The Babongo of Gabon used to be known, derogatively, as pygmies. But their expertise and knowledge of the forests is unique and their use of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic which lies at the heart of Babongo culture, makes them famous throughout Gabon.
Life is changing fast for the Babongo and other forest peoples. The former French colony of Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, was one of the most densely forested countries on earth, with 80 per cent covered in virgin forest. But commercial logging is destroying it at an alarming rate -already 30 per cent has been cleared. Groups who used to live deep in impenetrable forests are now just a few hours' walk from the roads slicing through their homeland.Thanks to government 'resettlement programmes', most of the Babongo have moved from their traditional camps into villages along the major logging roads - though they may still spend time in the forest. Out of the forest, they find themselves at the bottom of Gabonese society,discriminated against by their neighbours and without much access to education, employment or healthcare. There are probably about 12,000forest people, but without birth certificates or identity cards, it's hard to know for definite.There are still groups living entirely in the forest, but their numbers are dwindling.
Getting ready for bwiti iboga initiation
The Gabon forest is hot, humid, and the air is thick with insects. Malaria and dengi fever are endemic. This is the home of some of the world's most endangered species, from gorilla to forest elephant.Camps are made up of six to eight huts, housing up to 20 people at any one time. The traditional huts are called tudi, and made entirely from material gathered from the forest. The basic structure is a bent sapling, overlaid with flat wide leaves for waterproofing. When the Babongo lived a nomadic life moving through the forest, this is what they would have used - a hut like this takes just half a day to make. These days they also build huts of mud, to a design adopted from their neighbours the Mitsogo tribe.The men's hut is central to the Babongo's beliefs. Its structure stands for the human body, with a carved pole at the front representing the physical parts of man, the screened area at the back the spiritual.
Only initiated men can go here. The entrance is intentionally low, so that you bow your head as you enter.The Babongo have always been hunter-gatherers, and lived entirely from the forest. Hunting goes on all year round though it's generally easier in the rainy season, when the animals' whereabouts are more predictable. It's generally the men who hunt, and tactics differ across Gabon. In Lastoursville and Lebamba, for example, men and women together hunt communally with nets.Small game are trapped using wire snares. Bows and arrows are still used for larger prey, the arrows tipped with poison from seed pods gathered in the forest then pounded to a fine paste.
But these days the Babongo also hunt with guns, often loaned (with bullets) from Bantu neighbours in return for a portion of the valuable bush meat they catch. That includes gorilla, and elephant if it can be found.It's the women who grow maize, manioc and potatoes in small patches cleared from the forest. With the children they forage for food including crabs, a real delicacy, and catch armadillos by smoking them out of their burrows. As for many traditional hunter-gatherers, just three to four hours' work a day can often provide for basic needs. The rest of the time is spent just hanging out, playing with the children, grooming each other, telling stories, smoking and sleeping
The Babongo believe they were the first people on earth. They share the forest with the Macoi, ambivalent spirit figures at once malevolent and benign. Drumming calls them from the forest, and they must be appeased at every turn - there's a ritual for every action, and countless forms of ceremony.When a person dies, for instance, the Babongo believe their spirit will linger in the village and cause harm.
The village must be cleansed through drumming, dancing and ritual. The women wash the body indoors and wrap it in a cloth. Then the men carry it to the graveyard in the forest for burial. The women paint their faces white with kaolin to symbolise purification, and dance and sing to put the dead person's spirit to rest. After three days and three nights of mourning, the funeral is declared over.The Babongo are surrounded by Bantu-speaking people, many of whom regard them as little better than animals. They are generally independent of formal authority: without papers, they keep their own traditions and decision-making structures. They may have the same civil rights as other Gabonese, but have played little part in politics.
The Babongo have a powerful reputation as sorcerers, and inspire awe in the Bantu for their knowledge of the forest. At the heart of this status is their knowledge of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic plant central to the Babongos' beliefs.The Babongo follow Bwiti, an animistic religion based on a belief in spirits which started in the forests thousands of years ago.
Bwiti initiation ceremony with iboga
More recently Bwiti, influenced in curious ways by Christianity, has become one of Gabon's official religions - there are Bwiti churches, ceremonies and initiations in the capital, Libreville, and the first President was an initiate. In the city, the Bwiti drug Iboga is taken almost as Catholics take the host at Mass, and festivals follow the Christian calendar. But out in the forest, the original form of the religion is still practiced, in all its potency.The Babongo cultivate the drug Iboga for their ceremonies, and worship it as the source of spiritual knowledge. Some Bwiti scholars believe it is the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. It comes from the bitter root of the Iboga tree, and is a powerful psycho-active drug -something like LSD, mescaline or amphetamines.
