hire people in this field because they understand cures can come from anywhere in the world.

    So, no matter how much people want to bash on traditional herbal medicine, think about it, if Big Pharma is putting money into studying these traditional medicines so that someday they might develop them into marketable disease-specific western cures, Big Pharma obviously believes these cultures have developed real cures that western medicine with all its billions of dollars worth of laboratory science and peer-reviewed research hasn’t.

    • 2summers

      Thanks for your comment, Keisen. Really fascinating and thought-provoking.

    • Mike Mellor

      Woo Keisen. The scary part of your comment is that you actually seem to believe what you wrote.


      And Lisa whose comment on ring-barking appears below, I seem to remember that the Forestry programme was abandoned many years ago as being ineffective. Only a few pilot sites were set up and support from herbalists was insufficient to justify their existence.

      “Acceptance of other cultures” is a wussy excuse. “Other cultures” practice female genital mutilation, alcohol and drug abuse, racism, oppression of minorities… hell no I don’t accept that.

      • 2summers

        I agree that practices like female ‘circumcision’ and killing/selling of endangered species are abhorrent and not acceptable for any culture. Nor is drug abuse, racism, or oppression of minorities, which is (and probably always will be) rampant in EVERY culture — Western, traditional, and otherwise. But I do agree with Keisen that there is a fuzzy line between traditional and Western medicine. Neither is all good or all bad and I personally think it’s wrong to reject either one outright.

  10. lisa@notesfromafrica

    According to Willie, traditional herbalists collecting bark from trees in the indigenous forests, were effectively ring-barking them and thus killing the trees. Forestry apparently now has a programme in which they plant certain indigenous species in nurseries or stands, especially for the herbalists to use.

    • 2summers

      Interesting, and promising that people are working together to find solutions.

  11. Mike Mellor

    Some quotes from Wikipedia “Traditional Chinese Medicine”

    1. A broad range of ‘over-the-counter’ medicinals loosely related to TCM are available. Many of these – such as yinchao, a commonly used medicinal for colds and flus – are innocuous, but some may contain dangerous chemicals added as ingredients or byproducts of production, and certain sexual potency medicinals are complicit in the near extinction of animals such as the rhinoceros and siberian tiger.

    2. Rhinoceros horn is used as an antifever agent, because it is believed to “cool the blood”.[140] The black market in rhinoceros horn decimated the world’s rhino population by more than 90 percent over the past 40 years.

    3. Popular “medicinal” tiger parts from poached animals include tiger penis, believed to improve virility, and tiger eyes. Laws protecting even critically endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger fail to stop the display and sale of these items in open markets.

    4. Animal products are used in certain Chinese preparations, which may disturb conservationists, vegans and vegetarians. If informed of such restrictions, practitioners can often use alternative substances.

    The practice of using endangered species is controversial within TCM. Modern Materia Medicas such as Bensky, Clavey and Stoger’s comprehensive Chinese herbal text discuss substances derived from endangered species in an appendix, emphasizing alternatives.

    Poachers hunt restricted animals to supply the black market for such products.

    The animal rights movement claims that traditional Chinese medicinal solutions still use bear bile (xíong dǎn). In 1988, the Chinese Ministry of Health started controlling bile production, which previously used bears killed before winter. Now bears are fitted with a sort of permanent catheter, which was more profitable than killing the bears. The treatment itself and especially the extraction of the bile is very painful, and damages their stomach and intestines, often resulting in their eventual death. Increased international attention has mostly stopped the use of bile outside of China; gallbladders from butchered cattle (niú dǎn / 牛膽 / 牛胆) are recommended as a substitute for this ingredient.

    Medicinal use is impacting seahorse populations.

    Ecological effects are greater than just on the species used in TCM. The worldwide shark population has been devastated to a small fraction of its original population by a growing demand for shark fin soup. Sharks fins are cut off and the live shark which is then dumped back in the ocean to sink and slowly die. Once considered only for rare occasions, with a growing Asian middle class, there is an accompanying demand for shark fin. Sharks take many years to mature to give birth. The problem does not only affect sharks. Since sharks are the top predator in the food chain, the impact on shark populations threatens to throw the entire marine ecosystem out of balance, with an unpredictable outcome.

    2summers your equivocal attitude to these barbaric practices shows you in a very poor light. I beg you to reconsider.

    • 2summers

      Hi Mike, sorry for the delay in publishing your comment. It was mistakenly put into my spam folder.

      I’m sorry that you are offended by my equivocal attitude. I rarely see issues in black and white — I tend to see both sides (or even multiple sides) of every story. It’s not something I can “reconsider” — it’s just the way I am.

      I am as outraged as you are by all of the things you’ve mentioned in your comment above. But that doesn’t mean that I will condemn the entire practice of traditional medicine, especially after visiting the market and meeting the people who make a living there.

      All opinions aside, thank you very much for your comments. This is an important debate and I’m glad people are reading the post and expressing their views.

    • janeyfromjoburg

      Thankfully we do not have to rely on the opinion of some random guy (Mike) with an internet connection to help us make sense of the world.

  12. Fidel

    I threw up in my mouth a little. LOL
    Maybe the opening picture should have been saved for the end 🙂
    Good post though. I learn so much about life in Southern Africa when I read your blog. You really give a lot of great insight.

    Be back to read the comments and maybe give my soap box opinion.

    • 2summers

      Yeah, putting that monkey pic at the top might have been a bit too bold of me. But I figured I might as well let people know what they were in for from the start.

    • 2summers

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ve read some articles about the black market animal trade and the situation is shocking and upsetting. The video that you sent is amazing — very well done and very sad. Thank you for sharing it.

  13. Joburg Expat

    2summers – you know what I love about your blog? The fact that you don’t have preconceived opinions, as in “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.” So many people think they know what’s wrong with the world. You go out and look at it first, which is what every expat should do. I often feel the same way, that maybe I should have a strong opinion, but I don’t. There are always two sides to each story.

    • 2summers

      Thanks so much, Sine. That’s a really nice comment. We can’t help the way we feel, you know? And the truth of the matter is, pretty much every question has more than one answer.

  14. Lu

    Hmm, this puts my “most controversial post” (7 Links) in a completely wussy light! It is a fascinating topic – much like watching a horror movie: you don’t want to look, but you can’t quite tear yourself away from it either!

    • 2summers

      The funny thing is, I didn’t even think much about how controversial this topic was until I started writing the blog post after the fact. While I was at the market, I was just fascinated and curious. (And a little annoyed at having to pay so much money to photograph stuff!)

  15. Bonile Jack Pama

    Thank you very much for the information ! It is useful to a lot of us including those who live in Johannesburg and believe in TMs. if you a list of formal publications on this topic, will you please supply it to me I would like to use it for my PhD studies.



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