Visiting the Muti Shop in Johannesburg

visiting the muti shop in johannesburg south africa

When we were on our street art tour of Johannesburg our guide Jo took us to a famous statue just a few blocks from where Nelson Mandela and O.R. Tambo had their law offices.

We stopped in front of a row of tiny shops selling a variety of things from food to batteries to cell phones. Jo told us all about the history of the neighborhood and how many of the people living there are from all over the world. Portuguese, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian. They came to mine gold as slaves. They came to make other men rich. Some simply came for a better life, seeking opportunity.

And like any tale of immigration, they brought their culture with them and it started to mingle and mix with the local African culture. We stepped into one of the tiny shops whose windows were filled with bones and skins and drums and feathers and met Theo, a second-generation muti man from India.

I wasn’t familiar with the term muti, but have seen its variations around the world – most recently in the form of black magic and voodoo in Morocco where we saw snakes and lizards and birds both living and dead in the market. At first I thought it was just a big open air pet store. But these were not pets.

What is Muti?

  • Traditional medicine - mostly natural products derived from nature, like trees and plants. muti medicine can also take the form of minerals and…biological materials.

  • Origin of the word “muti” - colloquially the word "muti" refers to any traditional medicine that has an unexplained effect, like a miracle.

  • Various uses of muti medicine - Pre and post-natal conditions, protection, warding off evil spirits, healing various wounds and ailments, menstrual problems, pains, infections, and in our case, decision paralysis.

  • Muti killings - Some cultures in South Africa practice a type of ritualized killing in order to excise various body parts to be used in muti medicine.

  • Does muti medicine work - this is entirely up to individuals, of course, but it seems to work for many, or else muti shops wouldn’t exist. Did muti work for us? Read on!

The term muti has a bad connotation (uhhhh, muti killings?!) and has been well maligned by popular media, but in many cases it’s really simply traditional medicine. Not only do people use it because its tradition and they believe it works to cure ailments and to ward off evil spirits, but because western medicine may not be available or is too expensive if it is available.

We chatted with Theo for a little bit while his little boy wandered around behind the counter trying to climb the shelves. It was explained that his shop filled with dried sticks and herbs and minerals wasn’t just for the physical body. He could make mixtures to be used for protection, to draw wealth and love, or to help with ancestors and big life decisions.

 We didn’t have much time here so we vowed to come back because we had some big decisions before us, and we were stumped about how to proceed.

When we returned the next week we explained to Theo that we were stuck on a path with a fork before us. We didn’t tell him specifically, but I’ll tell you now: We were staring down three amazing options for continuing our lives. One was to continue traveling the way we do currently. House sitting and traveling and getting sponsorships and kinda aimlessly exploring the globe. Not a bad way, and one that has served us rather well for the last three plus years.  Well, we would need to modify this in various ways to include more solo travel for each of us and more intentional travel – going to a place that has something specific that we want to learn.

The second path was to settle down somewhere and integrate back into a more stationary life. What that looked like could be any form, really. Jill had applied for several jobs while in Norway and was quite close to getting one in Portland.

The third option was if we got accepted into the Peace Corps in The Republic of Georgia, which we love.

All of them very excellent options, so perhaps you could see the conflict. There literally is no bad choice. No wrong choice. We did lists of pros and cons. We searched our souls and meditated. We put on our drinking caps. We played devil’s advocate. We tore it all down and built it all back up again. In other words, we gnashed our teeth. 

We were stuck.

We needed the help of Muti.

But all we said to Theo was that we were stuck. We were on a path and the path had a fork in it and we were stuck. He knew just what to do. After a quick discussion about ancestors and price (we went for the most expensive mix, which was maybe $12) he opened up a few sheets of newspaper and began pouring ingredients onto it. Fine powders. Chunky powders. Dried looking twig pieces. Bark of toad. Who really knows but Theo?

As he wrapped it all up he told us to burn this right before bed so we breathe it in while we sleep. He provided a little round tablet of charcoal on which to sprinkle a palm full of the mixture and warned us not to set it on glass or wood.

So that’s exactly what we did. I created a safe place (foil folded over numerous times) that was then placed in a high-sided metal pan placed well away from anything flammable and set it aflame.

It smoked and spit and glowed red and we fell asleep. When we woke did we feel any differently? Did we wake clear headed and ready to choose our path?

Photos of our Muti Herb Experiment

I wish I could tell you that we did. We tried it for a few days and nothing happened. Maybe we didn’t do it long enough. Maybe we did it wrong. But no clarity came.

But eventually a few things happened. Jill didn’t get the job for whatever reason. They made a mistake, but I’m sure it’s for the best. We didn’t get accepted into the Peace Corps, but they offered us Liberia, which we turned down flat out. Interesting history, Liberia. Did you know it was founded by “freed” slaves from America in the 1800’s?

So as I write this we are planning our year full of intentional travel. What does that mean?

Instead of taking the more adventurous route and going to Oman, we are going to live in Lisbon for a month. And then we are going to Scotland for a house sit for several months. So we are going slower. Traveling less.

It’s a process, you know? We are going to take the year to define intentional travel. Maybe this is the clarity our experience burning the muti herbs gave us - that we don’t need to figure it all out. We can just go slowly and take the time we need to figure things out.