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South African "muti" used for luck at World Cup

Herbal potions by traditional healers promise potency to players and teams.

South African traditional healer
Mbobo Zevovo, a "sangoma" โ€” a South African traditional healer and spirit medium โ€” bites off a piece of "isiphephetho," a traditional herb, as part of the ritual of "throwing the bones" to divine the results of the World Cup, at her shop at the Mai Mai market in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Erin Conway-Smith/GlobalPost)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Despite an encouraging opening match draw with Mexico, the soothsayers at Johannesburg’s Mai Mai market are worried about the South African national team’s chances at the soccer World Cup.

Even their magic might not be enough to lift them to victory.

“I see Americans winning the World Cup,” predicts Mbobo Zevovo, a “sangoma,” or traditional healer and spiritual medium, who works from a small shop stocked with dried plants and animal bits hanging from the ceiling.

Zevovo foretells the future by listening to her ancestors and “throwing the bones,” a process that involves scattering her pouch of small animal bones, seashells and dice, and interpreting their configuration.

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“But I don’t know if it will be North or South Americans,” she cautions, studying the bones spread across the floor. The clue she divines is that the team will be from a mainly Christian country. “Prayer is a strong component of the winning team,” she says.

According to Zevovo, the South African players need powerful “muti,” or traditional medicine, to protect themselves at the tournament. The Bafana Bafana squad will next play Uruguay on Wednesday.

For the soccer players who regularly visit Zevovo’s shop looking for that extra edge — none of them professional-level players, she admits — she tells them to bathe with her special mixture of plants, to give them luck, make the opposition weak and “make obstacles go away.”

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Muti, from the Zulu word for “tree,” is an important traditional practice in southern Africa, with many South Africans seeking out traditional cures for common ailments ranging from rashes to erectile dysfunction, as well as for magical purposes such as bringing good fortune in love and business.

The practice is so widespread that Soweto’s Soccer City, the stadium hosting the World Cup’s most important matches, was blessed in a ceremony last month involving some 300 sangomas and other healers, and the slaughter of a cow.

Some believers think that muti can give South Africa’s national team — an underdog at the World Cup, not expected to make it past the first round — a leg up in the tournament. Other African teams are also reputed to be seeking advice from traditional healers as part of their pre-World Cup match preparations.