Taking Iboga brings a sense of anxiety, extreme apprehension and visual hallucinations -effects which can be made stronger by darkness, ambience and suggestion. It makes you violently sick, can lead to a state of lethargy lasting four to five days and, in extreme doses, it can kill.When Bwiti shamans eat Iboga, they are granted the power to see the future, heal the sick and speak with the dead. The Babongo use it as astimulant before hunting and during initiation ceremonies.
They believe that Iboga frees your soul to leave your body and go on a great journey,to speak with the spirits of animals and plants.The three-day initiation ceremony is used for spiritual or personal development, and to become a man. First the initiate eats the sliced root of the Iboga tree over a period of hours, monitored by his Bwiti father, and the visions begin. The Iboga allows him to see into his true self and vividly revisit the consequences of his past actions.
After 24 hours of this, the initiate is taken to the river by the men. They lift him through a construction of twigs shaped like a vulva suspended over the water, then wash him with water soaked with leaves. The men pull a sapling of the sacred matombi tree from the forest, and plant it outside the Bwiti temple - it represents the initiate as a child. Throughout the day the elders feed him small pieces of Iboga, and the whole village perform, dancing in vivid costumes, in a way designed to bring on further hallucinations.
In the last phase, the initiate is called upon to see the Bwiti visions. Fire dancers sprint the length of the village to entice the Macoi spirits fromthe darkness of the forest. The initiate must tell the elders what he has seen; this is sacred knowledge, known only to them, and through it hebecomes a man. The villagers meanwhile plant a forest around the matombi tree, to represent the problems to be faced in adult life.
Together,the men break up the trees branch by branch to symbolise the removal of all his problems. As well as influencing religious belief across Gabon, Iboga is also of increasing interest to Western medicine. One of its active ingredients,ibogain, has been used to treat heroin addicts, alcoholics and people who have been traumatised in childhood. Advocates say its particular powerful effects allow those who take it to move on from their previous lives and habits
Babongo people dancing round fire during Bwiti initiation ceremony
The Religion of Iboga or the Bwiti of the Fangs
Chief physician, Professor of Tropical Medicine
Translation from French, "La religion d'Eboga ou le Bwiti des Fanges", Med. trop. 12(3):251-257, (May/June) 1982. Copyright English translation 1997 by William J. Gladstone
Lecture given at the closing session of the course of instruction for the class of 1981 on July 10, 1981.
Among the different countries of central Africa, Gabon is certainly one of the most fascinating and mysterious. Its geographic location accounts for its equatorial water and climate conditions and the existence of a dense forest which was long a barrier to the establishment of routes of communication and delayed the exploitation of its natural resources. This forest which is penetrable only with difficulty and is the site of an invisible and fantastic world of the spirits has an irresistible effect on the individuals. Also, the different ethnic groups, some forty in all, remain isolated from each other and retain their way of life, traditions, rites and beliefs.
In the words of Bureau, "Gabon is to Africa what Tibet is to Asia, the spiritual center of religious initiations".
We will concentrate our attention more particularly on two ethnic groups and two regions:
Tsogo land and the Mitsogos;
Woleu N'Tem and the Fangs or Pahouins.
Tsogo land extends from Fernan Vaz lagoon in the West to Chaillu Mountains in the East, named after the explorer Paul Belloni du Chaillu who, from 1857 to 1865, penetrated in the interior of the country. This region is flat and dotted with lagoons along the ocean shores; it becomes rugged and mountainous east of Mouila and reaches an altitude of 1575 meters on Mount Iboundji. It is covered by a thick, oppressive forest which in most places forms a veritable canopy of vegetation.
Women undergoing Bwiti initiation
The mountains are always veiled by mist, and the combination of a low degree of sunlight and a high humidity accounts for the rather low temperature, particularly during the dry season. "It is an unhealthful type of heat, the kind of heat you associate with fever and hospitals", said G. Simenon in his novel "Coup de lune" in 1932.
Because of the inhospitable natural surroundings, the damp warmth of the valleys, the tribal wars of the last century in which the Mitsogos were driven back by the Bakeles between the left bank of the Ogoue and the Ngounie, the villages are located on the high grounds.
An initiation ritual of a Bwiti
The essential preoccupation of the Mitsogos is the Bwiti, a primitive Bwiti. According to Raponda Walker, the Bwiti of the Mitsogos may be defined as "a male secret society that has its rites, its regulations, its secret sessions and public sessions". There is no supreme chief for all of the tribes that have adopted it and each village practices the Bwiti independently of the others, under the authority of a local president. To join the sect, you have to take an oath and swear "Na bwiti a besu" (by our bwiti) before receiving an initiation with the sacred plant iboga.
