Reproduced by Permission
Travelling to Central Africa to take part in a bizarre and perilous tribal ceremony – the Bwiti initiation ritual – might seem an unlikely vacation choice to many. But for some in the West it is proving an increasingly alluring proposition. The idea conjurs up romantic images of adventure in faraway lands for some. For others, iboga’s reputed ability to interrupt drug-dependence or clear emotional blockages is what draws them to make the trip.
I made the journey in August 1999, where I undertook initiation at the Assumgha Ening chapel, near Yaounde in the Cameroun. And this piece includes an account of my experience and also a little background information relating to the ritual and the area of the world concerned. The reader should note that I have never been to the Gabon, the other country where Bwiti initiation is available to Westerners, so have restricted most of my comments about the region to the Cameroun.
The Bwiti are a Central African religious group whose usage of Tabernanthe iboga, the plant source of ibogaine, forms an integral part of their society. The rootbark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant contains approximately 12 different iboga alkaloids of which ibogaine is only one.
The word ‘Bwiti’ refers both to the religion – ‘the Bwiti religion’, and the group that practice it – ‘the Bwiti’. There are estimated to be approximately 2-3 million members of the Bwiti religion scattered in groups throughout the countries of the Gabon, Zaire, and the Cameroun. Most are from the two principal tribal groups of the region, the Fang and the Mitsogho. The origins of the religion are obscure, but most writers seem to believe Bwiti is essentially derived from pygmy religious traditions which have been modified and adapted to suit local tribal tastes. Bwiti has thus become a highly synchretic religion, drawing from a multitude of sources, and interpreted slightly differently by each group that practice it.
The rootbark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant is usually referred to as ‘iboga’ or ‘eboka’ and it has two principal uses within the group. Firstly, small doses are used as a stimulant, principally when hunting and as an aid to ritual work. And, secondly, a much larger dose features as a central element of the ‘Bwiti initiation ritual’ – a powerful ‘rebirth’ ceremony that group members typically undergo before the commencement of their teenage years, and is a requirement for group membership. Both sexes are initiated and the ceremony typically lasts three days, beginning on a Thursday afternoon and ending Sunday morning.
Iboga is eaten on the first night of the initiation ceremony and may be further consumed on subsequent nights should it be deemed necessary. The consumption of iboga is supervised by the ‘nganga’, a senior priest of the religion whose knowledge of iboga’s effects on the body and mind is such that he or she is aware of when the initiate has had sufficient. The overall objective of the ritual is to allow the initiate to enter deeply into the subconscious mind with the intent of emerging ‘reborn’. In the depths of this inner realm, he or she is expected to actually ‘meet’ the original Bwiti, the founders of the religion, in the form of primordial male and female figures. But this can only be achieved once mighty terrors that lurk before them have been overcome.
This ‘inner journey’ is analogous to that undertaken by many ‘hero’ figures in classical mythology. And, in more Western terminology, it might be said that the usage of large doses of iboga here is intended to remove the effects of accumulated trauma or conditioning on the system. And further facilitate access to archetypal figures located within the Jungian concept of the ‘collective unconscious’.
Once initiation is completed, the person becomes a full member of the Bwiti religion. And the act of having confronted the fears of those who went before means the individual may now be regarded as an adult.
The Cameroun is one of three Central African countries where the Bwiti religion is widely practiced, the other two being Zaire and the Gabon. Zaire has now become so politically unstable that it is simply unsafe to venture into the country unless a person’s contacts are very strong. Leaving the Gabon and the Cameroun as the two remaining possibilities for someone seeking Bwiti initiation.
Gabon is likely the easiest option for the would-be Bwiti initiate from the West. Being relatively wealthy, by Africa’s standards, it is considerably less dangerous than its cousin slightly to the north and facilities are of an improved standard. In addition, it is well recognised that the Bwiti religion has been longer established in the Gabon. Camerounian Bwiti, however, claim that whilst they are newcomers to the religion, their relative poverty as a nation has drawn far more young people, and that Bwiti is therefore more vibrantly practiced in their land.
