Daniel Pinchbeck’s account of Bwiti initiation in Gabon. (Winter ’99)
[Here is Daniel Pinckbeck's article on his trip to Gabon. I believe this is a first draft, from February 1999.]
The iboga plant is an ordinary looking shrub native to a few countries in West Africa. The plant produces small, edible orange fruit that are tastelessly sweet and oddly sticky. Simple yellow blossoms bloom at various times of the year. Under optimum conditions, iboga can grow into a tree that rises as much as thirty-five feet in height.
Despite iboga’s common appearance, in those few nations that know of it, the plant is worshipped as the source of spiritual knowledge and as a tool which offers direct access to the wisdom of the ancestors. The root bark of the plant–scraped off, ground into a powder, and eaten–contains one of the world’s most powerful, long-lasting, and mysterious psychedelic compounds. When shamans eat iboga, they believe that they get the power to see into the future, to heal the sick, to speak with the dead.
In the last decades the Western world has become aware of iboga for a different reason: A single dose of the hallucinogen seems to have the power to stop, or at least interrupt for a long period, an addict’s craving for heroin, cocaine, alcohol, or even cigarettes. This ability was discovered accidentally in the early 1960s, and has yet to be accepted by medical science, yet a mass of anecdotal evidence supports it. Because iboga–or ibogaine, as it is called in the West–is a psychedelic substance, it has been outlawed in the U.S. and other countries as a potentially dangerous recreational drug, like LSD or ecstasy, which is ridiculous. When you have experienced ibogaine, you know that no one would take it just for fun.
I did some research and discovered that it was possible to go to West Africa–to the small equatorial country of Gabon–and try ibogaine in its original context, a tribal initiation ceremony. An ethnobotanist studying ibogaine had set up a Website announcing that he would bring people to a shaman’s tribal village in the Gabonese jungle, for a fee. The expensive trip was not without its hazards–malaria being one of them, the intense tropical heat throughout most of the year another. It was in the jungles of Gabon that the deadly ebola virus was first discovered. Other dangers were more intangible but equally threatening–most obviously, all the potential dangers of trying a powerful and unknown hallucinogenic drug out in the jungle, many miles from the nearest medical facility. After iboga has been in your system for a while, it must be vomited out–what one study euphemestically referred to as “tremendous cleansings”. A few times, junkies have died during ibogaine treatments in Europe, although autopsies eventually revealed they had been on dope at the same time. In extremely rare cases, tribal initiates have overdosed on iboga during a ceremony. If I journeyed to Gabon, I would do so without much information about the country or about the people involved, and then, in my most vulnerable state during the initiation experience, I would put myself into the hands of an unknown tribal group and their shaman.
So I went.
I went out of fascination with what I learned of this drug, which seems to exist at the furthest periphery where tribal myth and shamanistic ritual touch the limits of Western science and rationality. I was a late-twentieth century NewYorker, a non-believing Jew who existed without myth or magic, in a completely technocratic society. Could I be guided into the African spirit world?
Although I did not think I was addicted to anything stronger than coffee, I was also interested in ibogaine’s anti-addictive and psychotherapeutic properties. I spoke to Howard Lotsoff, a former junkie who first discovered ibogaine’s anti-addictive powers in the early 1960s. “One dose of ibogaine is equivalent to twenty years of psychotherapy,” he said. “The drug is like a laser-guided smart missile for trauma. It takes you right to the issues you have to deal with and allows you to deal with them in a detached manner.”
Today, Lotsoff is a full-time advocate for the drug. A mild-mannered man with a grey moustache, he also owns the American patents on use of ibogaine as a treatment for junkies–a patent that remains worthless as long as the drug is illegal. In the early 1960s, when Lotsoff was a college student, he and his friends got hooked on heroin and continued experimenting with other drugs. Lotsoff tried ibogaine, and the psychedelic sent him on a thirty-hour trip through his early memories and unconscious impulses. When the effects wore off, Lotsoff discovered to his amazement that he was no longer a junkie–not only did he have no craving for heroin, he experienced no withdrawal symptoms of any kind. “Before I tried ibogaine, I thought heroin gave me contentment,” he said. “I suddenly saw that heroin emulated death. My next thought was that I preferred life.”
