marketRaising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Nine: The Market

Part 1

In the past few articles of my “Raising the Dust” chapter reflections, I have described my observations of the harvesting practices that I observed, in the context of how these practices and beliefs were described to me by my research participants. In this month’s article I will explore how, at this point of extrapolating my data, I became quite immersed in the ways in which the different aspects of my research began to come together. In it I explore my thoughts about how things are connected, from the most local aspects of my participations in my research area at the time, to the wider impacts of the global market.

As a naturalistic ethnographer this is my primary goal, to explore the connections between the micro lens and the macro lens, to understand how local life reflects wider themes and concepts and how these wider themes and concepts play out in the lives of ordinary village people. Although the participants in my study are a part of everyday life in the villages where they live, like traditional healers elsewhere, they are the holders of the traditional medical knowledge, practices and beliefs that have provided accessible, affordable and culturally relevant health care since long before colonisation began undermining a lot of the material and spiritual elements that have defined traditional medical knowledge, practices and beliefs; alongside other traditional ecological knowledge systems. These threats will be explored in greater detail in later articles but for now, following on from how traditional medicine is harvested, I will focus my research insights on the ways in which the market functions to both support and hinder the practice of traditional medicine.

In order to understand the ways in which traditional medical knowledge, practices and beliefs are exchanged in my area of study, I needed to understand the local market; this did not take me long. On the night I arrived, a research colleague picked me up at the bus stop in Blantyre ‒ the closest city to my fieldwork area ‒ and drove me to the guest house where I was to stay, instructing me to go straight to the local market in the morning and make myself familiar with it. I followed his advice and this market became my place of sustenance, not just for food, but for friendship, transportation to where I needed to go, and for the other staples of life that I needed. From early morning until dark, the Mulanje Boma[i] market is a busy place and I wrote in one of the opening paragraphs of this chapter of my thesis;

People come and go continuously in the lively Boma market place. Children stand together in pressed school uniforms amidst traders, tricksters, healers, minibus drivers and other members of the local community. A procession of people constantly over-loads and unloads a variety of wares. Women bend down to pick up and inspect an assortment of goods for purchase. Men stand aside, waiting to load the minibus with chickens, baskets full of beans, pineapples, an old television set, a new microwave oven and even the odd front door. Parcels and letters are squeezed into the small spaces still available up the front of the minibus and plastic containers full of fuel are stacked under the seat down the back. The local market is a busy space, yet at the same time there is an order in the constant chaos and activity. As the sun rises each morning during the week, and as people begin to arrive with their baskets, boxes and bags, on foot, by pedal or motorised vehicle power, the rustically constructed trading place is transformed into a meeting place, a place of exchange, even a ‘sacred’ place.

Although I tend to follow a non-consumer lifestyle, markets and ‘the market’ have always held endless fascination for me and this one was no different. Markets can be complex spaces yet their primary function is to provide a place of trade and exchange, and one of my first experiences in the market was my interactions with the women who would arrive early in the morning and set up their produce in the middle of the market. They would sit on the ground or on grass or plastic mats. Some were sole vendors, some sat together as friends in a small group, some had children on their laps. All had an array of basic fruits and vegetables for sale. Fieldwork took place in the winter and banana, lettuce, pineapple, avocado, capsicum, onion, cucumber, cabbage, tomatoes, and many different types of greens ‒ like pumpkin leaves and Chinese spinach ‒ were always in plentiful supply.

RDT market

There were other vendors in the market, selling more ‘exotic’ wares like herbs and spices, a greater range of vegetables as well as some other staples. These stall holders were generally men. There was also a butcher selling locally slaughtered meat and some of the market vendors sold fish. Throughout my stay, I choose to buy most of what I ate each day from the women siting on the ground in the middle of the market. I simplified my daily diet to one of mostly fresh fruit and vegetables during my fieldwork, with rice (rice and maize being local dietary staples) and a little meat. I was able to buy some fresh milk from a woman who kept a cow at her house and on my way home I would buy eggs from another woman who had set up a small store called a ‘tuck shop’ in the front of her yard.

Most of the westerners and Asian people that I can across made regular trips into Blantyre to the western style supermarkets to stock up on the packaged foods they were accustomed to. I enjoyed the atmosphere of my local market experiences, including having a butterfly land on my cheek whilst I was making my daily purchase one day. I stayed healthy throughout my field work and on this healthy, simple diet, lost the extra pounds I had gathered in the years prior, whilst sitting at my desk. If I felt like something a bit more culinary satisfying then I ate at one of the few local “Takeaways” which were not actually ‘takeaways’, but sit down places to eat. I would order chicken, goat or beans with rice, a tasty ‘relish’ ‒ a pumpkin-leaf side vegetable ‒ and a ‘soup’, which was a thin gravy. Me being foreign, I had to make a point of insisting to the person serving me that I wanted my chicken meal to be ‘local’, meaning that the meat had been raised free-range and slaughtered in the local village, rather than being from a ‘hybrid’ chicken that had been grown in the factory farms that were becoming increasingly popular, as they expected.

