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April 18, 2017



by Erin Wilkinson Hartung

I am heading back to Tanzania this summer to help small businesses.

I was going through my trip photos and it reminded me of some great characters. Let me introduce you to my colleagues, the “medicine men” of Pete Village, Zanzibar. Does your ear hurt, or your soul ache? Are you looking for a good harvest or to find true love? The doctors are in and open for business. In East Africa, medicine men are known by many names . . . herbal specialists, traditional healers and yes, even witch doctors. Regardless of the name, all are known for using traditional herbs and spices for healing rather than Western medicine.

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The Zanzibar Archipelago (Spice Islands) off the coast of Tanzania has a rich history in spice agriculture. Popular products like oregano, cinnamon, and cloves – the latter two grown for commercial export are often prescribed as part of the natural healing traditions. The local medicine man and even a plantation farmer would often remedy stomach complaints with a thick paste made from boiling these herbs together. From personal experience, I think this particular mixture works.

In one case, some visiting friends arrived at the island from the mainland complaining of weakness and severe nausea and were too ill to even leave their beds. Luckily, I was directed to a local spice farm to obtain these healing herbs in their truest form. As we boiled them down, we lost power for the electric stove, so thinking quickly, we brought the chunky mixture in a blender to their hotel. The hotel had a backup generator so we were able to blend the concoction into a mud paste. The guests took these mud “shots” several times over the next 24 hours and received plenty of rest. Miraculously, they were up and ready to start exploring the island the next day.


In a second case when I returned to the U.S., my husband complained of an upset stomach after international travel, I tried to recreate the remedy using store bought ingredients. He absolutely hated the taste but we claimed success even with his sensitive stomach, and he, too, was up and around quickly. I was quite surprised when I looked up the suggested restorative properties of these natural herbs. But herbs are not the only tools of the medicine man.

The most mysterious role of the medicine man is to cast spells or treat ailments by using witchcraft. However, this mysterious practice is more common than you might think. In the rural areas of Zanzibar, the more successful small businesses often work with groups of local advisers – teams made up of village elders, development workers and (secretly) the local medicine men to help them ward off the “hexes” of jealous competitors. Swahili culture includes a complex set of values that often times seems contradictory to the outsider, yet acknowledges a sort of natural order to this magical chaos.

IMG_1526As a small business consultant, I ran into a lot of unusual challenges when advising businesses on the island, especially, the more successful ones. These more ambitious village entrepreneurs were convinced that their less-motivated co-op partners became jealous. In retaliation, the less successful partners spread rumors that their counterparts sold inferior products or cheated customers. If a small business owner really started to make money, the jealousy turned spiteful, then the local medicine man might be asked to put a hex on the rival entrepreneur. From that moment, no one would buy from the hexed person.

The first time I heard this kind of story, the entrepreneur looked me in the eye and said: “Dr. Erin, what should I do?” Jaw agape, trying to collect my thoughts, my response was something like, “Uh…I help a lot of small businesses but this a new one for me. Perhaps you could sell elsewhere or change the way the business is set up.” I really didn’t have a proper answer.

But as I heard this kind of story time and time again, I started thinking maybe it’s not about creating a social venture with large numbers; it’s really about helping determined entrepreneurs. In turn, those entrepreneurs would hire community members to work at a livable wage. This business model might be more sustainable and generate more revenue than a co-op, diffuse gossip, and allow more people to get involved at their real level of interest.


This year, one of my goals as a “business doctor” is to learn more about the medicine men – to understand their advising roles, discuss their business ideas and see how they can better support village entrepreneurs. Perhaps a little business magic couldn’t hurt.

It’s quite fascinating to see how medicinal herbs and spices have influenced Swahili culture. If you are interested in a spice tour, cultural excursion to visit the medicine men of Pete Village, a beach vacation or safari on mainland Tanzania, please contact Sarah Haule, owner of Marimba Cultural Tours based in Zanzibar, East Africa. or +255 786127128.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cassandra Wang
    Apr 19 2017

    Awesome! Cassandra Wang 619.871.3020 1081 Camino Del Rio South Ste 217 San Diego, Ca. 92108



  2. Lydia
    Apr 27 2017

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this!



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