Finding a Bwiti group willing to initiate Westerners may pose several problems and should really be undertaken prior to leaving for Africa. Initiation ceremonies typically require the presence of the whole group and so would usually be planned considerably in advance. Many groups are unwilling to initiate persons from outside their immediate locale, so are not going to be interested in initiating someone from another continent. Groups that are will almost certainly only be doing so for a large sum of money. And so the individual should expect to be treated principally as simply a ‘cash source’ for the duration of their stay.
There are currently a couple of people who specialise in organising Bwiti initiation for Westerners. And this certainly presents the easiest route, though the individual should be aware that the person organising will be merely a ‘go between’, likely having limited control over the situation that will confront the would-be initiate in Africa.
The other option would be to try and organise it oneself by contacting Central Africans living in your home country, or by flying to the region and trying to find someone willing to initiate you. This latter approach is highly perilous and is in truth likely little more than a invitation to be held up in the Cameroun, shot in Zaire, or at best mildly exploited in the Gabon.
Once you have found your Bwiti group, you will need to make arrangements to travel to Africa. At least two weeks should be allowed for initiation. Preparation, for Westerners, will likely last several days. And it is important to allow at least a week afterward to stabilise and process the experience.
Getting to Central Africa presents a few minor problems. Only a couple of airlines fly there and the fare from Europe is typically around £1,000 round trip, (~US$1,600). Neither Yaounde nor Libreville, the capitals of the Cameroun and the Gabon respectively, are major destinations, so heavily discounted fares are unlikely to be found. Visas will almost certainly be necessary for both countries and yellow fever jabs mandatory.
French is the national language of both countries, and those not familiar with it will likely have some difficulty being understood. (Areas of the Cameroun close to the Nigerian border are English-speaking, but my information is that there are few Bwiti groups in this region.) Details of accomodation and travel within the country can be found in a guidebook. (2)
Whilst at the time of writing, (May 2000), Gabon could be considered to be relatively stable, the Cameroun, like many of its neighbours, is a much troubled country. Governmental corruption in countries like the Cameroun is now at such a level as to provide a significant hazard to safe movement
around the country. Hold-ups are common-place, both on the streets or in open countryside. Moving around pretty much anywhere at night, if you’re not Camerounian, is risky.
In addition, pilfering is rife and should be expected. Most Camerounians are acutely poor and the temptation to relieve Westerners of their possessions will prove overpowering for some. One possibility to counter problems of this nature would be to check into a respectable hotel in Yaounde, and leave your valuables in the safe prior to undertaking initiation. Alternately, American Express or DHL offices may offer safe-keeping facilities.
Another annoyance relates to the changing of money. Travellers cheques, at the time of visiting, attracted such a ridiculously high commision as to render carrying them simply pointless. The principal currency is the Central African Franc. But the French Franc is also very widely accepted and would seem an ideal choice of currency to carry into the country.
These points mentioned it should be said that Camerounians in general are incredibly warm and friendly characters. They seem by nature hospitable and generous and my personal opinion is that the problems the traveller may encounter during his or her time in their land have their roots elsewhere.
Initiation in Cameroun
In the Spring and early Summer of 1999 I had assisted a Bwiti initiate in Marseilles translate his fascinating website on the Bwiti into English. (3) I got a French-speaking friend to do word-for-word translation and then attempted a rendering into reasonable English.
Not much has been written about the Bwiti in English and so I had previously little knowledge of their beliefs and activities. (4) But, being a former French colony, more material on the religious group could be found scattered around various sources in French literature. (5)(6) In translating accounts of Bwiti creation mythology and ritual practices, I found myself increasingly drawn into their world. And was especially intrigued by the way that the vision of the world I’d slowly begun to formulate from my own iboga experiences seemed to correspond with aspects of Bwiti cosmology.