At this point, says Lotsoff, nobody knows exactly what causes ibogaine’s effects on addicts. One speculative theory, put forth by Dr. Carl Anderson of the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital in Virgina, is that ibogaine restores a balance between the brain’s two hemispheres. Anderson thinks that addicts are usually people who suffered an early childhood trauma–abuse, incest, or something else–that caused the development of an imbalance between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The imbalance of the hemispheres disrupts REM sleep, which, according to Anderson, is “essential for emotional regulation, learning, and memory consolidation.” Ibogaine seems to access REM cycling in a particularly powerful way–after taking ibogaine, many people report that their need for sleep is reduced by several hours, for weeks after the experience. In layman’s terms, you might say that ibogaine returns to psychically damaged people the healing power of their sleep and dreams.
In Gabon, the tribal religion associated with ibogaine is called Bwiti. The word “Bwiti”means simply the essence of the iboga, the experience of the spirit world that the plant provides. Sandwiched between the Congo Republic and Cameroon on the coast of central West Africa, Gabon is densely covered in thick jungle. Virtually the only Westerners who go regularly are either with the Peace Corps or on similar do-gooder missions, or they are somehow affiliated with the oil business, as rig workers and corporate middlemen. Oil has made Gabon, a former French colony, one of the richest countries in Africa, and therefore one of the most peaceful. Its humid capital, Libreville, regularly rates among the world’s most expensive cities.
Dan Lieberman, the ethnobotanist and guide, met me at the Libreville airport. Lieberman was a thin, dark-haired young man with a pallid complexion dressed in khakis, Teva sandals, and a green safari vest. Later he told me that his pallor was due, to some extent, to a nearly-fatal bout of cerebral malaria he had contracted through a mosquito bite during his second Bwiti initiation a year earlier. This was not an admission that filled me with confidence. Although Lieberman’s Website was extensive, I would be part of only the second group he had ever brought to the Bwiti.
“The Bwiti believe that before an initiation, the neophyte is nothing,” Lieberman explained to me on the cab through downtown Libreville. “It is only through undergoing the initiation ceremony that he becomes something.”
“What does he become?” I asked.
“He becomes what the Bwiti call a baanzi, one who knows the other world, because he has seen it with his own eyes.” According to Lieberman, the Bwiti belief system resembles Buddhism; anyone can become a member of the Bwiti by undergoing the iboga initiation.
We picked up Lieberman’s other client at her hotel. To my surprise, this turned out to be another New Yorker–a short grey-haired woman in glasses, wearing purple African print pants and an embroidered ‘Free Tibet’ t-shirt, and clutching a worn paperback anthology of writings from Ms. Magazine. A psychoanalyst in her fifties with a penchant for exotic travel, Susan S. was seeking out new techniques for treating substance-abuse.
We drove to meet Tsanga Jean Moutamba, the shaman (the Bwiti word is ngongo) who would intitiate us. Moutamba was a grey-bearded, robust-looking man in his fifties, wearing a purple robe, a grey mesh shirt over his ample belly, and a necklace of large crescent-shaped lion’s teeth that signified his status as chieftain. Moutamba had eight wives and fourteen children, and called himself immodestly “le Roi du Gabon (Bwiti),” the King of the Bwiti. His manner with us was a bit gruff but friendly. After a brief chat–in French translated by Lieberman–we headed for the town of Lambourene, four hours into the thick Gabonese jungle. Moutamba’s tribal village, where our initation would take place, was located outside of the town.
