In Mali, Lizard Blood May Fix What Ails You : Medicine: Traditional cures enjoy a comeback in some African lands where drugs are unaffordable.


On Avenue du Fleuve in the central market, young men sell dried dogs’ heads. Pick from piles of them. Or heads of house cats, by the dozens. And stacks of monkeys cut into parts--all their assorted parts, with sun-dried faces shrieking silently and hairy dead hands clutching empty air.

For that matter, here in the capital of West Africa’s remote Mali you can shop for dried bats, rats, wart hogs, desiccated bird carcasses of all varieties, live vultures, falcons and chameleons, the skin of an 18-foot python, bottles of lion urine, cruets of python fat, jars of lizard blood. To mention some.

Practically everything needed to treat whatever bothers you.

Trouble in your love life? A bad cough? Business is lousy? Don’t like your neighbor? Your baby has a fever?


Traditional medicine, faith healing, juju, black magic, witchcraft, sorcery, gris-gris--whatever you prefer to call it--flourishes throughout Africa, particularly West Africa. And nowhere with more vigor than in Mali.

In fact, the old traditions are enjoying a resurgence here and gaining official legitimacy.

Under a 1994 law designed to regulate traditional healing, the Malian government has established a research lab for the purpose of licensing those substances that are found to have medicinal value.

One reason for the growth of the phenomenon is poverty. Already one of the poorest and least developed countries on the world’s most destitute continent, Mali suffered greatly last year when France devalued by 50% the currency it backs in its former West African colonies.

Modern medicine imported from abroad, already burdensomely expensive, suddenly was beyond reach.

Mali’s Health Ministry estimates that 8 million of the country’s 10 million people now rely on traditional health treatments. And no one can even guess at how many millions are adherents of traditional medicine’s mysterious offshoot, the dark world of juju.

“When I started here in 1983, there were five stalls,” says Marabaga Kara, purveyor of animals and animal parts in Bamako’s sweltering central market. “Today, as you can see, we have almost 20 stalls.”

This young man, whose business card reads, “Friend of Animals, Birds & Plants,” reaches down and picks up a left hand and forearm of a monkey, its fingers stiff and curled, its odor as strong as a pair of gym shoes gone very bad. If hung as a fetish it will bring power to a house, he says. A vial of lizard blood can be used as a love potion or, alternatively, to ensure fidelity in a mate. Cost of either: $10.

“Yes,” he says, his medicine also can be used against one’s enemy.

“There are many ways to make people suffer--to make them crazy or their skin break out.”

And, naturally, there are equally powerful medicines to protect oneself against the curses of others. Kara lifts his dirty T-shirt to expose a leather amulet around his waist. Inside, he says, is his secret protective elixir.

Across an alleyway, another two dozen or so tin-roofed stalls display baskets of the vegetable ingredients used in traditional medicine--tree barks, nuts, leaves, potions, extracts and powders.

Not confined to Bamako, this trade in both animal and vegetable medicines extends through virtually every city and rural Malian village market all the way to Timbuktu.

“Before colonization and the introduction of modern medicine, the people only had plants, incantations, blessed water, those sorts of things,” said Niaza Coulibaly, spokesman for the Health Ministry.

“After independence [in 1960], the two sectors came to coexist, right up to now. But with our economic crisis, more and more people are turning by need to street healers,” he said.

At the ministry’s division of traditional medicine, the scene is a bit like a high school chemistry lab, with grinders, hot plates, beakers and sinks. An adjacent warehouse contains trays and bags and dishes of various dried plants.

Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Madagascar, among other nations, also recognize traditional medicines. But Driss Diallo, chief of ethnobotany here, insists that Mali is ahead of all of them in research.

Since work began here a year ago, Diallo says, his lab has approved the commercial sale of ground leaves and roots of various African plants for use as a laxative, a liver potion and a cough suppressant. “Others are being tested--for ulcers, malaria and skin irritations,” he says.

The government distinguishes between herbal medicine and the juju that uses animal parts and often requires the services of a witch doctor, or medicine man.

“There are some aspects of traditional medicine that are not rational,” says Health Ministry spokesman Coulibaly, patiently. “These are things you cannot explain by science. These we cannot regulate. These domains require an acceptance of magic. . . . Personally, I don’t think they work. But business is business. And that business is growing.”

It is half an hour through the random streets and greasy exhaust air of the capital to an outlying shantytown and an abode not distinguished from dozens of others around it. Except for the head of a hippopotamus drying under a shade tree. And the small crowd of men, women and children gathered in the dirt outside for their turn to consult the master of the house, medicine man Jinnade Sumana.

“If you like the girl and the girl doesn’t like you--I have the medicine for that,” Sumana explains. For that, and a multitude of other personal problems and health ailments.

Consultation begins with one of Sumana’s assistants. In a shadowy cement-floor entry hall, a young African wearing a dirty canvas jumper, hung with fetishes, runs his fingers through a mound of sand.

An American visitor takes a seat on the floor and is given a pinch of sand. The idea is to whisper one’s complaint to the sand. The sand is then returned to the pile, whereupon the assistant devotes five, presumably suspenseful, minutes to mixing, smoothing, flattening and pressing fingerprints into the sand.

“You have not found what you are looking for. What you are seeking eludes you. Is that right?” the assistant asks, after deciphering his scratchings in the sand.

This is not the malady the American whispered. But neither is it wrong. The outsider may find the experience a bit like visiting a fortuneteller--preposterously vague but perhaps amusingly engaging.

Next, medicine man Sumana holds forth in the adjacent room. It is not an imposing scene. Sitting cross-legged, with a huge belly, the man wears an ordinary West African boubou , or shift. The floor is covered with various reed mats and foam mattresses. In his lap, a baby girl with a dirty nose squirms. In a corner is a small Honda electrical generator, a few children’s toys, some clothing. An iron-shuttered window bangs in the breeze. The air is thick with flies and the sharp smell of sweat.

He is trying to explain his craft.

“For psychological maladies, we can use the venom of cobra. . . . The dogs’ heads, we burn and use the ashes for pain in the leg or tooth. . . . If inside your chest hurts, we use the bat. . . ,” he says. “If someone is sick, I have the medicine. . . .”

The assistant’s prophesy, however, proves correct. That which is being sought remains elusive.

Of all ingredients, the most important, it seems, is not for sale in the market, is not within the power of this medicine man: belief.

As the visitor departs, a sad-eyed woman with a suckling baby is whispering earnestly into the sand. Her child is sick. She has nothing else, so she must believe. And so do the others, waiting quietly outside in the stifling sunshine. This day, Sumana will receive 80 patients.