In addition, I had become increasingly aware over the previous couple of years that I was suffering the considerable effects of trauma from the events of my early childhood, having been detached from my natural parents shortly after being born. This was making my emotional life an utter misery, and had been the real reason I had used iboga a couple of times in the UK. It seemed to me that a large dose of the drug in a ritual setting might provide a useful breakthrough. So I decided to ask the owner of the French site if he could use his contacts in the Cameroun to help sort this out. This he did and it was arranged for me to go to the Cameroun on August 10th. for initiation on the 12th.
Despite my desire to know more of this intriguing religious group, and considerable need for emotional healing, I was still initially a little concerned at the prospect of travelling alone to Central Africa to take part a bizarre, drug-assisted ritual in the bush. But this apprenhension dissipated with an incredibly positive ibogaine experience in mid-July. And from then on I was literally counting the days, believing that with the completion of this ordeal I would finally be freed from my past. As the day neared I also learned that another Westerner, Adam, was going to be present as well, which further deepened my sense of security.
I flew out from London on the 10th on Air France, stopping at Paris, having a seat booked on the return flight two weeks later. Adam joined the plane in Paris. At Yaounde we were met by a young man in a pick-up and taken out to the chapel, about a 20 minute drive away. The Cameroun was not as hot as I had anticipated, and I immediately regretted not bringing a little more clothing.
The Nganga, the man who would lead the ritual, was waiting for us at the chapel. He was slightly perturbed as he had thought that we were to be arriving Tuesday morning, and had already protested that even two days preparation for the initiation was inadequate. Seeing us turning up with the sun already down, he was concerned about the lack of time for preparation. He sat us down in the dwelling next to the chapel and we spoke a
We were shown our living quarters for the next couple of nights, prior to the ritual’s commencement – a room at the back of the chapel itself, with an old piece of foam to provide as a bed for the pair of us. I had been hoping to get a good nights rest, having arisen at 2.30 that morning to get my flight, but as we joined the activities going on in the main body of the chapel I soon realised that this was unlikely to happen.
The chapel was laid out much like the one whose floor plan I had previously studied for the French website. (6) We sat on the benches on the men’s side with a young Camerounian who was to be initiated with us, and the guy who had driven the pick-up, whilst a full dress rehearsal of the ceremony took place. There were about 20 group members present, most aged between 15 and 40, with just one elderly-looking female figure present. The ritual went merrily on for several hours, and we eventually retired to the rear of the chapel at about one o’clock with it still in full swing. It continued until morning, and I found it difficult to believe that this was just a rehearsal. What would the real thing be like?
Having spent a sleepless night, we struggled up at around seven the next morning. Breakfast, an assortment of fire-roasted root vegetables, with a boiled egg thrown in for good measure, was served. Adam wasn’t too impressed, but I didn’t much mind and ate most of his. After this, I busied myself exploring the area, so much as was possible,
The Assumgha Ening chapel is located about 3 miles outside of Yaounde, down a untarmacked track that became virtually unpassable when it rained. We were pretty much surrounded by light forest so I didn’t stray far and endeavoured to make better contact with the group members. There was a bizarre energy to the place, though this didn’t seem to be due to our presence. I sensed that perhaps some sort of major dispute
had recently occurred, which was being covered up whilst we were around, everyone needing the money we had brought in.
The Bwiti group were very keen but somewhat crazed, to say the least, and very grasping. They had already been up several nights and I was amazed most of them were still standing. The Yombo, the head woman, seemed to be in charge of everything that wasn’t actually ceremonial, and she certainly made the most of her office. She looked about 35 – 40 and was a fearsome woman who reminded me of the character of Seargent
Croft in Norman Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’. She was absolutely unrelenting in her driving of the younger members onward, refusing to allow anyone any sleep, and flying off the handle at the slightest provocation. It was clear that everyone, even the Nganga, was deeply wary of her temper.