The Bwiti originally belonged to the Mitsogos and also to the Okandes and the peoples of the Eshire group; subsequently, it extended down to the coastal areas, the regions of the Middle Ogoue and the Woleu N'Tem where the Fangs are to be found.
The Woleu N'Tem, the northernmost region of Gabon, is relatively isolated from the rest of the country by the chain of Crystal Mountains. This Plateau is difficult to reach and is situated at an elevation of 700 to 1200 meters. A single winding road goes there. It is along this road, somewhere between Oyem and Mitzic, that Pierre Benoit laid the plot of his novel "Monsieur de la Ferte".
Libreville, Gabon. Portrait of participants of the Bwiti and Iboga initiation that a young English man is following. Bwiti is a religious initiation ceremony performed by the Mitsogo and Fang people of Gabon, using the hallucinogenic rootbark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant to induce a spiritual enlightenment and to solve problems of a spiritual nature.
In this region of Woleu N'Tem, "the novelist describes the equatorial forest as gloomy, hostile, frightful, and evil. Every backwater pool teems with caimans, and as soon as nightfall comes to the bivouac, you can expect at any time to see lizards and snakes fall into the wrought iron mess kits. But, still according to Pierre Benoit, these terrifying and unseen hosts are nothing compared to the men who haunt the Gabon forest". These men are the Fangs or Pahouins. They probably came from central Africa, perhaps from the regions of Ubangi and Chari, fleeing before Islam in a southwesterly direction toward the ocean. They are sure of their own strength and of their ability to dominate, eager to receive that which is new, convinced that they can integrate all techniques and ideas into their own culture, and it became obvious around 1910 and especially since 1925 that they would take possession of the primitive Bwiti of the Mitsogos and modify it. To it they added their memories, their traditions and introduced ideas and rites that came from Catholicism; finally, they initiated men and women. However, the chants usually remained in the Tsogo language, the official language which is to Bwiti what Latin is to the Church.
Currently, the primitive Bwiti of the Mitsogos is on the decline while the Bwiti of the Fangs is expanding, though perhaps, according to some, it is losing a little of its initial purity.
Wise old woman of Bwiti faith
The Gabon forest is a veritable phytotherapeutic gold mine and its plants are an element indispensable to sylvan life and rites. Among the plants with magical properties, the most widely used is the sacred plant, a type of apocynacea, Tabernanthe iboga, the foundation of the Bwiti and the basis of visions of the next world.
Tabernanthe iboga is a small smooth shrub that grows up to a height of 1.5 meters. The flowers are white with pink spots and the ellipsoid fruits have globular seeds. It has a pivoting branching root that is more or less twisted. When you chew its bark, it has a bitter, astringent taste and produces an anesthetic sensation after a few minutes. The alkaloids are found mainly in the cortex of this root but are contained in every part of the plant. The number of alkaloids known at this time is 22. The principal ones are:
Ibogaine and the related alkaloids have very special properties. In low doses, ibogaine reduces sleep, makes it possible to resist hunger and fatigue, activates circulation and respiration, promotes and activates secretions and diuresis.
In high doses, it produces a hallucinatory inebriation with motor incoordination, and sometimes a state of lethargy lasting 4 to 5 days. In massive doses, ibogaine may cause death as a result of bulbar involvement and paralysis of the respiratory muscles. The essential effect is its hallucinogenic property. The drug is a psychodysleptic that produces a state of anxiety and extreme apprehension and a visual hallucination, considerably enhanced by darkness, the ambiance and suggestion. This action is not unlike that of LSD, mescaline and amphetamines.
The current studies by Goutarel, Potier and Dacosta suggest that these are substances of particular interest which produce an increased state of wakefulness without producing side effects.
The Pygmies attribute the discovery of this plant to the warthogs who, it seems, are very fond of it. These animals dig holes at the foot of the iboga shrubs to chew the bark of the roots. They then go into a state of wild frenzy, leaping and fleeing as though they were prey to terrifying visions. Porcupines and gorillas also search for these roots.
This plant was recommended for use in human clinical practices in 1905 by Pouchet and Chevallier who advocated it in the treatment of neurasthenia and in convalescence, and by Kuborn who recommended it in the treatment of sleeping sickness. The iboga alkaloids have their place in the pharmacopoeia under the name of Lambarene and glutaminic Lambarene B2 PP; these products were withdrawn from the market about ten years ago. Iboga is still used as a stimulant by hunters and warriors who stalk at night, by trackers, and by those who paddle canoes and pirogues. Actually, iboga is reserved for the bwiti cult. This sacred plant has served to unify a whole people, and to some extent has enabled it to resist the influence of Western civilization.