Although the local market provides for the villages it serves it is of course embedded in the wider market, linking the local within the wider web of the global market. This free market trading is not new to African society, but as Ayittey (2002[ii]) points out, in pre-colonial times it was organised around the collective principles of participatory governance. As we know, markets are now predominantly profit driven and strongly favour competitiveness.

Despite the complexities of the modern market place, in reality, most people living around Mulanje Mountain are still preoccupied by the need to survive and to support family and friends on a daily basis. Despite the fact that most live on less than two dollars a day, many have been drawn into the tensions that define the workings of an expanding global economy. My research participants live their lives in this context and I was stuck by a number of obvious tensions. My observations at a local cross-country event held on the mountain ‒ sponsored that year, amongst others, by my host organisation ‒ brought up growing concerns for the area and its people. The event’s two major sponsors were, a big mining company who have their headquarters in Canada, and Coke. The event’s Coke sponsors used all the usual advertising ploys like young women in short skirts, loud music, young men parading around with dark sunglasses wearing t-shirts that read “One billion reasons to believe in Africa”. My heart sunk; as I watched the children standing in groups, in their customary rags, cheering the competitors coming into the finishing area; as I listened to the MC encourage the crowd to ridicule an elderly woman for her “old woman traditional dance”; as I watched the interactions between the mining company and the Coke officials; as I thought about the insidious dangers that both of these brought to the region; as I thought about the ill-effects that soft drink companies had brought about in places like India, poisoning areas with pesticides and contaminating villager’s drinking water. So much so that Hawken (2007:161[iii]) writes about these commercial activities as, “Coca-Cola conflict”. I had been in my field for a while by this time and ‘the’ mountain was starting to feel like ‘my’ mountain; I was beginning to see myself as being a part of it.

The other obvious threat to the mountain that was emerging was the Japanese led mining explorations that were being conducted in association with the big Canadian mining company. I will discuss this more next month when I explore the state of the mountain but these two issues were becoming foremost in my mind at this point and it unsettled me to see the market playing out in this way in people’s lives. Malawi is an agrarian economy and most people live on less than two dollars a day but the area is productive, with one research informant describing it as the potential “food bowl for the Southern region”.

Many people are skilled in producing high quality local products and services in this region and yet there seemed to be a reluctance to do this. For example, one young man who spent some time in our guesthouse presented me with a small packet of bright orange, highly aromatic powder. It was ginger that had been deliciously ground by a local woman. It would fetch a good price in any spice market but when I asked where she was selling it, he said she wasn’t, but that perhaps I should “speak to her” because I, (being a foreigner) was “the one who could help her”. This was a common perception and it was expressed to me regularly in various contexts. The research informant who had explained to me that the area produces more food than can be eaten went on to say that what was missing was the “change agent”, that person who could connect the maker/grower and the market. As he was talking I thought about my favourite poem, “The Hollow Men”, by T.S Elliot; it seemed as if a “shadow” had indeed somehow fallen, “between the conception and the creation” for local producers wanting to sell their wares. My interview participants seemed to have become drawn into this same “shadow”. They described the tensions of being left out of the market whilst also being drawn right into it by the economic pressures of life.

The commoditization of traditional medicine

Midway through the interviews, I met up again with the young man who had acted as my translator during the consultation described in my reflections on the first of my data chapters (Chapter Five). The young man took the opportunity to ask me why I thought people became traditional healers in Mulanje. I responded that from my recent interviews, it seemed as though they did so because of a calling. “No” he insisted, “they become traditional healers because it is good business” (Fieldwork Diary, 07 July 2012).


The most obvious sign of commercialisation is the payment my participants charge for their goods and services. It is the norm for traditional healers the world over to receive only a supplementary income from their practices; only the very highest earners will come close to the national average. Most traditional healers do not rely on their practices to provide their sole income and in a rural area like Mulanje, their main income and livelihood practices still come from activities like cultivation. Not surprisingly, many of my interview participants reported struggling to make a living and some said that they and their friends and family were hungry, and even “starving”. They said they received “little money” to compensate their time, energy and expertise. Most expect to be paid ‒ either in cash or in kind ‒ but in many cases they were either not being paid, or were being paid inadequately. One said he was becoming frustrated by the situation, as he had been working tirelessly “to help the people” but when patients recover, many do not give him any money, providing him with a small packet of sugar instead. When they do pay, they only give him about 500 kwachas,[iv] the equivalent of approximately AUS $1.80 at the time.

Some of my participants disregarded unpaid fees on the grounds of compassion, or because they do not want to get a ‘bad reputation’ with other members of their local communities. Others had ways of recovering their fees, like going through the local court system or by putting a ‘string’ on their patients, a kind of taboo against something that the person might usually enjoy doing but won’t be able to without negative effect until the debt is paid. A participant explained by saying, “because of that string, which you put to the patient, the patient is supposed to come back once he is healed, so much that he can be released from that string”. Some used a token payment system called a chipondantengo, which they regarded as a ‘thank you’ for the help they received with the agreement to make payments on the rest of the fee. Participants said that when patients failed to meet their obligations under this deferred payment system they too tended to put it aside rather than spend time following up on defaulters. Some said this was because they were “just taught freely” and their knowledge and skills were “part and parcel of assisting people”.