The whole set-up reminded me of a tale I’d been told by an elderly hippie friend many years before. He had travelled to the heart of Nepal, overcoming great hardship, to visit a group of monks who lived on top of a mountain only accesible for a few months of the year. When he finally reached his goal, he was filled with great expectation believing he would be one of the first Westerners to ever make contact with this renownedly devout and enlightened sect. But, on arrival, he discovered that the monks spent much of their time making a strong alcoholic drink which they were currently consuming in great quantities, it being the month of a festival designated for this purpose. They roundly abused him verbally and he returned back down the mountain a different man.
This tale stuck in my mind as bit by bit I began to realise this was no isolated and devout religious sect in whose presence we found ourselves. The barely restrained rifling of our possessions, and our constant treatment as a potential source of enrichment, rapidly dispersed the romantic notions of initiation I had allowed to build in my imagination. In truth, I personally found this more reassuring than anything else. I come from a relatively
financially secure background in the UK, but have for years gravitated naturally toward ‘street’ culture. And like most such people am suspicious of anyone I consider as having excessively ‘spiritual’ pretensions.
The slight harshness of our treatment; the piece of foam with smelly blankets that served as a bed for two, and the lack of concern as to our welfare; was also a little disturbing. Though personally I found it effective at breaking my natural resistance to healing, much in the same way that candidates for Primal Therapy and similar find their ego routinely under attack in the initial stages of the treatment.
What I found particularly odd was, that whilst all the group members were manic, most manic were the two head figures – the Nganga and the Yombo. It was difficult to decide if they simply enjoyed weilding power or were genuinely concerned for the correct development of those beneath them. The Yombo would literally scream her head off at any group member unfortunate enough to invoke her displeasure and the Nganga seemed frankly completely obsessed with materialist concerns. Rightly or wrongly, I had formed the impression over the years that devoting ones life to serious religious or shamanic endeavour would require at least a modicum of asceticism. But the Nganga here seemed quite besotted with the material world, and I spent much of my time with him expecting him to break suddenly into a chorus of Janis Joplin’s “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”, in between his other devotions.
My French is not particularly strong and as the second day commenced it seemed a good strategy to allow it to disintegrate entirely, less I be constantly pestered with demands. This rather selfish act left the Nganga and the Yombo to interrogate Adam, who had already let it be known that he was fluent.
Only one person, the driver of the pick-up, appeared even slightly settled. And we soon learned that he was the only person present who wasn’t actually Bwiti, and who therefore had never taken iboga. I asked him why this was and he explained to me he was afraid. From my limited experience of this group I didn’t blame him.
Despite the attitude of the group members, I was still determined to make some effort at communication. Wednesday afternoon I helped decorate the temple and took time to speak to the old woman who was preparing the iboga. A fertiliser sack full of roots had been purchased that morning, and she was keenly scraping off the rootbark. I asked her why she was discarding the outer layer of bark, this reputedly being where the active
ingredients were concentrated. She explained that it was unhygenic to eat this part, and that she might make a tea out of them later. We spoke a bit about Saint Michael, a central figure in Bwiti mythology, and the significance of the ‘mobakaka’ – a loud crack of wood striking wood that symbolised the commencement of ‘dissoumba’ – the Big Bang, the creation of the universe. I also attemped, rather unsuccessfully, to play the Bwiti harp, the melodic instrument whose music plays a central role in Bwiti creation mythology.
Our meals had been pretty unspectacular. But on the evening of the Wednesday we were suddenly invited to partake in a large feast of roast chicken and fresh bread with one of the women and her daughter. This was consumed in great haste, which was just as well, for when the Nganga later found out what was going on, he proceeded to remonstrate with the woman, furious that the process of making us physically pure for the ritual had been so hijacked. And possibly a little concerned that attempts to steal away his meal ticket were being made.
