8 April 2004
The Museum of Man and Science is overflowing with illuminating exhibits and interactive displays – of a different kind. It’s actually a shop, and provides an explosion of strange sights and smells.
The 66-year-old museum (why it was originally called a museum is lost in time) is a traditional muti or medicine shop in Diagonal Street in Johannesburg’s CBD, and is described on the board above the door as the “The King of Muti, Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies”.
It offers “a face of Africa that has largely disappeared in the push of western civilization and the march of ‘progress’ across the traditional life and cultures of the continent”.
Walking into the darkish interior, you’ll probably bump your head on the ceiling displays: hundreds of bits of dried skins, horns still attached to skins, bits of bones, ox hooves and tails, ostrich heads and feet, strings of beads, seed anklets, and straw hats. Very interactive.
Third-generation owner Peter Naidoo says there’s a cultural reason for having the displays so low. “When people come in they have to bend. This is a sign of respect in African culture.”
Naidoo says his shop “caters for all tribes who live in Gauteng and in Africa”.
Your nose will start twitching with a smell that is hard to define. Although not unpleasant, it’s pungent and earthy and dry, a mix of dried herbs and mild cow dung. Don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with the animal products – all have been dipped in formalin, a preservation medium.
Once you’ve had your fill of the ceiling display, you’ll become aware of a pillar piled with horns and several dried carcasses of monkeys, another one with black and white tyre sandals. Then you’ll notice the counters. One is filled with painted clay pots (used by traditional healers for storing their mixtures) interspersed with metal candelabras.
The front of the counter is decorated with walking sticks and metal “church sticks” (used by priests of Zion veld churches); drums decorate the front of another.
Walk further in and you’ll find spears, knobkerries and shields and, down one side, pigeon-holes jam-packed with dried roots, bits of bark, branches, dried plants and herbs.
The main counter has more walking sticks and knobkerries decorating its front, and rows of intriguing bottles of mixtures behind the counter, on the wall.
Over 1 900 herbs
Naidoo says there are over 1 900 different herbs in the shop, collected from as far afield as central Africa.
The shop’s biggest local selling item is its dried herbs. The walking sticks and drums and other similar items are for sale to tourists, who visit the shop in busloads.
The shop has a constant flow of customers, buying items on the instructions of an inyanga – a traditional healer who uses herbal remedies. They’ll visit the inyanga with a complaint, and he or she will advise what herbs are needed. Once the customer has purchased the mix, wrapped in a sheet of newspaper in the shop, he’ll go back to the inyanga who will prepare the remedy and give it to the customer to take.
According to Naidoo, traditional African belief says that all things – animal, vegetable or mineral – have power, and small pieces of the animal or vegetable will be used in muti or potions to “ward off evil, for personal protection and luck, or to ensure the faithfulness of a lover or the defeat of an enemy”.
“There are in this shop the ingredients to create a muti for almost every malady,” says Naidoo.
“The various barks, roots, twigs, and bulbs, as well as the animal parts, are used, either by themselves or mixed together, to create a paste, liquid or powder which will be effective against illnesses, from mild fevers to serious diseases.”
Sometimes the patient will only drink the froth on the top of a brew. For other remedies the patient will crouch over a boiling brew, with a blanket over his head, and breath in the steam.
Consulting the sangoma
The sangoma, or diviner, is more concerned with the ancestors and keeping them happy. Some illnesses are believed to be caused by unhappy ancestors, who haven’t been respected or acknowledged sufficiently. The sangoma will throw a set of bones, and give advice to the customer on actions to be taken to appease the ancestors.
Some items in the shop are exclusively for use by inyangas and sangomas. Calabashes are used by them to store muti, jackal fur caps are worn by them, as are belts decorated with cowrie shells. The tails of cattle, buffalo and wildebeest are a symbol of power and used as whisks to flick muti onto people, or around a hut or village to ward off disease or evil.
At the back of the shop is a hut, stacked with muti, with bones and mats on the floor. Customers and tourists can make an appointment with a sangoma, who will throw the bones in the hut and offer advice.
Conserving ancient knowledge
Naidoo maintains that 60 percent of all medicines are based on herbs. “It would surprise most people to learn how, of the pharmaceutical products on the shelves of the world today, most have come from information handed down through the traditional healer.”
He says that a lot of this knowledge is being lost, as people become more urbanised and move away from their traditional roots.
“It is a function of the Museum of Man and Science to recover such valuable information, and to study the effects of the various influences now being superimposed upon the traditional societies of southern Africa,” he says.
Naidoo, a Tamil Hindu, also worships the dead. He has a quiet corner of the shop where an incense candle is burning. He says he offers prayers to his late father, Kasavaloo Naidoo.
The shop was established in 1938 by the owner’s grandfather, Moonsamy Naidoo. His son, a medical doctor and homeopath, took over the business. According to Kasavaloo Naidoo’s wife, Moonsamy Naidoo used to work with Raymond Dart, who discovered the skull of the Taung child in 1924 near a town called Taung in the far north of the North West Province.
Wander around the shop, marvel at the items on display, enjoy the new smells, but be sure of your purchase, because as you hand over your money you’ll notice a sign at the counter which reads: “No Cash Refunds”.
Source: City of Johannesburg website