Iboga is the very source of the bwiti religion, commonly called "religion of Eboga". Iboga gives knowledge of the beyond through the spiritual death, in advance of its time, that it produces. By the visions that it brings about, ritual mastication of iboga permits contact with ancestors and gods: Mebeghe is the name of the divinity in the Fangs, a supreme being without mother or father or spouse. It engenders the three divinities by bursting the divine primordial egg.
Nzame-Mebeghe, God, is born with his brothers and sister but remains pure.
Nyingone-Mebeghe, "sister of God", the female principle of the universe, goddess of fertility and of the night. At the instigation of Evus, she committed Nsem, incest, with None. As punishment, she must carry the earth on her head.
None-Mebeghe, the third individual in the divinity, the male principle, has committed Nsem.
Ekurana has issued fourth from the placenta and umbilical body of the divine egg. It possesses thunder and makes order reign.
Evus, twin brother of Ekurana, has been punished with a thunder clap on orders from Nzame. He is the tempter and initiator of Nsem.
All of these divinities are represented in the temple, the place for night-time ceremonies, the place for celebrations on the occasion of feasts and initiations, the place for funeral dances on the death of a person of standing. The temple may also serve as a meeting room, as a courthouse or a guardhouse. It is called Mbandja. It is a vast rectangular hut, measuring on the average twenty meters in length and ten meters in width, completely closed in the back, partially or completely closed on the sides, and with a wide opening in the front. The dimensions depend on the size of the village, the repute of the chiefs, the number of followers and their wealth. The long axis is laid out northeast by southwest, parallel to the route followed by the Pahouin group during its migration in the last century. The roof is covered with ordinary matting or with raphia leaves or preferably with leaves of sclerosperma, a sort of dwarf palm. The curved canopy must always be made of sclerosperma leaves. The framework is supported by different columns. The great column with a highly sculpted base, situated at the entrance to the temple, partly hidden by the canopy, has an essential symbolism. At the foot of it burns a torch of oleoresin of Copaifera religiosa from the sacred tree Olumi or Andzem. Among the Mitsogos, the column rests on the remains of ancestors (skulls and tibias) and it is strictly forbidden to lean against it out of respect for the ancestors. When it is no longer used because of its deteriorated condition, it is laid down with care and takes its place in a corner of the temple or against the sacred tree.
The sanctuary proper is located in the completely closed back part. This is where the musicians and the chief of the community, the Kombo, will take their places. In the same location, we can see the Bwiti symbolized in the form of small carved statuettes. The side walls of the temple are sometimes bare or may be decorated, painted, or may be hung with emblems: snake skins, trophies, musical instruments. There are often bas-reliefs highlighted by very lively colors and wooden boards decorated with paintings. The use of iboga which gives colored visions may not be unrelated to this decorative art. Despite the sacred character of the temple, travelers or strangers may stop there for a rest, and one often sees old people sitting there, smoking their pipe.
Indeed, everything there is a symbol. Bwiti writings describe perfectly the significance of its principal elements. This temple represents the image of man lying on his back. The ground covered by the canopy represents the legs. The back of the temple, the sanctuary, represents the head. An indoor wood fire is the heart. The navel is depicted by a round piece of basketwork or a bicycle wheel suspended from the roof. It symbolizes the place where all the world's creatures are connected to the divinity, and what an excellent symbol is the use of the wheel and its infinite number of spokes to express complex metaphysical concepts. The carved main column represents the external sex organ of this man stretched out on his back, as the bwitists say, "a link between the sky and the earth". It supports the crest of the roof which, with the rafters, represents the spine. Along the axis of the temple, the center of the column is pierced with a hole of 10 to 20 centimeters in diameter which is far higher than it is wide. This is the female external sex organ. Binet has specified its symbolism and has emphasized this complementarity of the sexes. It is the door that every man goes through as he comes into the world. It is the "ozamboga", the opening to the future hoped for by the Fangs after completing their migration with so many difficulties. At the same time, it is a window that opens out on the beyond which permits communication from one world to the next. A second smaller hole above represents the gate of heaven through which one must pass to join God. It divides the temple into a left and a right part. According to Binet, who has made a particular study of the Bwiti of the Fangs, one should enter on the right side, i.e., the "left foot", and go out on the left side. The right side symbolizes life, the sun and man: it is the men's chamber. The left side symbolizes death, the moon and woman: it is the women's chamber. At the location of the neck is a second pillar that represents Nyingone in a state of expiation for the incest, the Nsem, that she committed with None under the influence of Evus. For this purpose, she must have her hands raised and lift up the earth above her head; the planet is then both a diadem and a burden. Above is a depiction of a knot symbolizing the bond between the here and now and the beyond, between earthly existence and divine existence.
