IbogaThe Iboga Plant, Experiences and Treatment
Most people who have heard of ibogaine and iboga treatment for addiction are aware that it comes from a plant from Africa, and that its original use is a part of the spiritual practice of people of somewhere on that continent. However, to truly understand ibogaine, the plants it comes from – plants in the Apocynaceae family, most specifically Tabernanthe iboga – and its applications, one must delve into the history of the Bwiti religion, and the uses of this plant within it. Although Bwiti is a relatively new religion from a historical context, it is syncretistic, and merges traditional African spiritual beliefs and practices with the beliefs and practices of Catholicism. So, despite the emergence and rapid growth of Bwiti over the past century, it is drawn from two very old religious cultures; although the merging of the two is new, both of its foundations have existed separately for many centuries before joining together in this new faith.
The iboga plant, however, has likely existed for much longer than either of the religions that today make up Bwiti, and there is some question as to just how long it has been used in spiritual traditions. The main plant used to collect the substance required for an ibogaine experience is commonly called iboga. Although the active substance is also present in other plants also within the Apocynaceae family, such as Voacanga africana and Tabernaemontana undulata, it is in its most highly concentrated form in Tabernanthe iboga specifically. This plant is a perennial rainforest shrub that is native to western and central Africa. It generally grows to be about six feet tall, but older specimens can take on tree-like qualities and reach as high as thirty feet. It has brownish-green to reddish iboga seeds, small, flat, green leaves, and white and pink flowers.
The psychoactive part, however, is found in highest concentration in the roots – it is one of several indole alkaloids found there. The roots are a pale yellow in color, and ibogaine is harvested by digging them up, scraping off the outer protective layer, and then collecting the softer layer below. When ingested, it has a bitter taste, and it creates an anesthetic sensation in the mouth as well as on the skin. In small doses, it stimulates the central nervous system, but in larger doses, the effect is much greater than that. Iboga is known throughout Africa as a dissociative psychedelic that promotes visionary growth, and quickly, it is becoming known as such outside of Africa as well.
The Bwiti religion emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century and it has grown rapidly since then. In fact, today it is one of three official religions in the central African country of Gabon, and a large percentage of the population practices it to at least some extent. Bwiti began as a reaction to the spread of Catholicism there; although many people embraced Christianity when it was presented to them by French missionaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, most did not want to entirely abandon their traditional spiritual practices. As a result, during this country’s French colonial period, some of the population retreated into the jungle and in many ways back to basics. During this migration, the forest-dwelling Babongo and Mitsogo people of Gabon encountered the elusive and often secretive pygmy tribes and eventually learned of iboga and its applications through their connections with them. Although it is unknown how long the pygmy people had been using it, this exchange of information was its introduction into greater society. The Babongo, Apindji, and Mitsogo people who practiced the Bwiti religion quickly incorporated iboga into their ceremonies and rituals, and from there it was passed on to the Fang and Eshira people of southern Gabon as well.
There are countless different sects of Bwiti in existence today, and there is really no centralized religious organization that oversees them. Although most incorporate or reflect Christian and specifically Catholic teachings, the extent to which this is evident varies drastically. Not surprisingly, the Catholic missionaries that introduced Christianity to the people of Gabon were not, and still are not, very happy with the merging of their teachings with traditional African beliefs and practices, and the watering down of their doctrines. As a result, there was a great deal of persecution of Bwitists in its early days, particularly during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. During that period, Gabon was still a colony of France and the burning of temples and murders of Bwiti religious leaders by missionaries were not only accepted, but were in many ways encouraged by the French colonial government of the time.
Bwiti is a fascinating belief system that incorporates animism, ancestor worship, and Christianity into one cohesive religion with a little bit of everything. Although the name Bwiti easily translates into “dead” or “ancestor” in Niger-Congo Bantu languages, more recent investigation into its etymology suggests that the name of this religion more likely comes from the proper name of a group of pygmies, the Mbouiti, who still live in the jungle on the border of Gabon and Zaire today.
People who practice Bwiti generally consider themselves Christians, and their stories and mythology includes many references to the bible and often mirror commonly known biblical tales. In fact, many practitioners believe that Gabon has a connection with the location of the biblical Garden of Eden, and that the iboga tree is a descendent of the Tree of Knowledge described in the Book of Genesis. Each community gets together for a meeting similar to mass on Saturday evenings (that lasts until Sunday morning), and their biggest holidays are Christmas and Easter. They hold initiation rites and some of their rituals are reflective of Catholic sacraments. However, they do not believe in Hell, and so far, there is no written text specific to Bwiti, likely due to the great variances between different sects. It’s likely that a text of some sort will emerge, though, as Bwiti continues to grow.