Twenty four hours before the commencement of our initiation we began another process of cleansing. This consisted of us having to perform a ritual personal washing every three hours for twenty-four hours with a bucket of leafy liquid accompanied by a candle which should not be allowed to go out. (Mine did on several occasions, unfortunately). This we managed without too many problems.
On the morning of the initiation, Thursday, we were required to drink large quantities of a foul-tasting brown, brackish liquid to purge our bodies of any remaining pollutants. Adam vomitted quickly, but I found it harder. Eventually, when I had so much of the stuff inside of me I felt I might explode, my system gave way and I vomitted merrily into the bucket provided.
In the afternoon we were required to write out a ‘confession’. This was to be a list of all the bad things we had ever done, to be symbolically burnt before our initiation. I’d previously joked that I would need longer than an afternoon for such a task, but once I got down to it I managed to fit most of it on a couple of sheets of foolscap. I was aware of the symbolic value of such an exercise, so did take it seriously. When it was done we had to read out each item on the list, alone, in front of two large harps, placed in one corner of the temple. This done we burnt the confession.
This done, we settled down to await the commencement of the ritual which was scheduled for late afternoon. The Nganga had been called away to attend another initiation in the area, but was expected back in plenty of time. Suddenly the weather changed and it began to pour with rain. We sheltered in the back of the chapel on our piece of foam and awaited the Nganga’s return as the hours passed by. He eventually got back quite late in the evening, the weather having made some of the roads impassable. With him was a young Swiss guy with a heroin problem who was thinking about doing the treatment and wanted to see what was going on.
The ceremony was convened in great haste. We were led to the rear door of the temple and then had to stand outside in the rain, near naked, waiting for the Nganga to wash us. By this time we had become a group of three, the young Camerounian guy from nearby having joined. He didn’t seem at all keen to undergo initiation, and I assumed his parents had forced him into it. Adam was complaining as the Nganga left us freezing in the pouring rain wearing only our underpants. But, being the contrary soul I was, I refused to give the Nganga any sign that I was remotely inconvenienced. He had made onstant references to how tough the ceremony would be, especially for us pampered Westerners. And I was determined to show no trace of discomfort whatsoever. And remained standing straight up, as he fiddled around with other things, making us suffer.
I had read that the ritual washing would require us to crawl through the legs of the women of the group whilst they stood in a local stream, thereby symbolically recreating the path taken by the sperm en route to fertilisation. Sadly, this didn’t take place, for some reason. Possibly the lateness of the hour.
After about an hour of having the Nganga fiddle around, still muttering about how the initiation, “c’est dur”, and me rebuffing him, saying that this was childsplay and I could stand here all night if I felt like it, we embarked upon another bizarre ritual. This involved us having a sacred plant bud placed in our mouth, which we then had to swallow. Now dressed again, we had become a group of five, two young girls from nearby having joined
in as well. One looked about eight, and the other ten. Neither seemed too keen on undertaking the ceremony, hardly surprising given their youth. I was 38 and was no longer feeling quite as keen about my initiation as I had been.
Eventually all five of us were back inside the chapel, again in the rear area where we were lined up on the ground like marmite soldiers. We were back in undergarments whilst assorted greenery was draped around us, presumably symbolising rebirth. Five plates were produced. And five measures of the powdered root measured out. I noticed that, being the eldest and largest, myself and Adam got the largest portions.
We commenced chewing. I had eaten iboga before about eight months prior. At that time I’d just taken about 5g, a test dose, to see what happened, from a sample I had obtained from Southern Africa. I found out then just how foul this stuff was, and had mixed it with honey, before gulping it down with warm water. Here no such refinements were available. I was expected to just take pinches of the stuff with my fingers and just stick it straight down my throat. The Yombo – the head female – stood in front of me demonstrating the technique whilst merrily nodding her head. It was OK for her, I thought. She didn’t actually have a plate of the stuff in front of her.