Thus, the first half of the temple presents binary realities, the male side and the female side, with the influence of None and Nyingone. The deepest part, that of the chancel, situated past the fire, has a ternary symbolism, because we also see the action of the sky with Nzame. That is where the breath of God passes.
In the back is the harp player and the two musicians who play the obaka, a sort of sonorous rod symbolizing the sound of the hammer on the anvil originally made by None. That is the place where the Kombo, chief and father of the community, holds office; he will direct all of the ceremonies, dominated by chanting and dancing. The musical instruments are numerous and symbolic. The rattle is carried by the initiates in the right hand. It symbolizes the genital organs of Bunenge who, according to Fangs mythology, died while picking fruit in an "atangatier". His body was found by his wife Benzogho in the river. The fly-whisk symbolizes the genital organs of his wife Benzogho, sacrificed after taking iboga which had made it possible for her to see her husband again. Benzogho, initiated by the Pigmies, paid with her life for the knowledge she acquired and is responsible for the foundations of the Bwiti. The musical bow symbolizes Nzame, whose wood represents the spinal column. It is very difficult to play this instrument and the Mitsogos are the only specialists. The clear-toned rod or obaka punctuates all events, and notably the bursting of the divine egg. It symbolizes the deafening din of thunder. The eight-stringed harp (Ngoma or Ngombi) issued forth from the body of Benzogho. It is a cithara in which each string represents a part of his body. It also symbolizes maternal and paternal relationships and is a veritable family organization chart. The harp made of Anzem wood is the object of exceptional veneration. It is considered as a living being. Initiated, dressed and bathed, it possesses a celestial spirit within its body.
A high priest poetically described the role of the instrument and the music as follows: "To see God, one must eat the body of God symbolized by iboga, and the cithara, Ngoma, takes us by the hand and leads us toward God. It is a pirogue that takes us from the here and now to the beyond, from the profane world to the sacred world, from the world of the living to that of the dead". When the harp plays, it is woman who cries, and the woman is Benzogho, the first victim of Eboga. The great moments of the cult are announced by the horn, usually an antelope horn, and the hand bell which plays an essential role and sets the rhythm of the prayers. It notifies the arrival of new participants and the deposit of offerings at the foot of the second column. It symbolizes the heartbeats of God. The audience also sings to the rhythm of tom-toms and cattle bells made of round fruits, sort of leguminous plants with large seeds.
Like most religions, Bwiti has initiation ceremonies, a ritual, a liturgy. The initiation ceremonies remain secret, and among the Fangs take place on a Wednesday or a Thursday. They are followed by several ritual nights. The initiation, which takes place from the age of 10 to 12, the age of discretion, must be received as a great honor and is indispensable for understanding the ways of the "things of the earth". No one may be initiated without first chewing iboga in a sufficient quantity to bring about visions of the beyond.
The plant of initiation, the Ndjimba, is situated in the midst of the forest, among the Mitsogos. It is the site of secret sessions. It is located in a place fairly far from the village, under a Copaifera religiosa, Olumi or Andzem, a tree with a red trunk whose color contrasts with the green of the forest, the tallest tree, a mysterious tree that resounds when struck because of the hardness of its wood, a tree that insures riches, honors and fame. The resin of its bark is used to prepare torches, and a decoction provides the lustral water necessary for washing the Bwiti statuettes and the purification of the followers. Among the Fangs, the Ndjimba, against the backdrop of the forest, is a short distance from the temple and often right opposite in a place swept perfectly clean, surrounded by tree trunks that serve as benches. That is where the future initiates gather. One always finds there the tree with a straight trunk whose size symbolizes how difficult it is for a man to rise to the divine level.
Between the Ndjimba and the temple is the Otunga, the very place of the sacrifice that must be paid to be accepted for the new spiritual birth. The Otunga is often a tree. It is in fact a trial and symbolically the leader of the chorus is beaten there and thrown to the ground.
The initiation begins with a bath in a forest stream while the cithara is heard. The candidates receive a handful of freshly picked iboga roots, a set quantity chosen for each of them. They use small baskets of woven rattan, the size of saucers, manufactured for this purpose and tied together three by three. The young sometimes show a certain reluctance to chew these roots, and they may be given the contents of a gourd to drink, consisting of water in which the iboga root has been macerated. The boy often vomits, but that is a good sign because "you must vomit (everything) up to the first drop of milk", meaning that you must totally reject earthly life to accede to another life. Very quickly, highly colored images appear, the initiates lose consciousness of the outer world and fall into a deep sleep on a mat laid out on the ground. The state of lethargy depends on the dose of iboga ingested and may last 4 to 5 days during which time no food is taken. The purpose of absorbing this "beverage of bitterness" is to be able to see the beyond thanks to the hallucinogenic properties of iboga, to communicate with God and the ancestors, and to die on this earth in order to be reborn closer to God.