Bwiti is monotheistic, with one God that is commonly referred to as Nazame Mebeghe; he is similar to the god worshipped in Catholicism, but is less angry and vengeful, and usually does not seek to punish his followers. According to Bwiti mythology, he created the world, and an egg, from which triplets were born. These triplets, Eyene, None, and Gningone basically correspond to the Catholic trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but the final triplet of the three, Gningone, has a feminine energy that could perhaps be more easily compared to the Virgin Mary. Bwiti followers view Gningone as the mother of the black race.
Today, Bwiti has begun to spread far and wide and it is unknown how many people practice it currently. It has spread into the countries near and adjacent to Gabon, such as Cameroon, The Republic of the Congo, Zaire, and Equatorial Guiniea, although it is practiced in secret in the latter of these due to religious persecution there by Christian missionaries even today. In most of these places though, it is accepted and widespread, and generally, it is open to all. Practitioners feel that Bwiti is for anyone who approaches it with respect, regardless of race or background. Many followers hope that it will someday be will known around the world, and that it will take root in western countries to the same extent that Christianity has over the past few centuries in Africa.
In Gabon, as mentioned above, Bwiti is one of the three official recognized religions in that country. In 1960, the country’s first president, Leon M’ba, was a practitioner and had experienced iboga initiation. During the transition from French colony to independent country, he vocally defended iboga in French colonial courts. Further, in 2000, the Council of Ministers of Gabon declared iboga a national treasure. Bwiti is viewed as a popular religion that keeps alive the tribal values that are an important part of the spirit of the country. Many government leaders, as well as police, army, and government officials, are iboga initiates and openly participate in weekly ceremonies on Saturday nights. Today, Bwiti is as common in Gabon’s capital, Libreville, as it is more rural areas.
Bwiti & Iboga
Use of the iboga plant is a vital and integral part of the Bwiti religion. The roots of this plant are cultivated and harvested specifically for spiritual growth. The goals of its use are numerous; religious leaders encourage its consumption first and foremost for the radical spiritual growth of the individual, but also its ingestion aims to help stabilize family and community structure, to heal illnesses, and to help resolve personal, pathological problems of the person. Further, it is used in traditional rite of passage ceremonies, and in religious meetings by the community collectively. Large doses yield complex visions and deep introspection that is viewed as beneficial to not only the individual consuming iboga, but an individual’s participation is also seen as beneficial to the larger community as a whole.
A spiritual leader called N’ganga leads the frequent ceremonies that involve iboga therapy. The root word of this term, gang, relates to wisdom, knowledge, and skill in Bantu languages. Ceremonies of all kinds begin at night and in many cases last several days. During that time, participants consume the root of the iboga plant in tea, or more commonly, the root scrapings directly. A traditional torch of bark and tree sap is burned, and drums and the traditional Ngombi harp are played. Choreographed traditional dances accompany the ceremonies and a single dance can last an hour or more without a rest. The most important ceremony is the rite of passage/initiation ceremony, but ceremonies in general are frequent. For example, a weekly ceremony akin to Catholic mass occurs on Saturday nights, and other ceremonies pay homage to ancestors, aim to heal the sick or drive out bad spirits, or are held in celebration of major holidays like Easter and Christmas.
Initiation Rites/Rite of Passage
The initiation ceremony, or rite of passage, is the most important ceremony in the Bwiti religion. It’s similar to what a drug dependent individual might experience at an iboga wellness center when their addiction is lifted from them. It’s not mandatory that all Bwiti practitioners participate in one of these ceremonies, but most do choose to be initiated for personal reasons, ranging from coming of age, to health issues, to other support for traumatic events. Participation in one of these ceremonies can be undertaken at any age, and in some sects, the first experience with it can occur at ages as young as eight to ten; in these cases, the individual will likely participate in another rite of passage early in adulthood as well.
Prior to ingestion of iboga root bark, the initiate will make an offering to the jungle, will take a ritual bath, and will make a confession in front of officiating members. The confession covers all of their missteps in life up until that point, and it is important that they include everything. Omission of sins can lead to disastrous results for the initiate, it is warned, and could even cause permanent madness or even death.
After bathing and confession, the individual is dressed in red, black, and white cloth. Initiates, as well as other participants there to assist, usually wear raffia skirts, shells or beads, and animal skins. When the ceremony begins in the evening, a large quantity of iboga root bark is ingested, and over the next seven to twelve hours, the person being initiated will eat as much as several hundred grams of it.