Words cannot express just how hideous this stuff was. I don’t know if my senses were particularly heightened from what was happening, but I can only say that, right now, that I would rather eat my own excrement than eat this stuff again. What made it worse was that the Nganga had mixed some of the iboga leaf in with the rootbark, presumably to weaken its effects for us iboga-novices. In my increasingly distraught state, I was sure this was making it taste worse and I found myself inwardly cursing his stupidity for not simply giving us less.
After about a half an hour of this torture, we were led outside for another ritual. We were taken around the spiritual ‘head’ of the chapel – a small iboga plant placed some yards in front of the entrance, (a spot symbolising the ‘crown chakra’, the chapel being, amongst a mass of other symbols, a representation of the Hindu energy centres of a person lying down), and a cockerell was brought out and left tied to a small stick. We circumnavigated the iboga plant three times, whilst singing took place in the chapel. Then the Nganga’s brother appeared with a knife. Hands held it firm whilst its head was cut off and the blood allowed to spray out over the plant. This done, we were ushered back to our spots in the rear of the temple and instructed to continue eating.
All of us were having trouble getting the iboga down. I was desperate to try but it was just too foul. The Yombo kept coming in and whispering to me, “Comment tu vas voyager si tu ne mange pas d’iboga?” How are you going to ‘travel’ if you don’t eat iboga? As though sticking this stuff down my neck shouldn’t present any problem at all. Anxiety was rising steadily, not helped by the fact that we were all freezing cold and expected to stay here for at least the rest of the night.
My only real problem with everything at this time was the taste thing. I knew if I could just find some way of getting enough of the stuff inside of me, once the drug took effect I would have no concerns at all.Adam had not experienced iboga before. He wasn’t looking too happy right now and decided he’d had enough. I can recall him spending about an hour arguing with the Nganga and his brother, who were determined he should stay. Eventually, after much frenzied discussion, he settled for going to the toilet, but even this concession took an age. The three Camerounians were all pretty distraught as well. But they all seemed to know they had no choice but to go through with it. They were vomiting regularly into the various vessels left at our feet for the purpose. Suddenly I could feel myself being overwhelmed by anxiety. I was mad to be lying here all night like this in the freezing cold! I would catch my death. Why, I could already feel my body becoming chilled!
So I started remonstrating with the Nganga as well. This seemed to break his resolve. I think he had already decided, from my repeated childish refusals to show pain or fear, that I was some ex-military type and seeing me now protesting so vocally about my treatment did actually cause him to worry a little. He called in the Yombo, who was having none of such behaviour. She began to perform her eating gesture again, clearly believing that my problem was that I was somehow unaware of how to consume iboga.
Then I suddenly remembered, from my previous iboga experiences, that anxiety was a quite normal effect of the drug coming on. And that this was why the Nganga and his brother were trying to get Adam to sit down again and continue eating. Suddenly I felt quite ashamed at my behaviour. I had been doing fine not showing any emotion for several days, (several decades, in truth), and had now ruined everything with my outburst. I lay back down, decided there was no point in trying to explain to Adam he was likely just experiencing the normal effects of the drug, and once again tried to consume the iboga.
It was still foul, but I managed to just about get it down and finish the plate with the aid of some water that had now been provided. I lay back awaiting the visionary stage of the experience when suddenly the Yombo rushed up and poured me another plateful. Followed by another series of eating gestures performed in front of my face whilst her eyes urged me onward. I don’t think my heart has ever sunk so low so quickly. I knew deep inside there was truly no way I could handle another plateful. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Looking back it seems strange that something as minor as a taste sensation could provide such a barrier to me experiencing a much-awaited release from near 40 years of emotional misery. In fact, to help get me through the first plateful I had repeated told myself I was pretending it was too foul to eat because, at a subconscious level, I didn’t truly want healing. This steeled my resolve at the time, but no such ploys were going to work now. I tried to eat more, but soon found myself reduced to undertaking the popular childhood pastime of pushing the stuff repeatedly around the plate in a desperate attempt to convince the Yombo I was eating.