During the period of lethargy, the initiate sees fantastic apparitions. An endless procession of masked, bony, lame, crippled, grimacing, terrible dead files past rapidly. The belly is always open, as a consequence of ritual autopsy. Gradually, the specters disappear, the visions dissipate and the initiate recovers from his state of inebriation and dazed condition.
The initiates then undergo a thorough examination by the Kombo and must be able to answer the questions to determine whether they have seen Bwiti, how he appeared to them and what he told them. If the answers are satisfactory, the successful candidate is admitted into the sect. In the opposite case, which is rare, a new initiation with iboga must be performed.
However, it is not all over yet for the young initiate. Ibama Ngadi, the thunder plant, a ritual solution that burns like pimento, is poured into his eyes while he stares directly at the sun. The purpose is to show him that now that he has experienced the initiatory light, he can henceforth look at the profane light of the sun without being blinded by its rays.
There are three degrees in the initiation, or three levels of maturity corresponding to childhood, adulthood and old age. The Bandji is the young initiate; when a Bandji proves to have sufficient maturity, he will be made a Nima, and will soon be a Nima Na Kombo. The Kombo is the chief, the patriarch who belongs to the assembly of ancestors. He sees to it in the community that the secrets are not divulged.
This initiation is followed by three Ngozes, ritual nights, whose names are:
the first night, Efun, the genesis
the second night, Mesoso, the bath
the third night, Otunga, the dues.
The ritual nights, or Ngozes, take place from sunset to sunrise. Night, the time of fertility but also the time of the moon and the earth, must be as inconspicuous as possible. The Ngozes are scheduled long ahead of time. There is a calendar of holy days patterned on that of the Catholic Church. Christmas and Easter are major celebrations. The Ngozes usually take place after the initiation rites. A Ngoze can also be held to make up for the initiation of a prematurely deceased relative, or offer prayers to the dead, to find out the cause of a disease and to cure it, to get manioc, fish, and children. Ritual nights are public and anyone may be invited to attend. Actually, non initiates depart before the important rites begin: one cannot remain until dawn for several nights in succession without chewing iboga. By morning on the day of worship, the Mbandja is decorated with garlands, with greenery, particularly from palms and creeping club mosses (lycopodia) or ferns of the Platycerium stemaria type (it should be mentioned that this plant has another purpose and there is a preparation made for the care and preservation of the hair, consisting of ashes of Platycerium stameria leaves and vegetable butter, to be applied in the morning and the evening). The followers prepare to take part in the worship by chewing some pieces of iboga root. Alcohol and wine are also distributed in moderate quantity. Prior to any ceremony, purification by fire is performed by the leader of the chorus. He brandishes a torch of okoume resin, circulating in all directions inside the temple. The women decorate the forehead of the initiates with a red vertical line and a white horizontal line as a symbol of the male and the female sex. The women wear a white robe and the men who rank high in the hierarchy wear a large white robe and a red belt. Once the assembly is gathered, the Kombo gives the news and the instructions for the day. The ceremony, announced by sounding the horn, takes place at night in three stages:
- The Efun, that is to say, the origins, the genesis, the birth and the beginning of God, marks the beginning of the ceremonies. The musical bow and the obaka are heard: this is the bursting of the divine egg. At midnight, at the sound of the horn, the initiates kneel, addressing Nzame in their prayers, thus ending the celebration of the genesis;
- Mvenge, death, the second stage, relates the life and death of the individual, often with scenes that more or less depict the passion of Christ. As the dancing and chanting reach their highest intensity, the cithara is heard and Bwiti will materialize by the appearance in the forest of a cross of straw and wood several meters high which is set ablaze and waved in all directions. It may also appear in the form of banana leaves in an oval design with two torches for the eyes and one for the mouth in the center;
- The third stage is the beyond, or Meyaya. The rites of the descent into the grave are performed before the kneeling assembly. The faithful, torch in hand, then leave the temple and go through the main streets of the village, taking three steps forward and two steps back. This night march when the moon is at its zenith is particularly impressive and majestic. The horn sounds, announcing each move and setting the pace for this retreat in single file.