In Gabon, it was often difficult to separate truth from fantasy. Over the next days I tried to learn what Moutamba’s status as “King of the Bwiti” meant, but I got different answers. Alain Borgia Dukaga, an English-speaking Gabonese man who helped act as our translator, told me: “Moutamba is like Jesus to us. Most of the people now are like lacking roots, they got tied to the Christian ways and forgot their culture. Moutamba is helping to bring back our culture. We hope that soon they will start teaching Bwiti again in the schools.” A few days later, when relations had soured between us and our shaman, Borgia reversed himself and said, “Moutamba? He’s not the king of anything. He just calls himself that.”
Ibogaine was similarly shrouded in mystery: “The Gabonese are slippery about iboga,” Lieberman told me. “They all know it is being used to cure addictions, but they say, ‘It is not a drug. It is sacred.’ It is very difficult to get it out of Gabon. I have authorization from both governments to bring it to South Africa for scientific research and I still can’t get it out. I’ve never seen the plant growing in the wild, only when it’s cultivated. I will make arrangements to buy it from somebody but then they don’t show up to deliver it.”
Moutamba’s homestead consisted of a complex of one-story wooden buildings in a jungle clearing where children, hens, and roosters meandered about. One roofless structure covered in palm fronds was the traditional ‘pygmy house’, a monument to the region’s original human inhabitants who are credited with discovering ‘la bois sacre’. The pygmies still live in small bands in Gabon’s interior jungles, and it is theoretically possible to have a pygmy initiation. But I will have to save that experience for another trip, or more likely a future life.
The temple had stone walls painted with portraits of Moutamba’s ancestors and a schematic history of the Bwiti, a tin roof which lizards skittered noisily across throughout the night, and large wooden statues of the original Bwiti founding couple–the tribe’s Adam and Eve–at its center. The night before the initiation ceremony, Sue S., Lieberman, Moutamba and I all slept in his temple, along with several other members of his tribe, on mattresses under mosquito nets.
On the day of the ceremony, Moutamba gave Sue and I what the Bwiti call ‘La Liste’, a long, traditional roster of things that neophytes have to provide for the ritual. La Liste includes a mirror in which the initiates are supposed to stare at themselves and confront their ancestors, a tin bucket in which to vomit, a red parrot’s feather, yards of fabric, a machete, a woven mat to lie on during the long initiation night, and supplies for the next day’s feast for the tribe, including a live coq du village, and a large supply of alcohol–mostly sweet liquors such as rum and cassis. Shapiro, Lieberman, and I spent a day driving around the riverside town of Lambourene with a few of Moutamba’s sons, who handled their assignment with a gravity that suggested the serious intent of the ritual.
Back at the tribal village in the hours before the ceremony, Moutamba’s attitude toward us changed all of a sudden. “It was good that you stayed here last night,” he said to us. “Now you must give us the rest of the money.” This was a surprise. We had already paid the agreed-upon $600 for the ceremony–double the price for the average Gabonese–but Moutamba began to shout at us that the sum was really only half of the entire cost, that Lieberman had lied, and he would not proceed without getting the rest of the money. Lieberman attempted to bargain with him, and the heated argument raged on for many hours.
“I’m not sure I like the power dynamics I see here,” Sue, the psychoanalyst, said to me. Lieberman had warned us earlier that, in Gabon, fees and prices often change without notice–in the Third World, time is not equal to money the way it is in the West, and people are willing to argue interminably for even a paltry sum, let alone the hundreds of dollars Moutamba was demanding. We insisted we wouldn’t pay more. Several hours passed. Finally, it was announced that the initiation would proceed even though we had cheated them. But the King would no longer give us a special oil at the end of the ceremony which would give us a deeper understanding of our visions throughout the year. “He himself say that he also will not walk with you into the forest after the initiation and explain to you the meaning of everything you will see and the myth of the Bwiti,” Borgia translated. The other members of Moutamba’s tribe sitting around the temple now seemed to regard us with contempt. The fragile aura of trust surrounding our enterprise had been ruined. While Sue and I proceeded anyway, we now felt wary, and a little scared.