Once under the influence of iboga, the initiate will lie on the floor much of the time, surrounded by the other participants. He or she will be assisted by the “father” and “mother” assigned to help during the ceremony, along with other members of the community. These helpers will likely ingest smaller amounts of the iboga root during the ceremony as well. Over time, the initiate’s consciousness will change throughout and visions will become more intense as they become more and more separated from reality. At some point, usually during the third night, an officiating member will use a thorn pressed into the initiate’s skin to see if there is a reaction; if not, then the individual is determined to be completely separated from the exterior world, and is experiencing the climax of the ceremony. The hallucinations and visions are at their peak then, and Bwitists view this as the moment of true baptism and direct dialogue with God.
Over time, the initiate will eventually come back to reality and into what is believed to be and is seen as a new life. After the iboga experience is over, the participant will recount his or her journey and visions to the greater community. Some report going to the afterlife and speaking with the divine, either alone or with the help of ancestors. Many have encounters with religious figures like the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or St. Peter. Others experience profound symbolism including animals, plants, the jungle, or other things that are important to them in their own personal history.
All in all, the initiation ceremony is considered an experience of great illumination and is something that will stay with the participant throughout the rest of his or her life. A new name is revealed to him or her during the iboga experience, and it is added to the given name from that point forward. Furthermore, this initiation ceremony is something the individual will return to mentally and emotionally during all times of struggle, thereby putting himself or herself at the best point for observation of the situation at hand. It’s truly a life changing experience in every sense of the phrase, and cannot fully be understood by people who have not been through it themselves. “One must see to believe” is a common proverb across all Bwiti sects, in many ways in reference to this particular experience.
Night Ceremonies (Ngoze)
Initiation ceremonies are not the only time that iboga is featured prominently in the Bwiti religion, nor the only time practitioners ingest it, by any means. On Saturday nights throughout the year, communities gather for their weekly religious meetings, similar in many ways to Catholic mass, and these gatherings are known as ngoze. These weekly events are an important part of practicing Bwiti, and in building community as well. During these Saturday night gatherings – which continue into Sunday morning – followers of Bwiti ingest much smaller doses of iboga root than is given during initiation. It is administered in a fashion that is extremely similar to receiving communion in Catholicism. A religious leader or officiant determines the dosage for each individual, who approaches him and kneels. As with the Catholic host, the worshipper is not allowed to touch the iboga; the officiant gives it to him or her by mouth on a spoon. If the individual does not feel he or she received enough, then after a time more may be requested, but limits are suggested and enforced; unlike the initiation ceremony, participants in night ceremonies want to stay firmly seated in true reality in this instance, in order to thoroughly experience the feelings of community and connection.
This all begins at about 8 p.m., and what soon follows is collective religious fervor and joy. It is a time for loving one another, and for much celebration. People dress in white, blue, or yellow depending on their sect, and paint their faces with white kaolin. Throughout the night they sing, dance, and chant. Often, alcohol is consumed to keep them active and energetic, despite alcohol being otherwise frowned upon among Bwitists.
There are two distinct parts to these night ceremonies. In the first, which generally lasts from sundown to midnight, the songs, chants, dances, and symbolism mainly focus on the beginning of the world, the creation of Adam, and the birth of Christ. In the second part, which continues from midnight onward to dawn, the focus shifts to death and destruction, expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the universal flood, and the death of Christ. As dawn approaches, though, the group moves into the most emotional portion, known as nlem myore Nlem myore can be translated as “one heart only,” and it is at this point during which the community feels an exceptional feeling of oneness, and tears of joy are shed by all.
As the sun rises, the group gathers for a collective meal in celebration. Although this occurs weekly in most sects, some also choose to have a multi-day ngoze ceremony once a month or once every two or three months that can last several days. And, during Christmas and Easter, the two most important holidays for Bwitists, these ceremonies generally continue for four days or longer.
The Bwiti religion and its partnership with iboga is fascinating. Practitioners and believers are very religious people who are often very involved not only in the tenets of the religion itself, but also in the importance of community overall. The experience with iboga helps to connect these people on a level that is likely difficult for outsiders to even understand or fathom. Further, the combination of Christianity and traditional African spiritual practices seems to be exactly what many Bwiti practitioners for the few generations it has existed seek. The Gabonese have certainly embraced it heavily, and it will be interesting to see how it disseminates and grows over the decades and centuries ahead. Perhaps it will, as some current followers hope, advance and spread prolifically throughout the world as a whole, giving others worldwide the opportunity to feel a direct connection with God and others in their community through the iboga experience and ceremonies as well.