After this long walk, they return to the Mbandja. The dancing will continue uninterruptedly until dawn's early light. The night-time ritual has made them pass from daylight to daylight, from the here and now to the beyond, and night has been erased. The faithful will go to sleep. In addition to the sensations produced by the mastication of iboga, they will feel the inebriation due to palm wine and the smoke of Indian hemp.
Thus, during 12 hours by the clock, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., the uninterrupted, endlessly diversified concatenation of chants, dances and rites performed by individuals perfectly familiar with the symbolic actions leaves an impression of impenetrability.
The next day, despite the physical and mental exhaustion, will be a day of feasting and the menu will be presented in a large cooking pot with meat, fish, bananas, taros, prepared exclusively by the women.
Such is the Bwiti. Some conclusions are called for in order to understand this religion better.
By definition, the doctrine of a secret society is reserved solely for the initiates. The fear of punishment is a major obstacle to the disclosure of secrets, by deference to the ancestors and the pride of keeping such "great secrets".
The Bwiti is, first and foremost, a remembrance of great ancestors whose skulls and tibias are piously preserved, but although that is the primary goal, it is not the only one.
This society which includes the notables of the village permits a discussion and a better understanding of the social problems relating to the clan, the village and the ethnic group and particularly relations with other clans, villages and ethnic groups.
The Bwiti has brought about changes in social structures, and the mystical bond that unites the initiates often eclipses blood ties. It has played a major political role. Some see it as a veritable State religion, as a national cult.
The liturgical rites are not very demanding and consist of chants and dances. It is adapted to modern life and the strictly occult side of the secret ceremonies is of diminished importance in relation to the outward opening of the ritual nights.
|Tabernatnthe Iboga - Iboga: The visionary root of Africa|
- Apocynaceae - Tropical zones of Western Africa
Family: Apocynaceae (Dogbane Family); Subfamily Plumerioideae, Tabernaemontaneae Tribe
Common Names: Abona, abonete, aboua, ahua (Pahuin), bocca, boccawurzel, boga, botola, bugensongo (Ngala), dibuga, dibugi, difuma (Eshira), eboga (Fang), eboga bush, eboghe, eboka ("miracle wood"), elahu (Mongo), eroga, gbana (Gbaya), gifuma, iboa, ibo'a, iboga (Galwa-Mpongwe/Miene), ibogakraut, ibogain-pflanze, iboga shrub, ibogastrauch, iboga typique (Congo), iboga vrai, ibogawortel (Dutch), ibogawurzel, ikuke (Mongo), inado a ebengabanga (Tshiluba), inaolo a ikakusa (Turumbu), inkomi (Mono), isangola, leboka, liboko (Vili/Yoombe), libuga, libuka, lofondja, lopundja, mabasoka, mbasaoka, mbasoka (Mitsogo), mbondo (Aka Pygmy), meboa (Bakwele), minkolongo (Fang), moabi, mungondo (Eshira), obona, pandu (Mongo), sese (Fang), wunderholz
Iboga is basic to the Bwiti cult and other secret societies in Gabon and the Congo. It has been used in these areas and throughout West Africa since ancient times, and has long been held as a symbol of the power of the forest.
The Bwiti cult came to be some time around 1890, after The Fang combined Christian beliefs with the ancestor ritual of the Apinji and Metsogo tribes, who had previously discovered Iboga from the Pygmies. The Bwiti cult branches off into numerous sects, each containing several communities that average around 50 people each. The sects delineate based on their degree of Christian influence.
Bwiti women followers feeding Iboga leaves during ritual
An evergreen shrub, Tabernanthe iboga grows to a height of 1.2m with a spread of 1.5m. The stem is erect and branching; the leaves are dark green, opposite and narrowly ovate-acuminate; the flowers are white to yellowish and expand widely in a tubular formation. A native of Gabon (Africa), it prefers well-composted, well-drained soils in a protected, partly shady position, and is drought and frost tender. It propagates by fresh seed or cuttings.
There are several alkaloids present in iboga root; chief among them is ibogaine, as it is responsible for the vast majority of the plant's psychoactive properties.
Iboga has far-reaching social influence. According to natives, the initiate cannot enter the cult until he has seen Bwiti, and the only way to see Bwiti is to eat iboga.
Within the cult, iboga has several applications. Sorcerers take the drug to seek information from the spirit world, and leaders of the cult consume iboga for a full day before asking advice from ancestors. Hunters also use the drug to stay alert and to revitalize themselves during extended hunts.
Music plays a central role in the iboga rituals of the Bwiti. The harp is particularly important; they are expertly crafted and played during the rituals to accompany singing from specific texts.
Iboga is intimately associated with death: the plant is frequently anthropomorphized as a supernatural being, a "generic ancestor" which can so highly value or despise an individual that it can carry him away to the realm of the dead.
