Oh Mai Mai, Johannesburg Marketplace Keeps the Healing Real

Tucked away under a highway in downtown Johannesburg, the Mai Mai market is a hidden world where traditional African healers ply their trade.

Visitors can take in the heady sight of stalls packed with animal skins and strong herbs used to ward off evil and bring good health. It is also a great place to pick up bead work and is known for its sandals handmade from rubber tires.

Dubbed "Ezinyangeni" - the place of healers, the Mai Mai market is dedicated to traditional African medicine or "muti."

The ill and the unlucky come to consult its herbalists or "inyangas" and its diviners known as "sangomas" who communicate with ancestral spirits and read the future by throwing bones.

For some, "muti" is associated with quackery and witch doctors. There are gruesome "muti" killings, and crooks, preparing to commit a crime, are known to take part in rituals to make them invincible.

For most, though, it is the practice of an ancient art of healing that is passed down to a chosen few initiates.

But visitors, be warned, there are some strange and macabre sights.

Skins and skulls line the eaves above your head as you walk along the rows of red-bricked buildings. There are snakeskins, crocodile skins, dozens of deer hides and the misshapen skulls of a few cows. Look carefully and you will see the odd (and illegal) leopard pelt, even the stretched gray fur of a baboon. Off one corner hangs a buffalo skull with a broken horn.

Bones yellow with age, bark and earth-red roots frame the windows and doorways of the little shops. Their shady interiors are lined with shelves of downy herbs. On front counters are rows of stoppered bottles filled with brown powders and nameless other dried organisms.

There is the lingering smell of "impepho," a plant dried into coils and burnt for spiritual cleansing.

The traditional healers are a tight-knit community and aren't always friendly to strangers. Communication can also be difficult as most of the healers only speak isiZulu, as the language of the Zulu people is called.

In one shop, a woman with sharp cheekbones and a stoney glare kept us away. But a little farther away, Themba Maseko was as warm and inviting as his shop was enticing. The inside and outside were decked with strings of neon-colored beadwork, thick belts made from cowrie shells, feather headdresses, patterned cloths.

Maseko says people from all backgrounds come to him with problems ranging from unemployment to sleeplessness, marital difficulties and infertility.

"You need to take time and throw the bones," says Maseko, referring to a custom of telling fortunes by casting small animal bones on the ground. "These bones will detect how things should be put in order."

The 38-year-old former bank clerk explains how he "got a calling" about 10 years ago. He used to fall into a deep sleep at his desk and went to see a traditional healer who told him he needed to become one himself.

"I never went back to the bank. I am supposed to be in a place like this," he says happily.

The Department of Health estimates about 70 percent of South Africans use traditional African medicine, often comfortably alongside Western medical practices. The tens of thousands traditional healers in South Africa are being organized and regulated. Some play an important role in primary health care.

Maseko acknowledges that "muti" is still something of a taboo topic.

"Some people are afraid to come and they will wait until it becomes dark. But at the end of the day, muti is the charm of everybody," he says.

Maseko, and some of the other healers, will do consultations with foreign visitors for a negotiable fee. But most visitors prefer to just look on and wander around the market.

There is little information available about the Mai Mai, its history or how even how it got its name.

According to the Johannesburg city Web site, the market was a former stableyard built in the 1940s and is now home to over 100 traditional healers, traders and artisans.

The small compound where they live and work has not escaped the urban decay that is characteristic of parts of downtown Johannesburg. Despite renewal efforts by the city authorities, the buildings are rundown and thick with grime.

On a weekday morning, there are few visitors at the market but there is a quiet air of industry.

Sitting on an upturned bucket, a bald paunchy man cuts up lengths of tire into strips with a sharp knife. Lying across the path is a tool used to cut and shape leather. Farther along a selection of sandals are displayed.

The footwear with its thick straps is favored by Zulu workers who came to the city to find work in the mines. Today, they have become hot fashion items for the culturally conscious trendsetter.

They come with feathers, intricate patterns and even the Nike tick. They sell for about $20 or 200 rands and can be made to order while you wait.

Traditional Zulu regalia can be bought at the market, which also gives visitors a taste of local arts and crafts.

There are shields made from cow hide, skirts made from furry pelts favored by Zulu warriors and upturned wide-brimmed hats worn by women.

Lounging in a chair outside one stall, a young man twists colorful wire strands around the handle of a spear. A few doors down, a man plaits bits of pelt into a furry accessory.

The beadwork is irresistible, cheap and quite different to what is found in fancy curio shops.

The market is also known for wooden chests produced by carpenters on the side of the market. Stained dark, they feature kitsch religious icons and are a unique souvenir of Johannesburg.

The Mai Mai market offers an experience of Johannesburg that very few visitors - even residents - get to see. Venture there and earn your stripes as an intrepid traveler.


If You Go...

GETTING AROUND: The Mai Mai market is on the corner of Anderson and Berea streets in the city center.

There is safe parking at the entrance and plenty of security guards walking around. However, taking precautions while in downtown Johannesburg is recommended and it is advisable to go with at least one other person. Go with someone familiar with the area; take a taxi; or persuade your tour guide to include it your itinerary.

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