Don't Try This At Home
Trip Start Aug 05, 2006
55Trip End Aug 19, 2007
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I had heard a little about the Bwiti and their obscure practices a few years ago on some late night radio program but I still only had a vague sense of what this initiation ritual was truly about. It wouldn't be long though before I would learn a great deal more about this small, wild corner of the World and the mystic rituals practiced there
After listening to Jens talk about his plans all week I became more and more interested in what he wanted to do in Gabon. So interested in fact, that I finally decided that to really understand the Bwiti practices I must go to Gabon and experience them first hand. Obviously it was little out of the way but I might never travel to this region again and my only chance for this experience was here and now, so I went to the travel agent and purchased a plane ticket to Libreville, the capital of Gabon.
The Bwiti religion has been practiced for hundreds of years in Central Africa especially in Gabon and neighboring Cameroon. Bwiti beliefs combine animism, ancestor worship, and varying degrees a Christianity (wikipedia: March 2007). Ritual practices also vary quite a bit between the different groups but all incorporate the sacred, ritual consumption of root bark from a native plant called Tabernanthe iboga. Taking Iboga in small doses is helpful in hunting as it gives the user increased stamina and concentration for hours. In larger doses, especially the extremely large dose consumed during the initiation ritual, it is believed that Iboga gives the individual visions and the ability to converse with spirits who will advise them how to solve problems in their lives
Even though I was already in Africa, reaching Gabon was not as cheap as I thought. A plane ticket from East to West Africa is very expensive and only a few airlines offer the connection. After days of searching the cheapest I could find was Ethiopian Airlines which first flew from Nairobi to Addis and then 12 hours later flew from there to Libreville. Being a former French colony, Gabon is similar to Djibouti in the fact that it is extremely expensive even by Western standards since nearly everything is imported from Europe.
The one consolation I got came when I applied for a visa. When the girl handed me my visa after paying her $100 I thought that there must be some mistake. The expiration date written on the stamp was February 2012. That's right, 5 years! I have never heard of a 5 year tourist visa but Gabon must have a cozy relationship with the US, especially since Jans only got a 30 day visa that began on the date of issue on his German passport.
Arrival in Gabon was very exciting. As I looked out window of the plane I observed almost nothing but dense, green jungle as far as the eye could see
Before coming to Gabon, Jens and I tried to do as much research as we could about Iboga and the Bwiti and locate someone to talk about it with when we arrived. Through Jens research on the internet he located a man named Tatayo, a Frenchman who came to Gabon over 30 years ago and was the first white man to be initiated into the Bwiti faith. He has a wealth of experience helping foreigners locate groups to perform the initiation ritual and is a Bwiti father himself. Tatayo used to do his own initiations but has since stopped performing them himself due to some personal problems. Still, he seemed like our best lead since he spoke fluent English and neither Jens nor I spoke any French
Meeting with Tatayo helped us get a better picture of what we would be facing. He thouroghly answered all of our questions and introduced us to a girl named Pamela who had recently undergone the initiation ritual. Pamela was a friendly Gabonese girl who also spoke English well and was quite enthusiastic about describing her Iboga experience with us. She told us that she didn't really believe much in God or other spiritual things before she went through the initiation ritual but that her experience was so powerful she now believes only in Iboga and the insights it gave her. That is a pretty bold claim! It only further motivated my curiosity on the subject.
Tatayo believed that it is impossible to fully convey the Iboga experience to the uninitiated but he wanted to give us a better understanding of the process by inviting us to view a Bwiti ceremony taking place later that evening. He put us in contact with another Frenchman living in Gabon named Jean Claude who would take us to visit the Bwiti group he was a member of.
The ceremony took place in a rather rundown neighborhood of Libreville. After a 5 minute walk down a darkened path, passing many dilapidated metal roofed shacks we arrived at the "temple"
Jean Claude went to the middle of the room and told everyone that some visitors had come from far away to meet them and learn more about the Bwiti. He first told them I was from America and my name was George Bush, to which the room broke into roars of laughter. Jans and I were then asked to introduce ourselves to the group and provide a small "donation" for the family of the deceased. "Bwekaye", I yelled to the men as Jean Claude had instructed me. "Aie", the men howled back. Next came the women. "Wenie", I said. "Ee", they replied. After that I told them my name and why I was here and also gave a small donation to the chief. We took our seats and listened to various people stand up and talk. If I could speak a little more French I may have understood some of what they said but I was only able to sit and watch them speak.