A few hours later, around dusk, the ceremony finally began. The women took Sue away first, and then the men of the village came to get me. Moutamba’s clan had changed to full tribal regalia–painted faces, loin cloths, animal hides–and they carried musical instruments which they played as we marched in single file to a small river that ran nearby. I was told to undress completely and step into the middle of the stream. There, Jean N’tsanga, the young man assigned to be my “Bwiti father,” poured soapy medicinal water over me and smeared a red paste across my body. The Bwiti chanted and sang as I put on the initiate’s outfit–jewelry made of tanned animal skins and shells that looped across my chest and upper arms, and a skimpy garment of red fabric. For the Bwiti, red is the initiate’s color, symbolizing the transitional state between this reality and the other world. They placed a red feather in my hair. It was time to begin eating the iboga.
The powder was the worst substance I ever tasted–bitter, nauseatingly vile. Imagine sawdust laced with battery acid. Even now, months afterward, whenever I think about the taste too long, I start to shudder. My Bwiti father presented the initiate’s dose to me loaded inside of a banana. I thought the sweetness of the banana would decrease the nastiness of the root-bark powder. But the banana was not an American-style banana; it was like a plaintain, a dry, bland fruit that had to be slowly chewed into a mush along with the iboga before swallowing. When I finished the banana, I was given a few more tablespoonfuls of the iboga powder mixed with honey. Moutamba nodded encouragingly as I got the stuff down. He said that I had eaten “Beaucoup, beaucoup.”
We returned to the village. Walking was more difficult now as my legs had become rubbery. I was brought to a courtyard, where some of the men sat around me and continued playing music. The essential Bwiti instrument is called the M!congo. It is a one-stringed mouth harp which looks at first like a bow, and is tuned with a knife. The voices of the ancestors are supposed to speak through the M!congo, which has an original, slightly eerie, and at times almost humorous tonality. My Bwiti father put a bundle of leaves in one of my hands and a tight whisk of dry thistles in the other and instructed me to keep shaking them in time to the music. They brought me into the torch-lit temple. I was placed at the center of the room, facing a mirror that had been set up with fern leaves and carved African figurines surrounding it, with Moutamba and the tribal elders sitting to one side and the rest of the tribe along benches on the other side.
It was a long time before I began to see the first fugitive visions– dream- like images that broke apart soon after I focused on them. A large wooden statue, faceless and made of rough logs, walked across the room and sat down in front of me. Then, in the scratched surface of the mirror, I saw a small screen appear. On this screen, I saw images from New York City–the window of my apartment, street scenes–that appeared with a brief, hyperreal clarity.
“I see my apartment in New York,” I told the translator.
“If you see a window you must try to go through it,” he said, “and if you meet somebody there you must try to talk to them. Perhaps they have a message for you, some information.”
Other hallucinations passed before my eyes–skulls and goblin faces with glowing eyes; the figures of women in black dresses stretching out arms toward me from the edges of my vision–but when I tried to describe or define them they faded. Meanwhile, the iboga was making me sick. I struggled to hold it down as Lieberman had recommended–the longer you keep it down, he told me, the more effect you get from it–but I was also a little afraid that the powder could kill me. Like many drugs, ibogaine is toxic in large doses. I started to sweat heavily. Finally I retched, vomiting the vile stuff into my pail.
For most of the night, Sue and I lay down on mats on the hard-packed earth, spritzing ourselves with mosquito repellant, as the Bwiti played music. I was in a psychedelic trance state. I saw swirling geometrical patterns, and passed through phases in which different memories and aspects of my life presented themselves to me with total clarity. At one point I viewed a series of houses that I floated down into like a ghost. Sometimes the percussive music became deafeningly loud in the low-ceilinged temple, like pile drivers or subway engines; at other times the Bwiti sang songs together that seemed almost incredibly beautiful. The rhythms suggested organic structures, as if the music was itself an emanation of the plant’s mysterious essence and intelligence.
