Journey to the Bwitti ‘forest people’ in Gabon

The calling came as an ache in my heart, a space that could only be filled by Africa and her people. After training for three years in a rural Zulu homeland, I graduated in a three-day ceremony as an African traditional healer, one of the only white ‘sangomas’ to have graduated in Southern Africa.
In the years that followed, my love and understanding for the Zulu people deepened and in September of 2003 I found myself travelling to West Africa, to the heart of Zulu ancestry.
Gabon is off the West coast of equatorial Africa, and is one of the only countries left with pristine rain forest. There are plants here that are of particular interest to the African herbalist.
Tabernanthe iboga is a shrub native to Gabon and is considered sacred for its magical properties. Especially interesting to me were the Bwitti ceremonies associated with the consumption of iboga. These ceremonies are seldom performed outside of Gabon and are done in a strictly religious framework.
My intention was to locate an ancient tribe living in the very hilly forest region of Ngounie. This Mitshogho’pygmy’ tribe are the forefathers of Bwitti culture and live in dense forest near turbulent rivers, making it difficult to access.

The mist was thick when the little aircraft landed in Mouila, the last airport stop on the edge of the high forest. I felt very insignificant flying in over the large expanse of jungle and landing in the forest clearing.

As the taxi drove me through town, men and woman dressed in beautiful cloth with bold designs sat under shady trees on sandy streets. As a voodoo village frozen in time, large old wooden houses in faded pastels remain from a time when the French once ruled here.

At the little inn, children who preferred the attention themselves, chased the local chimpanzees that were keen to share my peanuts. It was an honour to be there, in the jungle, home to ancient African tribes. I would walk carefully and with humility for I was a stranger among them.

Perhaps by the constant guidance I had asked for, I found myself, a few days later, assembled under the stars before an open shelter where a family and their friends had gathered for a ceremony. Our only light was a fire fuelled with the gum of a tree called ‘viyo.’
Wooden totem carvings and colourful cloth marked the sacred space.
Three athletic looking men, each painted in stripes from head to toe with red and white clay, first caught my attention. They wore beads around their wrists and ankles and feathers on their heads. They took their places behind the drums and went straight into a powerful beat that filled the air and aroused a feeling of focused intention.
About twenty African shamans, wrapped in red and white cloth, approached from the distant fire. They looked very impressive as they swayed by with their primal face paint, chanting their songs and gathering in a circle under the palm leaf shelter. Each one played a wooden rattle in rhythm with the drums that grew fiercer as the singing grew louder building to an ecstatic show of trance dancing.

Shamanism seems to be at the root of all religions, and largely involves merging with the world of spirit and bringing forth healing energies to the visible world. The African shaman certainly favours drums and dance to enhance a trance state in which all senses are opened to receive divine energy.

These shamans were consuming the sacred herb of iboga and would leave the circle at regular intervals to partake of the mysterious brew. The herb was causing them to have tremendous stamina to dance fiercely and apparently open to the ancient wisdom of their ancestors.

I was mesmerized by the primitive richness unfolding before my eyes. It was a galactic theatre show, embracing the magic and mystery of Africa in all its glory. The dancers were using their entire bodies in musical expression, while all the time channelling energy and relaying a message of spirituality to the community.

Just before sunrise, the head shaman invited me into their circle. I was keen to demonstrate the sacred dance of the Zulu sangoma, and already dressed in my red and white cloths felt well blended with the others.
He led me three times around and through the fire and painted my face with clay.
The energy within the circle was intensely high, as they had been dancing for hours already and I could see the muscles of the drummers shimmering in the light of the fire.
The community was amused by this unusual show of tradition by a white woman, and the sun came up to find us dancing together, having connected through the music. A mutual feeling of acceptance was felt between us.

My entry into Mitshogho territory was secured by the contacts I had made that night. Strict borders, established to protect these tribes-people from further loss of land through forest industry and other developments, make it near impossible to enter through the guarded borders.

It took one day to drive the scenic jungle route from Mouila to Imongo. .

Together with the young translator I had found in Mouila, we reached an agreement with the elders after hours of negotiation. They were surprised and concerned about my intentions in their territory but agreed to take us up to the remote forest village where no white man had been in more than twenty years.

Here we would find the elusive iboga plant, and experience life beyond the boundaries of civilization. I watched as our only means of return disappeared in a cloud of dust.
A whole family moved out of their little wooden home to accommodate us that night and we left for the high forest the following morning by foot, with an elderly Mitsogho medicine man and his second wife.

