This land is our chemist

A group of men har­vest medic­i­nal plants, which they then process and sell, but it’s a tough trade

Mail & Guardian - - News - Lu­cas Led­waba

Elias Thabo Maro­tola was hard at work har­vest­ing medic­i­nal plants in a thicket at the foot of the Mo­go­dumo moun­tain in Lim­popo when he sud­denly felt his fin­gers go numb.

He had been bit­ten by a snake. He spent a month in hos­pi­tal re­cov­er­ing from the bite.

“I could have died if I did not act quickly,” says Maro­tola, 34, while rest­ing in the shade of a clus­ter of trees at the in­ter­sec­tion of the R37 and R518 roads in Se­fateng near Chuene­spoort.

Real­is­ing he ur­gently needed help, he ran to­wards a nearby road. By sheer luck, a mo­torist stopped and rushed him to the hos­pi­tal in Le­bowak­gomo, about 12km away.

“They were giv­ing me in­jec­tions ev­ery day,” he says.

But even af­ter he was dis­charged he didn’t feel as if he had fully re­cov­ered un­til an aunt, who is an in­yanga, ad­min­is­tered a herbal po­tion laced with snake venom.

“Herbs are the best heal­ers. The hos­pi­tal helped me but that herbal treat­ment from my aunt is what re­ally saved me,” he says.

It is late morn­ing on a bright Wed­nes­day and tem­per­a­tures are al­ready soar­ing close to 30°C. Maro­tola’s col­leagues con­stantly dash out into the swel­ter­ing sun and across the busy in­ter­sec­tion to reach ev­ery car and truck that stops to buy muthi.

They are a group of about 20 men of dif­fer­ent ages. The Mo­go­dumo, which forms part of the Drak­ens­berg range, is their chemist. The in­ter­sec­tion is their lab­o­ra­tory and the road­side their counter.

Be­ing chased and bit­ten by snakes and wasps, dodg­ing speed­ing cars and burn­ing in the sun or soak­ing in the rain are some of the haz­ards of the job. Theirs is back-break­ing work, which in­cludes long hikes into the moun­tains, car­ry­ing a pick, a ma­chete and a bag to har­vest herbs. Some­times the ter­rain is so rough it takes a whole day to get to an area abun­dant with herbs of a cer­tain type.

“Where have you ever seen a hos­pi­tal clos­ing? The pa­tients would die [if we close],” says Maro­tola, ex­plain­ing that the muthi traders are at this in­ter­sec­tion ev­ery day, in­clud­ing Sun­days and pub­lic hol­i­days.

While the de­bate rages over land na­tion­ally, with much of the fo­cus on com­mer­cial agri­cul­tural land, muthi traders like Maro­tola face a bat­tle of their own. At the hear­ings into pro­posed changes to sec­tion 25 of the Con­sti­tu­tion in June, san­go­mas, izinyanga and muthi traders raised con­cerns that they are de­prived of ac­cess to land to har­vest medic­i­nal plants.

Most of the land, they said, is in pri­vate hands and the own­ers, usu­ally white and in­dif­fer­ent to the prac­tices of tra­di­tional doc­tors and herbal­ists, are not in­ter­ested in let­ting them har­vest roots and plants.

They are also faced with strict leg­is­la­tion gov­ern­ing the har­vest­ing and trade in medic­i­nal plants. Last week the depart­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal af­fairs held a work­shop to pro­mote com­pli­ance with the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment: Bio­di­ver­sity Act.

The depart­ment said the work­shop, held in KwaZu­luNatal, was aimed at muthi traders op­er­at­ing at the Non­goma muthi mar­ket and oth­ers in the sur­round­ing ar­eas af­ter in­creased com­plaints from mem­bers of the pub­lic about the di­verse num­ber of species listed in the Threat­ened or Pro­tected Species Reg­u­la­tions that are be­ing il­le­gally har­vested and sold.

Maro­tola and his fel­low traders in Chuene­spoort are not aware of such de­vel­op­ments. To them, the land is a Gar­den of Eden given to them by the gods, their knowl­edge of plants and the wis­dom passed down to them by the el­ders who also learnt from their fore­bears.

Maro­tola says he har­vests plants in a sus­tain­able way. “How will we sur­vive in fu­ture if we de­stroy these plants? How can we de­stroy na­ture, which is sup­posed to look af­ter all of us?” asks Des­mond Chuene, 27, who joined the trade as a teenager a decade ago.