Late at night, the Bwiti made us get up and dance with them. Then we watched as the tribesmen danced with a torch that they whirled violently around the temple, as shadows scattered across the walls like living forms. “After you take iboga you will know what the Bwiti is,” the translator Borgia told me the day before. I saw that the spiritual dimension occurred in the symbiotic link between plant and human, a doorway that the iboga opened up. Perhaps it was true what Lieberman had suggested to me before the initiation, that the Bwiti belief system was in some ways similar to the Buddhist cosmology: There was no deity, no prime mover, just a play of forms and shadows in the empty Buddha- mind of a living and superconscious universe. Something like that was what I took from it, anyway.
The ceremony ended at dawn, and Moutamba became unpleasant again. “Now that you have been initiated, you should give me presents of money!” he shouted emphatically. “Money–I demand more money for the visions I have shown you!” To escape his yelling, we returned to our hotel.
The ibogaine trip was not over yet. During the next day I found myself in one of the most unique states I have ever experienced. I did not want to eat, and I couldn’t sleep, despite the fact I had not eaten anything in more than 24 hours and had just been up all night. I felt empty–emptied-out–and I had a complete lack of desires or cravings. It was as if my metabolism had stopped completely. In that state it was possible–and in fact seemed required–to examine my psyche with an almost surgical clarity. At one point I had a brief hallucination of the faces of “ancestor shades” floating across the white wall–strange figures in funny hats and cloaks that marched in profile before quickly vanishing. For much of the afternoon, I reviewed personal insights that I recalled from the trance state.
The ibogaine experience gave me a unique opportunity to examine my life as an object–as if my life was something that could be conceived as separate from myself, but, at the same time, mine. It was as if my life history was a jewel that always stayed with me–but also different from a jewel because I had the power to change this object through acts of my own will, to transmute it from sapphire to emerald or diamond. I examined the forces that had shaped my consciousness through childhood, some of them horrible and depressing, some of them inspiring. Through the ibogaine experience, I felt like I was offered advice and given certain messages–for instance, at one point during the trance night, I reviewed my drinking habits, and this thought came up: ‘Why do you drink so much? You don’t need that.’ In the months since I have returned from Gabon, my alcohol consumption has been significantly reduced. On the level of psychotherapeutic insight, my experience confirmed Lotsoff’s statement, that the drug was a “laser-guided smart missile for trauma.”
This twelve hour phase of stillness that ibogaine causes–profoundly different from any other drug effect I have known–must be part of what works for junkies. It helps them to pass through the withdrawal phase without feeling the physical misery that usually accompanies it.
There are currently an estimated 50 million* drug addicts in America alone.
Drug addiction remains one of the nation’s endemic problems, and none of the various methods currently used to treat addicts are effective enough. For the vast majority of junkies, ibogaine is not even an option–most have never heard of the drug, and if they have heard of it, the vast majority have no way to get access to it. Because of ibogaine’s outlaw status in the US, addicts who want to try it have to find their way to underground organizations lacking medical affiliation, and then travel out of the country–to Latin America, Europe, or into international waters–where they take the drug in a concentrated pill form, much easier to digest than the raw root-bark powder. Medical supervision of these efforts is often skimpy at best.
The current effort to get ibogaine legalized as a treatment in America is fragmented, factionalized, and ineffective. Both the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have refused to fund further ibogaine research–despite scientific evidence such as a study demonstrating that ibogaine eliminated cravings in morphine-addicted rats.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved one trial with human subjects, to take place at the University of Miami, supervised by the ibogaine researcher Dr. Deborah Mash. Mash has failed to raise funds for the project, however, and critics suspect she is holding off until she can wrest control of ibogaine’s patents from Howard Lotsoff, the discoverer of the treatment.
Some ibogaine activisists believe that the pharmaceutical companies do not want to see ibogaine developed, because an addiction cure that accomplished its goal in one or two treatments would cost them vast revenues. Others believe that ibogaine is denied approval because it is a psychedelic, a class of chemicals that have been demonized since the 1960s.
But perhaps there is another reason that ibogaine will stay underground: The Bwiti believe that iboga is a spiritual entity, super-conscious and powerful. That is why they worship it. Perhaps this mysterious African shrub is not ready yet to give up its secrets to the West.