Then, suddenly, a ray of sunshine appeared. Someone in the group must have said, “Why don’t we give them the ‘automatic'”, for a large bowlful was brought forth. Seeing the ‘automatique’ transformed me. This was the liquid extract of iboga which, while still quite unbelievably foul, was at least fairly concentrated and drinkable if taken rapidly. The problem with the rootbark was that it was so weak. I knew I would have to consume platefuls of it. Now I was being given another option, and I can recall thinking salvation had finally arrived. I put the plateful to one side and started on the automatic. It was still unbelievably foul-tasting, but at least it didn’t have the texture of the rootbark and drinking a cupful was the equivalent of consuming a whole plate of the other. Despite my efforts to please, and the knowledge that I must have already taken a fairly hefty dose by now, the Yombo was still not impressed. Her exhortations to ‘drink more’ continued unbroken. I must have been a couple of hours in at this point and the drug was definitely taking a hold. And there suddenly arose in me the desire to prove to her that I was worthy. Looking up at the Yombo standing over me, an idea came to me. I took several large cupfuls and drank them down one after the other. Her face changed and she nodded approval, which surprised me considerably. I felt like I’d really achieved something. Sadly, this was the last feeling I was to have as Nick Sandberg, a 38 year old British visitor to the Cameroun, for some time.
When I awoke it was sunny. The sunlight had a strange quality to it. I had no knowledge of who or where I was and it didn’t occur to me to think about these things. But I knew the sunlight was different. There were people around me staring. I am sitting on a doorstep when a man comes over and looks at me. I don’t know who he is but I don’t like the look of him. I start shouting and he walks off. I am in a room with chairs and sofas. Then I am in another room, lying down on a mattress. There is some liquid in a bottle. I taste it. It tastes of orange. People come and people go. I don’t recognise them and frankly the world that I journey to when the strange sunlight stops and I fall through a hole in my mind makes more
sense to me. But I keep coming back to this world. A pretty girl comes in occasionally and talks to me in one of numerous languages I can now understand. She wants me to take her away somewhere. I’m not sure where this place is she’s talking about.
I was staying in the building next to the chapel, but I had no recognition of this for some six days. On the seventh day, I remembered my name and that I’d come to the Cameroun to take iboga. And that I was very hungry. For something like a half of the intervening time I was experiencing a bizarre series of dreamlike visions in the first person. Some of the environments they occurred in I could at least hazard at guess at recognising. But most are frankly beyond my descriptive powers.
Iboga visions are frequently pretty tedious reading for the outsider, their prophetic quality usually simply a symbolic message relating personal work that needs to be undertaken. But I shall put down a little of what I’ve subsequently recalled, so the reader can get a rough idea of the kind of thing: Somewhere early twentieth and then mid-ninteenth century England. I ride a motorbike in the former and am a right jack-the-lad. I’m doing some kind of risky couriering job and am besotted with a blonde girl who seems a vision of working-class beauty. I think she gives me a cigarette lighter. / In the latter I’m a Dickensian style loner. / Late nineteenth century US. Perhaps. I’m an European immigrant and I start a small business on the fringes of legality with my brother. We’re very successful. I also seem to have magical powers / Ancient Africa – bizarre crocodile-like power groups ruled over us in an ancient world that lay along the banks of an African river. / Time reversing as living rock forms join together to form
an ancient source from which power sprang. / Ancestry revealed as a series of bizarre deer-like heads mounted on a wall. / Underneath things, trying to interpret what was going on around me. / Multi-dimensional environments peopled with incomprehensible beings. / Millenia of history of some insect race that spent all their time fighting and felt sticky. / Future visions of a Chinese factory that produces a strange device like a thin metal folding table. You put in on your roof and your TV reception improves and the price of your electricity goes down. Millions of people in the Southern USA buy them, then one day a scientist discovers that they are having a terrible effect on the earth’s ionosphere and 99% of the human population are about to die. The Americans are mightily upset with the Chinese and start bombing. But it’s too late. The world is strangely calm afterward. It’s scorching hot and there’s not much to do. / The world ends a multitude of times, each in a different way. One day a scientist discovers we’ve got only 11 days left. We’re about to be sucked into another dimension and there’s nothing anyone can do. People read about it on the front page of their newspapers and panic considerably. There’s a strange graph of the effect included with the story. The universe just disappears. Nothing left, nothing at all. In one instant a billion years of history are just sucked away. Not even vapourised. Everything simply ceases to be. Or ever have been.
