Written by Mike Unwin
The natural ingredients used by traditional healers are known collectively as muti. They comprise plant products such as herbs and bark (the word derives from the Zulu umuthi, meaning ‘tree’), but also mineral products and many animal body parts. These animal products are often employed for symbolic value. For example, the hand of a bushbaby – an animal admired for its strong grip – may be used in rituals aimed at preventing a man’s wife from straying, or even a goalkeeper from dropping a ball. Nose around the stalls in Manzini Market and you will find many such products.
The use of muti in magic charms is alive and well today. The practice is not confined to rural communities but enters all areas of modern life, including business, sport and politics. A businessman, for example, might employ a sangoma to help further his prospects or weaken that of his rivals, which may well entail rituals involving muti. This is often the cause of controversy. In 2009, for instance, people were outraged to discover that someone had been digging holes in the football pitch at Somhlolo national stadium in order to insert muti underneath, presumably in an effort to influence match results.
At the most extreme and shocking level are muti murders, in which people – often children – are killed so that their body parts can be used in ritual. This is very rare and many grisly stories are apocryphal. But it does happen. Indeed, the last person to be executed in eSwatini was restaurant owner Philippa Mdluli, who on 2 July 1983 was hanged after being found guilty of murdering small girls for ritual purposes. As recently as 2011 there were a number of muti murders reported in the southern Shiselwini region, in which victims were mutilated for body parts. Such horrific crimes invariably have big money behind them. This practice, which featured in Alexander McCall- Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, set in Botswana, remains a problem across southern Africa.