Pioneers of the herbalist trade

The Zulu word “muthi“, meaning medicine is familiar to most Durbanites whatever their home language. The traditional African medicines appear to work their magic on thousands of people who pass through the Durban muthi shops.

Contents

1 Location
2 Background
3 Target Market
4 Medicine and its Purpose

Location
Located at the hub of one of the city’s busiest and most popular trade avenues, Cross Street, CV Pillay’s is one such store. The shop is a small-scale Aladdin’s Cave, every inch crammed with herbal concoctions. Each has a specific medicinal function. The shop’s owner, Rajan Pillay possesses an impressive knowledge of the products he sells and speaks flawless Zulu.

Background
He explains that it is a family business, founded by his late grandfather, Mr CV Pillay, who started practising as a herbalist as far back as 1907. CV Pillay originally worked in Newcastle, before moving to Durban. At the time there was only one other trader in the area, a Mr Cele. In the early days strict laws precluded the sale of particular materials.
Even today, says Rajan, a permit is required to sell certain plants and animal skins. In CV Pillay’s day, he travelled to Richmond and remote areas of the Transkei to gather herbs and roots from the villagers. Rajan’s dad, Sunny Pillay, used to accompany his late father on regular trips to these areas.

The rarer herbs, which only grow in a few places and are used solely for healing purposes, were purchased on a weekly basis. Today the business is run in much the same manner by the younger generation of Pillays. Now retired, Sunny Pillay is still a registered member of the Natal Herb Traders and Healers Association, which was established in 1976.

Target Market
Herbs are bought by people from all walks of life, seeking alleviation of the symptoms of illness, spiritual guidance and assistance with everyday concerns. So-called ‘sbunge’ herbs are used by business people to enhance the success of their ventures.

 Medicine and its Purpose
‘Siefo sugela’ is a mixture of herbs used to control blood sugar levels and high blood pressure. The ‘mpepho’ herb is used to communicate with ancestors. It is burned at home in ceremonies where financial advice is sought from one’s ancestors. The ‘isbaha’ herb is derived from pepper tree bark, and used as part of a mixture to control flu.

‘Ishoba lenkonkoni’ – the tail of a wildebeest – is carried by sangomas (traditional witch doctors) and used in the performance of their rituals. A white clay paste, called ‘imbomvu umcako’, is applied to the faces of trainee sangomas. Skin drums are also available, for use in ceremonies and rituals.

Depending on the type of mixture one requires, or its intended purpose, one can spend anything from two to hundreds of rands on muti. Rajan says that customers come from all over the city, and far-flung rural areas, to visit his store. A large percentage of his clientele comprises traditional healers and members of holy communities, who acquire herbs and roots for healing purposes.

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