It was now about the 19th of August and I spent the next few days in Cameroun’s capital, Yaounde, staying in a hotel with Adam. I had lost about a stone in weight and looked dreadful. It seems I neither ate nor drank anything much for about a week. Yaounde didn’t appear to have much to commend it. And the lack of streetlighting added to its reputation for being dangerous at night. We travelled to the centre of Cameroun for a couple of days with the guy who was scared of taking iboga and visited the ancient city of Foumban. On the 24th we flew back to Europe.
I started feeling ill almost as soon as we got off the ground at Yaounde airport. Adam and I split up in Paris and by the time I was back in London I was feeling really weak. There’s no time difference between the UK and the Cameroun, so I knew it wasn’t jet-lag. After four days of having my temperature rocket then dive repeatedly, I finally decided there might actually be something wrong with me and called the doctor. He said it sounded like malaria and told me to get down to the Tropical Diseases Unit. I could barely walk upright by this time. They took a urine sample and booked me in. There were bugs in the sample and it turned out I had falciparum malaria at 7.2% in blood, a fairly dangerous level. I spent four
days on quinine, drips then tablets, then checked myself out of hospital. About a week later I was pretty much back to normal.
Epilogue and Conclusion
Although my experience of iboga initiation will no doubt appear pretty grim to some readers, in no way do I regret doing it. It didn’t achieve any of the things I had hoped for, at least not immediately. But perhaps there were elements of some form of spiritual initiation in it. And I did some months later begin to make some progress unravelling my emotional problems and begin to release some of the pain trapped in me from my childhood, principally through practicing Holotropic Breathwork and getting involved in group therapy.
The malaria was a bit of a hassle, but had no lasting deleterious effect on me as far as I can determine. And I no doubt would not have been infected had I bothered to take Larium, or similar preventative medication.
My treatment by the group might seem a rough to some, but in fairness to them I simply underwent what each of them had undergone. No special arrangements were made for the fact that I was a Westerner and I can see nothing wrong with that. It is a ritual of initiation and the ‘banzi’, (Bwiti word for the initiate), is expected to overcome severe trials on his or her route to adulthood. I’m not quite sure whether I passed yet, but I figure I at least made a little progress.
The Nganga’s keeness for material wealth doesn’t necessarily in any way diminish his spiritual prowess. Except in the eyes of naive Westerners like myself. And the Yombo’s ferocity and dogmatic attitude I later discovered to be quite normal for senior women in the religion. I still get occasional letters from the pretty Camerounian girl who came in to attend to my physical body whilst I was ‘away’. She relates that “meme que la distance que nous separe”, she still thinks of me. Usually followed by a request for funds to help save the life of an ailing relative. I write back declining politely.
With each month that passes I recall a little more of what I ‘saw’ during my week of visions. I haven’t got to the bit where I am reborn and get to start my life anew yet. But I figure it’s coming up soon.
1 Recommended is the “Lonely Planet guide to Central Africa”. (Lonely Planet Publications)
3 A notable exception being “Bwiti: An ethnography of the religious imagination in Africa”, James W. Fernandez, (publisher and page details unavailable)
4 “Péril blanc”, René Bureau, (publisher and page details unavailable)
5 “La naissance à l’envers”, André Marie, (publisher and page details unavailable)