Now came the truly crazy part
Soon the music began. It was unlike any music I had heard before. One instrument was simply a plastic jug which was beaten continuously with a stick. Other instruments included an a bow shaped instrument, some Maraca-like shakers, a strange but beautiful sounding harp, and traditional drums that would likely be found only in a museum in other countries. The music had an insanely fast beat and the people would each take turns going to the center of the room and dancing themselves into an absolute frenzy. The men and women would also chant to each other from across the room as the music was blaring. Later, a torch was even brought out and the dancing became even more energized as each dancer would swing it around and around and even go charging out of the building passing hanging laundry on the lines outside as they stormed off into the darkness. This went on not for and hour or two but for 8 long hours. It was quite simply the most bizarre thing I had ever seen and was only the beginning of my experience in Gabon
As the sun began to rise that morning the dancing finally subsided and the family members were each given a divination about their future. As that ended Jens and I were taken to a small room to discuss the business of our initiation with Stephan, another Bwiti father. He only spoke French as well but during the ceremony Jens sat next to a guy from Togo named Severin. He was also an interesting character. Severin spoke French and German, a little English too. This huge black man also worked as nuclear physicist in Germany and had come to Gabon to do a little research of his own on the Bwiti religion and the possibility of getting initiated. He translated for Jens and Jens in turn translated for me. After about a half and hour of negotiation we reached a preliminary deal about costs and what was to be provided during the initiation ceremony. We decided to discuss more of the particulars later as we wanted to meet again with Tatayo first and were exhausted after staying awake all night.
After getting some sleep the next day we met once again with Tatayo in the French Cultural Center, a place which became like our second home in here, and discussed what he thought about costs and what we should be offered during the ceremony
We rested for a few days and then early one Thursday morning were picked up at our hotel and taken out into the jungle. The road to the place was pretty horrible. Every few meters it was completely covered with water and someone would have to get out and walk through it to make sure it was safe. After arrival we walked around the pace for a while. It was a stuningly beautiful location. Deep in the jungle with a small stream and a large temple surrounded by tree bark walls that were painted with various figures and symbols. Jans and I rested most of the morning while the others prepared things for the initiation ceremony. At around 2:00pm we were awakened and taken deeper into the jungle to a small clearing where the initiation would comence
Both of us began by changing out of our street cloths and into more "traditional" dress. Then we took turns climbing into a small teepee like structure where we were supposed to confess our sins silently while a fire burned under our feet. The inside of the teepee was like a smokey inferno and I had dificulty breathing at first because there was so much smoke. When the confession was finished I was taken to the steam and washed with water and leaves from a bucket while a man chanted something in front of me.
Now I was ritually cleansed, although there would be much "cleansing" to come, and it was time to begin consuming the Iboga. Both Jens and I were a little concerned before when talking with Tatayo that we would not be able to consume enough Iboga during the ceremony because of its awful taste. The first dose I received came in the form of a cooked banana sliced open and filled with the root bark and some green leaves. It was horrible, as expected, but I managed to get the whole thing down after about 20 minutes.
We just kind of sat around for an hour or two after that and were occasionally asked if we felt anything yet
Suddenly I vomited violently behind the bench we were sitting on. Tatayo said we would need to consume a lot more and gave me a green branch to hold in one hand and something that looked like a hand broom in the other. He told me I should shake them to the beat of the music and it would help me feel better and lessen the nausea a bit. Then he and some of the others present took out instruments and began to play the same fast-paced music we had heard the other night during the funeral ceremony. It seemed almost natural for me to shake the two objects Tatayo had given me and my arms began to feel like they contained almost boundless energy. In fact, it began to feel like they weren't even "my" arms at all. By now it was dark outside and another local boy was brought over to sit with us. He was a local Gabonese kid whose family could not afford the initiation by themselves and so he would experience it with us instead.