They are a truly in­dus­tri­ous bunch, these men. With al­most no re­sources to speak of, they have turned the in­ter­sec­tion into a pro­cess­ing plant of sorts. Bulbs, the bark, roots and leaves from trees, and pieces of other plants are ground into fine pow­der with smooth grind­ing stones.

Water is col­lected in buck­ets from nat­u­ral springs in the area. Wood fires are lit to boil some of the mix­tures. These mix­tures are poured into an as­sort­ment of con­tain­ers col­lected from shop­ping malls. Some of the finely ground pow­ders, some of which are a blend of an as­sort­ment of medic­i­nal plants, are pack­aged in small trans­par­ent plas­tic con­tain­ers. And then the men are ready to hit the road and sell to mo­torists.

Their herbs, they say, are for a range of ail­ments in­clud­ing flu, high blood pres­sure, in­di­ges­tion, uri­nary tract in­fec­tions and headaches. Oth­ers are im­mune boost­ers.

But the most pop­u­lar muthi ap­pears to be sex po­tions, which sell for R40 apiece. These in­clude a magic po­tion laced with ba­boon urine or men­strual blood col­lected in the caves up in the moun­tains.

“Women are the big­gest buy­ers of these. Some buy for their lazy men and oth­ers for them­selves,” says Maro­tola, who swears the po­tions turn lousy lovers into roar­ing lions.

Last year, var­i­ous es­ti­mates put the South African muthi trade mar­ket at about R3-bil­lion a year. But traders, like the men from Ga-Chuene, may never have even R50 000 in the bank. They are men who live on the mar­gins, fight­ing a daily bat­tle for sur­vival.

Many of the traders, like Pa­balelo Chuene, 27, say they were driven to the trade be­cause they were un­em­ployed. There are few jobs in vil­lages like Ga-Chuene where he lives.

Af­ter ma­tric­u­lat­ing, Chuene did not have the money to con­tinue study­ing. He started off by sell­ing wild fruit such as mahlatswa (En­glero­phy­tum ma­g­a­l­is­mon­tanum) and mat­shidi (Xi­me­nia caf fra). He made good money. But these are sea­sonal fruit that are abun­dant in the moun­tains dur­ing late sum­mer. He later joined the muthi traders. A bread­win­ner for his two sib­lings, he has since man­aged to pay for his driver’s li­cence lessons and test with the in­come he de­rives from sell­ing muthi.

He was also schooled in the fine art and sci­ence of iden­ti­fy­ing medic­i­nal plants by older rel­a­tives who, for many years, never found the need to con­sult a Western doc­tor for mi­nor ail­ments , re­ly­ing on their knowl­edge of plants in­stead.

Mpho Maribe, 26, had pre­vi­ously made a liv­ing as a hunter and handy­man in his vil­lage of Maku­rung in the Ga-Mphahlele dis­trict. Hunt­ing got him into trou­ble be­cause it was on pri­vately owned land, a fac­tor that has put many ru­ral res­i­dents at log­ger­heads with each other.

So he swapped this ter­rain of strug­gle for sur­vival for that of the muthi trade.

“I am not steal­ing from any­one. With the money I make here I sup­port six peo­ple. I think the govern­ment can help us by giv­ing us per­mits to gain ac­cess to farms and har­vest herbs. We are not de­stroy­ing any­one’s prop­erty. All we are do­ing is liv­ing off na­ture,” he says.

Chuene says on a bad day he takes home as lit­tle as R100 but can make three times as much that on an av­er­age day. In sum­mer the traders’ daily in­come grows al­most three­fold with the ad­di­tion of wild fruit to their stock.

But with most of the tribal trust land they op­er­ate on fast be­ing sold to in­di­vid­u­als for busi­ness and res­i­den­tial pur­poses, it ap­pears the muthi traders of Ga-Chuene will soon face more than the risk of snakes and wasps. In­stead, they will face fences and hos­tile landown­ers.

“If they take away the land, we would die,” says Maro­tola. “I have never done any other work. This is my call­ing and a gift I learnt from my el­ders.

“I have raised a fam­ily with the in­come I made from it. I have never even been to Jo­han­nes­burg and I have no de­sire to go there. My heart is here. All I know is here,” he says. — Muku­rukuru Me­dia

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