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Mai Mai Market, Johannesburg City

The Mai Mai Market, JohannesburgThe Mai Mai Market in the east of Johannesburg is one of the city’s oldest markets and an exotic world of ethnic medicine all tucked away under a highway in downtown Johannesburg.

Initially, a market of traditional healers and a place where one could buy African medicine “Muti”, but now the market has expanded to sell a huge array of traditional African artifacts  Everything African can be bought here, from Zulu attire, animal skin clothes, walking sticks, knobkerries, shields to sandals or beaded items.

Nicknamed “Ezinyangeni” – the place of healers, Jabu Vilakazi, manager of the market, describes it as “Afrocentric”, catering for indigenous needs and practices. Many consider it to be the “muti” capital of Johannesburg, with most of its 176 units dedicated to traditional healing.

You will find such a rich concentration of traditional herbs and treatments that no matter what ailment you have, there is sure to be a cure. Perhaps a little divination is all that is needed to heal even the sickest of people, from physical to spiritual.

The general feel you will get when you are shopping at the Mai Mai market is one of mystery. You’ll see animal parts hanging to dry (these are used in the muti), animal skins, African curios and concoctions of an indeterminate nature in labelled bottles. You’ll feel that you have stumbled onto something, a secret place where ancient traditional healers have the knowledge of generations past; a place where you can feel the beating thump of Africa in your very own veins and smell the musty essence of this vast continent.

The Mai Mai Market, Johannesburg

The presence of coffins in one of the stores lends an eerie feel to the place.

African medicine is believed to be very powerful, and many western people fear this element of Africa. The medicine, according to Mkhwanazi (a shop owner), is capable of getting a patient acquitted from a serious legal case, or staving off bad luck and nightmares. There is even a muti to make someone more popular.

The recipe to render yourself invincible is a combination of ground-up tree bark, choice herbs, dried porcupine remnants and another secret ingredient. This will apparently make you strong and immune to bad spells and general misfortunes. Once the muti is obtained, it can be taken in various ways, depending on its form and nature. While some muti is just good for washing with, smearing on the patient’s body, or simply burning and inhaling it, other muti is designed for elaborately complex uses like ukuphalaza (regurgitating/disgorging), ukuchatha (to apply enema) or nokugquma (steaming).

A python skin competes for space with a dead vulture and a baboon on the ceiling.

The Mai Mai Market, Johannesburg

Traditional sangoma

The way it works, apparently, is that if you have an ailment or problem, you need to consult a sangoma (spiritual healer and traditional seer) who can determine the nature of the problem. Only then can you go to an inyanga (traditional doctor) with the knowledge of what muti the sangoma has prescribed or to help establish contact with your ancestors.

An inyanga throws bones to determine the cause of a patient’s afflictions

Sangomas, generally pick up two kinds of bad luck. One is inflicted through witchcraft, usually by a jealous rival. The other shade of bad luck is caused by unhappy ancestors in which case the patients are counselled to slaughter a beast to appease and rekindle relations with the ancestors.

So, sangomas diagnose and prescribe, while inyangas generally heal, although they can also prescribe, depending on the nature of the problem.

Hence some of the stores double up as consulting rooms. One can also get one’s fortunes (or misfortunes) read and a possible cure suggested. Mai Mai also serves as a training ground for sangomas.

Despite its collection of tree and animal parts, it is refreshingly neat and tidy.

The market is home to about 600 people, many of whom have lived in the complex for decades. If you are planning to visit Johannesburg, don’t miss out the Mai Mai Market.

The Mai Mai bazaar is on the corner of Anderson and Berea streets in the city center.

More info on the Johannesburg area