There are sometimes deaths from the excessive doses taken during initiations, but the intoxication usually so interferes with motor activity that the initiates at first can only sit gazing intently into space, and eventually collapse and have to be carried to a special house or forest hideout. During this almost comatose period, the 'shadow' (soul) is believed to have left the body to wander with the ancestors in the land of the dead. The banzie (angels)-the initiates-relate their hallucinations as follows: "A dead relative came to me in my sleep and told me to eat it"; "I was sick and counseled to eat Iboga to cure myself"; "I wanted to know God-to know things of the dead and the land beyond"; "I walked or flew over a long multicolored road or over many rivers which lead me to my ancestors who then took me to the great gods."
Ibogaine is a restricted substance (possession is illegal) in some countries, including the US, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Belgium.
TRADITIONAL USE: Iboga is used traditionally amongst the various Bwiti sects as the "one true sacrament". The complex ceremonies and the tribal dances associated with Iboga vary greatly from locality to locality, but the application of the drug is fairly consistent.
Within each sect, the iboga is taken in two ways: regularly in limited doses before and in the early part of the ceremonies, followed after midnight by a smaller dose; and once or twice during the initiation to the cult in excessive doses of one to three basketfuls over an eight to twenty-four-hour period, to "break open the head," thus inducing "contact with the ancestors through collapse and hallucinations."
Another common theme is the giving of sermons by Bwiti priests at special temples that are reserved for iboga rituals. Before a priest gives his sermon, he often lies for hours after taking iboga in a "grave" until he is suitably inspired, at which point he ascends and delivers his nkobo akyunge, or "amazing words."
The ritualistic use of iboga has emerged in Europe and the United States as well. These groups are said to take cues from Indian mushroom circles and peyote meetings. Within these groups, iboga root is most often combined with 50 micrograms of LSD.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: There are several different preparations for iboga, but they all center around the root.
In Gabon, ground or rasped Iboga root is consumed or, less commonly, made into a tea. The root is always extracted from live plants (in such a way that allows the plant to live and produce more root).
In the Congo, iboga root is extracted into palm wine to produce a visionary beverage with aphrodisiac properties.
While just six to 10 g of the powdered root is considered to be a psychedelic dose, the initiation rites of the various Bwiti sects call for anywhere between 50 - 200 g. The smallest effective dose is a heaping teaspoon, though at that level iboga acts as more of a stimulant/euphoric than a psychedelic.
When measuring against body weight, 2 - 10 mg per 1 kg produces a stimulating effect, though entirely different than that of amphetamine. 40 mg per 1 kg produces psychedelic effects.
Iboga root is sometimes combined with other plants, such as Cannabis and yohimbe. Many other plants yet to be identified are believed to be used in tandem with iboga.
MEDICINAL USE: In addition to its visionary qualities, iboga has a variety of medical applications. Its root has been used in West African folk medicine, likely for as long as it has ritualistically, as a stimulant, tonic, and aphrodisiac. It is also utilized to combat severe cases of nervous tension, as well as fever, high blood pressure, and toothaches, due to its anesthetic properties.
The Metsogo use iboga root as a medical diagnostic tool; it is thought to provide insight into illness. Iboga is used in the Congo to combat Malaria. The French have claimed to have successfully used iboga root extract to treat myriad diseases, most notably syphilis and neurasthenia. Homeopathic medicine makes use of iboga root extract for a number of ailments as well.
A woman visitor under-going Bwiti initiation
The chief active component of iboga, ibogaine, is given to patients in addiction clinics that are going through heroin withdrawl. It has also been used with success in reversing addictions to methadone, tobacco, cocaine, crack cocaine, and alcohol. However, since 2005, production of ibogaine has slowed to the point where it is not available as a treatment to most addicts seeking therapy worldwide.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Common themes amongst reports of iboga experience include a sense of interconnectedness with the forest, to the point where the sense of self and the forest cease to exist as separate entities. And of course, connection with ancestors. The Fang describe iboga's ability to merge the natural and supernatural realms, and the living and dead.
According to the few white people that have gotten a chance to try iboga root, the term ancestor can be taken broadly to include animals and the ancients.
The effects of iboga usually last eight to twelve hours.
Bakalar, James B. and Lester Grinspoon. Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered. 1979. Web. 6 December 2009 <http://www.lycaeum.org/leda/docs/150.shtml?ID=150>.
Ratsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2005. Print.
Sandberg, Nick. "An Introduction to Ibogaine." Web. 6 Dec. 2009 <http://www.ibogaine.co.uk/>.(http://www.entheology.org/edoto/anmviewer.asp?a=89)