a view into the sordid life i lead

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Muti Museum

Pretoria Backpackers has a "township tour", which includes some of the famous landmarks in Jo'burg. Kolbe dropped me off in the morning, after we had some discussions about whether De Klerk got too little credit and Mandela too much for the dismantling of the Apartheid system. Kolbe, obviously, felt that De Klerk is not credit enough. I'm not sure if his opinion is colored with his Afrikaner background or not, and I decided that getting into an in-depth debate on the topic might get us thrown out of their place on the last day there!

Erasmus was our tour guide for the trip. I figured that several people would be interested in the tour, but there were only 3 of us - Sean, a kid from Canada who was currently working for an NGO in Uganda, and Katherine, a German student who was doing some non-profit work with an institution in Jo'burg while she had a 6 month hiatus from her university. Erasmus tells us his mother is an artist traveling around Europe. He tells us that she has a gallery in Pretoria, but he does not remember the name of it. Erasmus has the radio tuned to some really cheesy pop station - John Cougar Mellencamp, Cindy Lauper, A-Ha come blasting out. At first I think it's for our benefit, but he's singing along happily, and I start worrying. There are some very good kwaito and afropop stations in Pretoria. But Jacaranda FM, this cheesy US-pop station is what the locals listen to. It's the same thing the world over - American music is what's cool.

We pick Katerina up at a McDonald's in JoBurg where a bunch of white guys are asking for money for some charity at a large intersection. There's no apparent reason for giving them money - there's no clear charity sign or any indication of where the money will go. Erasmus says it's a con that goes on all the time - people set up shop pretending to be collecting money for some good cause even tho' there's no indication of what the cause is.

We drive around Joburg a bit, then hit a street filled with Indian merchants. Erasmus pulls up outside a chemist shop on a narrow street close to downtown Joburg.

The sign says Naidoo Medicals. There are two storefronts, both with Naidoo on the banner, right next to each other. One is a regular chemist, like you'd see in India, dispensing bandaids, listerine, and the usual assorted drugs. The other's sign says "Museum of Man and Science, The King of Muti, Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies". It has animal hides, incense, drums, antlers and assorted bark and twigs all over. Basically like a traditional ayurvedic herbs store in any city in India, except for the animal parts. Go here for a description and history of the Muti Museum (pics also).

The place is too hard to describe - just go to the link above. The Naidoo's are of Indian descent. I walk up to the counter to ask the manager about the place and notice that there's a picture of Kali, the Indian goddess, and a little puja setup with Ganesh and a couple of other Hindu gods, with a ghee lamp. I talk to the lady who runs the shop (presumably Mrs. Naidoo) and it turns out they are Tamil! I wanted to get a full discussion going with her, but it turns out that the rest of the gang on my tour is really not that interested, and are ready to move on! The Muti Museum is a regular stop on pretty much every Joburg tour. It's not a high point, but it gives you a very interesting perspective on integration into a community, and what's really going on in South Africa.

I ask Erasmus about whether people consider it to be a novelty or they actually believe in "muti" and use it regularly. He believes in it and thinks it has a lot of value, but I can't really get much more of an in-depth answer from him. Seems like he's just running his tourist spiel! It turns out that the idea of using traditional/herbal medical treatments is very deeply rooted in (black) South African culture. It's just not very apparent when you're traveling around the country because it seems like people try to distance themselves from it, for the same reasons as in India and elsewhere - it's thought to be quackery by the west.

There's a dark side to "muti" also - human sacrifice. There were a bunch of murders in the UK a few years back (2002, I think) that were reported to be linked to "muti" rituals. It's something I need to look more deeply into.

It's weird to me that the most important herbal mendicant in the largest town in South Africa is a Tamil Indian!


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