Whilst there was a range of views on changing fees, and different ways of going about this, there is another significant issue for traditional healers in the area. There is a huge market for traditional medicine in South Africa and vendors travel to Mulanje to buy supplies. One particular participant said he didn’t mind supplying medicines to these vendors but they were not compensating him in a fair way He said that since the medicines he had access to were, “given to him freely by God”, he was happy to share them but became resentful when these vendors would thank him whilst pointing to their new car. He said “sometimes the people comes from South Africa and bring my medicine to go there. Those people, they have got cars, they have got good houses, my own, I have nothing”. This particular participant described how the South African vendors would take large amounts of precious traditional medicine resources and leave him with a blanket “a blankets only”. Not just a personal inequity, this situation reflects the precarious status of many traditional medicines resources, as well as the broader conservation issues throughout the world. Traditional medicine resources are ‒ for the most part ‒ being traded rather informally, without much by way of appropriate monitoring or well managed conservation programs.

Protecting traditional medicine

Traditional healers do have ways of protecting both their knowledge and their resources though. Many of my participants highlighted this when they responded to my questions about what plants they were using by making use of phrases like, “I can’t remember”, “I remember only leaves, but I don’t remember the name”, and “there are too many”. Most of my participants spoke in general terms about their activities. Some were more specific, especially about those plants that were commonly used. Managing traditional medical knowledge in this way isn’t contradictory, it’s about protecting an individual practitioner’s position and entrepreneurial opportunities locally (Morris, 1996[v]; Tsey, 1997[vi]).

Developing traditional medicine

Here we return to an earlier research theme. I mentioned in earlier articles that my participants saw my research as an opportunity to increase their capacity within their local communities, through stronger engagement with the public health system, the forest department and local enterprises like tea growers. These connections are much valued but any and every opportunity is welcomed. For example, the participant who described being short changed by the South African vendors said that my translator on the Nessa side of the mountain was “very famous” in the local community, but that he still had “a small house”. He ventured that, to facilitate an extended stay in Nessa village, I should stay in the translator’s house to save money and could then help him to build “a big house”.

Others in Nessa village said they wanted a space from where to add value to their medicines by making them into pills. They were also requesting ‘machines’ so they could make these pills and “get more money”. Many of my participants indicated that they believed that outside financial investment and knowledge was the best way to develop traditional medicine. They said commercial manufacturing and marketing would sustain their knowledge and increase their livelihood security. On the Phalombe side of the mountain, one of my participants said that commercialising traditional medicines would help traditional healers because, if it could be “developed”, then each person would get “much money”:

to earn his or her living. To sell traditional products locally, it means you are going to earn something a little. When those [products] will be maybe converted to make tablets, to sell to other countries, it means traditional healers will be getting a larger amount of money, which they can use in their homes. (Phalombe, 10 July 2012)

This same participant recalled back to a time when “a certain European” was working at a nearby tea estate. The man had taken it upon himself to make “other tablets from other herbs”. My participant said that when he distributed these tablets, people “got well healed”. He added that the local healers noticed his success and thought “this knowledge, maybe [it] can help us”. Like others, he spoke with considerable confidence in the manufacturing process, but for me as a researcher, this enthusiasm raised a number of unanswered questions and concerns about the “development” of traditional medicine. For instance, “Can local traditional medical practitioners produce a commercially viable, marketable products from their traditional medicine with the assistance of outsiders and still maintain control over the process”?, “Is the production of traditional plant remedies dependent on large-scale commercial production or is there a viable small-scale local market instead”?, “Can traditional medical products be marketed locally and distributed through local channels efficiently”?, “Who controls this local market”?, “How stable is the international market for traditional medicines and how will fluctuations affect local traditional medical knowledge, practices and resources into the future”?

These are important questions for us as holistic, complimentary and other “alternative” practitioners and consumers. We need to keep in mind where our products are being sourced. What impacts are these commercial activities having on local communities and on traditional healing practices in the regions they are being harvested from? What part do we want to play in this growing market? Next month, in Part II of my reflections on this chapter, I will continue to explore the marketing of traditional medicine, looking once more at the scale and flow of trade and some of the practical aspects that the traditional healers in my study area face in continuing their everyday knowledge, practices and beliefs. In the meantime, if you would like any further information about my research, please email me at


Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458 268 605.


[i] This is the judicial and administrative part of region

[ii] Ayittey, G. (2002). Why Africa is Poor. In J. Morris, (Ed.), Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty? (pp 57-75). Great Britain: Profile Books.

[iii] Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed Unrest. New York: Viking.

[iv] At the time I could buy a loaf of freshly baked bread, a bag full of fruit and vegetables and a half a dozen eggs with this amount of money.

[v] Morris, B. (1996). Chewa Medical Botany: A Study of Herbalism in Southern Malawi. Hamburg: International African Institute.

[vi] Tsey, K. (1997). Traditional Medicine in Contemporary Ghana: A Public Policy Analysis. Social Sciences and Medicine, 45(7), 1065-1074.