The herbal quick fix

The herbal quick fix

MASERU – Wearing a pair of dirty blue jeans and safety shoes and operating from a shack, Thabang Matsoso could easily pass for one of the vagabonds in Maseru’s streets.
But he is a busy man, attending to customers who have put their health in his hands.

A herbalist, Matsoso says business is good.
“Do you have Mararolle (they say it eases relationships when they are strained), Vuma (used to coax someone to agree to your proposal), Sebothe (concave), Lesita-tlali (lightening defeater),” a man in his early 30s, a customer, asks.

Matsoso notes down the requested herbs and checks whether the medicines are in stock.
After wrapping the available ones in a newspaper and writing their names with a black marker on top of the newspaper page, he leaves the stall and dashes a few feet down to the next corner to get some more herbs from a colleague.

The client comes from Mohale’s Hoek, some 130 kilometres south of Maseru.
The man, who says he trusts the herbs because they have worked for him in the past, throws the payment on top of some  maize-meal bags, takes his plastic full of herbs and leaves with a promise to come back for more.

Throwing the money for payment on the sack is part of the ritual.
“I have been in this business since 2000,” he tells thepost.
But before he can explain further, another client arrives.

An old lady wearing a yellow blanket with black dots is here to get her Ntšebele.
She throws the money down and leaves.

“It is bad luck to say thank you after receiving medication hence they just take their packages and leave but I know they will be back,” Matsoso says.

Before he can settle down, more clients arrive. One is old and using a walking stick.
He sits and asks if he can get Khomo-ea-balisa (strap-leafed bulbine or snake flower to clean immune system).
Another man asks about dry hloenya (dysentery herb which works as a laxative) while one wants thope (young unwed woman – a mixture of different herbs) which Matsoso does not have in stock. Matsoso directs the man to the next stall to check if it is a there.

“Business is good. You can see I am a busy man,” Matsoso says, adding: “People come here to get most of their herbs.” In front of him is an herb iron crusher on which he is bending to crush Ntšebele (a lucky charm to attract good luck), a mixture of herbs and roots from different shrubs for a customer.
Matsoso says the concoction is a lucky charm.

Hanging from sticks mounted on the shack are white, black and yellow plastic bags containing different traditional herbs. Incense burns to draw customers while ostrich feathers are hanging from the stacks of old maize-meal bags. In the far corner is what looks like a cat skin hanging from the ceiling.

Traditional medicines are increasingly becoming popular among many Basotho due to high prices of modern medicines as well as the variety of health and social problems that they are believed to solve.
In many of Lesotho’s towns, plastic shacks are becoming popular “pharmacies”, with men and women who never attended medical school turning into trusted “doctors” by a population desperate for a cheap fix to their health and social problems.

Herbalists such as Matsoso are making a killing from selling herbs in rundown shacks in Maseru as their business booms. Matsoso says he used to work in South Africa in the farms in Ficksburg, a farming settlement on the north-west of the Lesotho border.

After realising that the money was not enough and he could only afford to visit home a couple of times a year to see his family, he decided to leave the farm to become an herbalist.
He learnt the trade from his brother-in-law who was a herbalist.

“I realised that people are always sick and in need of these herbs so I tried my luck and it has been a good journey,” Matsoso says. Since 2000, this business has been the main source of his family’s income.
Although he refuses to reveal how much he generates per month, he says he is able to put “food on the table, buy clothes and pay fees with this money”.

“It’s more than what I used to make working in the farms.”
As early as six o’clock in the morning Matsoso opens his stall and knocks off as late as seven in the evening.
Matsoso says he gets his herbs from numerous suppliers from all over the country and sometimes he has to go to South Africa for stock.

“Because of this business many lives have improved, those who supply me are able to provide for their families,” he says. “It makes a big impact taking into consideration the high unemployment rate in the country. It is just that those who know how to read and write undermine it because they associate it with witchcraft,” Matsoso says.
He says his suppliers do not grow the plants but harvest them in the wild.

“Only a few can be planted. God did it intentionally to have them grow in specific areas only hence when you try to produce them somewhere else they die,” he says.
He believes that the herbs will not become extinct.

“The Lord will always provide. He knows we need them.”
Next to his “pharmacy” is a row of plastic shacks with men and women plying the same trade.
Not far from Matsoso’s stall is Lebohang Tlali.

He got into the business in 2007 and worked as an herbalist’s assistant before opening his own stall.
As a young boy, Tlali used to see his father use medicinal herbs to treat family members.
Like Matsoso, he also doesn’t produce any herbs but buys from suppliers.

Tlali says many Basotho of all ages still flood his stall in need of herbs.
“However, most people use these herbs for the wrong reasons hence some associate medicinal herbs with witchcraft and are reluctant to use them,” Tlali says.

He says lack of understanding is the major reason why some Basotho are reluctant to try herbs as a solution to their health and social problems.

“Some say these herbs are bitter but when taken properly most are not even bitter because we are able to give customers the right dosage for consumption,” he says.

Both Tlali and Matsoso say they have never received complaints from customers.
On the contrary, most clients return with positive feedback, according to the herbalists.
There is no data on the economic impact of traditional medicinal herbs in Lesotho but just a casual look at every

market place in Lesotho’s towns shows that many families depend on them.
At the Maseru’s main market place, at least 12 businesses focus on traditional herbs.

The herbs have even wormed their way onto the shelves of modern pharmacies around Maseru.
It is not unusual to find a pharmacy in the city selling small bundles of dried leaves or roots with the label thokolosi (goblin) or sethotsela (ghost).

Pharmacies now sell lucky sticks and herbs and roots said to help bring back lost lovers.
Matsoso says any attempts by the government to ban or regulate the use of herbs will not succeed.
“When we are the ones earning a livelihood out of these natural resources, we have the educated always trying to bar us, but when white men come they get licenses without any challenges,” he says.

“At the end of the day the money only circulates amongst them while we at the grassroots level are left poor. Look at what happened with marijuana,” he says, referring to the marijuana growing licences awarded to foreign firms when the herb was legalised for medicinal and scientific purposes.

Lemohang Rakotsoane

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