My thoughts started to become stranger and stranger and Tatayo recommended that I look into a small fire that had been built and to tell him about anything that I saw so he could help interpret it for me
More time passed and I continued to consume more Iboga and occasionally wretch violently into the bucket I was given for that purpose. Jans seemed to be much sicker than I was since he had had a cold before the initiation began. When he vomited it sounded like his lungs and stomach were coming out of his throat and he was left gasping for air several seconds after he finished.
After a time, I have no idea how long, we were helped up and walked back through the jungle to the temple. When I arrived at the temple it was full with maybe 50 people all sitting the same way they had at the place we were at before. The music was ear-piercing and the energy I felt coming out of that room almost felt tangible. I was seated on a bench on the men's side of the room near another fire that had been built
I tried to tell Tatayo what I saw but much of it moved so fast it was difficult to focus on for a long enough period of time to talk with him about it. Jens had to leave to go lay down because he was feeling too sick to be in the room any longer. I continued to sit transfixed on the images I was seeing in the fire. Every few minutes I would have to take a short break to vomit in my bucket but nothing was left there to come out, not even any stomach acid. After this I can vaguely remember getting up to light a candle and be given my Bwiti name, Kendo, which is the name of a bell like instrument played during the ceremony.
Finally, I was taken out to be with Jens, who was lying down on a mat in the clearing. I also lay down and continued to have more powerful visions. We were told after a while that we must get up and dance but neither one of us felt well enough to do so. Jens was told to eat something for his stomach but he felt to sick to keep it in and so refused to take any more.
This is when the trouble began. As dawn was breaking the chief and this big fat lady Jens called the "monster" became infuriated that we wouldn't eat what the chief had given us
They took some of the money and we were allowed to rest in the temple for the rest of the day and the following night while Tatayo's son and some others from the group would watch over us. On the group's behalf, most of them were quite friendly and helpful it was only the greedy chief and the "monster" that were bad and we later found out that the other members don't get much of the money anyway. Almost all of it goes to the chief and his cohorts.
I rested in the temple all day but didn't really sleep
Jens had some fruit he had brought with him and I asked if I could have an apple to eat since it had been nearly 40 hours since my last meal. I ate the apple and at first started to feel a little better with something in my stomach again. Then a much more powerful feeling began to overtake me. It started out as just a little bit of discomfort, some jitteriness or anxiety. I began to have some disturbing thoughts and feel a little sick. After that I decided to stand up and walk around a bit to shake it off. I started to feel worse and wanted to throw up the apple but I could not. Jens started to notice I was moving around a lot and I told him I was feeling bad and it seemed to be getting worse.
It got a lot worse
Later I was told by Tatayo that initiates often goes through a phase of ritual dying but to me it was the most terrifying experience of my life. I suppose it was just some sort of panic attack but it certainly felt much worse than that during the experience. If this is a taste of death I certainly don't wish to ever have another bite! There was no tunnel or bright light or whatever the hell they tell you are supposed to see. I only saw darkness and the slow fading of myself of into some form of oblivion or nothingness.
For over half an hour I experienced the "peak" of the attack and then I slowly started to calm down and feel a little better and even eventually fell asleep. Jens told me later what he didn't want to say at the time, that Tatayo's car had gotten stuck in the mud and would not be there for hours. I usually consider myself a pretty lucky guy but at that point I felt my luck had truly run out.
Back To Civilization
The next day Jens and I both felt much better and got a ride back to Libreville. Tatayo was very disappointed with how everything had turned out and felt it was probably not a good idea to be back in normal society so soon after the experience. He was right as that night I began to feel the same anxiety again and told Jens I should probably go to the hospital. He once again called Tatayo who had no problem rushing to meet us in our hotel. Tatayo explained that my body was out of balance and I needed some sugar to feel stabilize it so he went out and bought me a Coke which did in fact make me feel much better. He also took Jens and me to his place where he and his friend David played music from me while I laid on a mat in his yard.
Tatayo has an awesome place next to the beach in Libreville. It was absolutely the characteristic hippie pad I have visualized in my mind. He lives there with his wife and children and used to do initiations of his own there as well.
After a few more days of talk about continuing the initiation I decided not to push it any further at this time