Enough light passed through the trees to see but the forest path was narrow and slippery. Our elderly guides were more agile and travelled lighter. They pointed calmly to a black mamba snake about 5 metres long, passing nearby in the overhead branches. Soon my boots were off, caked in mud and slung over my shoulders. Spiders, lizards and scorpions lurked in the shadows but it was easier to walk bare feet as they did. Gorillas had been sighted nearby and forest elephants were in this region.
We crossed over three mountains that day and balanced over numerous logs and bridges. I was soaked with sweat and slapped bugs while negotiating obstacles with a strong stick. The air was filled with the sounds of birds and insects, a dense wall of sound that both surrounded and enchanted us.

Walking in single file, admiring the huge trees, we stopped when our guides blew into bamboo whistles to pay their respects to the forest spirits. Following their example we placed one leaf on a tall pile of leaves alongside the path and said a prayer. I had noticed this whistle once before when a medicine woman had blown it to alert a tree spirit that she would be removing bark from its trunk.

We arrived in the village at dusk, tired, muddy and hungry. Deserted except for the occasional passing hunter, the village consisted of five little cabins with beds of planks. Inside was dark and crawling with bugs that fancied the space as a breeding ground. The nearest store was a distant memory now and we would eat only what the forest provided.

The elderly medicine man had been difficult to warm up to. He held himself well and moved deliberately about his business. His wife was entirely different and glowed with warmth that shone through her eyes. She delighted in sharing the little wonders of the forest, like edible mushrooms and insect repellents made from pounded pine nuts.

It was here in the deep jungle, totally wild and natural that I was honoured to meet the most respected plant of the forest. Once we had found it, our guide placed silver coins on the ground and proceeded to carefully harvest the roots of iboga.

Used in ceremony, this extraordinary plant is a source of spiritual enlightenment and a tool for accessing universal knowledge and wisdom. In different ways, tabernanthe iboga allows the user to catch a glimpse of his deepest spirituality, while experiencing a unique type of healing.
The medicine people use the plant to heal the sick, speak with spirits, and see into the future. Perhaps most importantly it is used in ceremony for one who is passing into adulthood, to reveal to them the nature of their life path. It may also be used in smaller quantities as a stimulant and aphrodisiac. Iboga is used with knowledge and extreme caution.

We returned to camp and sat under the shelter of palm leaves to eat bananas and cassava root. A young man appeared with a rifle. He was one of the hunters and it was his task to set up traps and bring back meat for his family. The old man spoke to him in Mitsogho as we hopefully eyed out our source of food. Soon he returned with river fish in a net and something else, which he had harvested especially for us. Grinning widely he proudly presented his treat in a folded leaf. Fat, white wriggling worms were offered around and I watched as everyone else enjoyed their share of protein.

Having met the plant diva and received instruction from the Mitsogho medicine man on the uses of iboga, it was time to move on. Being female prevented me from participating in a Bwitti ceremony. We would return to Mouila where another branch of Bwitti allowed for a woman to be initiated.

George returned to collect us from Imongo as he had promised, and back in Mouila preparations began for iboga ceremony. By participating in this initiation I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the iboga herb and its effects. The ceremony would last a week and it was made clear that we were not to leave the sacred space during this time.

Along with two others, we began at midnight by cleansing with herbs. The moon was just past full, and still prominent in the sky. The ceremonial circle was complete with five medicine people, and the head shaman who was a woman. Each of us was assigned our own personal shaman for the week, and we were encouraged to speak to them of our visions.
I felt a little self-conscious in my nakedness at first. Leaves were left to soak in cold water and repeatedly washed over our bodies until sunrise. The cleansing seemed a prominent part of the ritual.

Eating iboga began after a morning fast and continued throughout the afternoon. The herb was prepared in various ways, and I shudder on thinking back to the vile bitterness that repeatedly turned my stomach.
At sunset we were urged to hurry from the clearing in the trees to the sacred space where we would spend the next few days.

Alongside the shamans we settled under the shelter and were guided to focus on one point. That night we lay on grass mats listening to the sound of a traditional harp, said to carry the dreamer into the next world. Horns were blown and we slowly drifted off from this reality.

It felt as if I was dreaming, although I knew I was awake. I had visions of my childhood, my parents, school and adolescence. In truth and without judgement, each time revealing another part of myself. I came to feel the value of my own being and felt my connection to the rest of humanity.
The next few days were spent in silence, most of the time covered in white clay, naked except for a cloth around our waists.
I was visited by forest elephants and went on a journey of self-discovery, seeing in all its glory the very beauty of creation, the value of life in its rarity and the immensity of my own potential.

I was well cared for by concerned villagers and numerous healers who provided our food and comfort for the week. My leaving was a sad occasion but I would carry with me a diamond in my heart that would shine for a long time to come.

Over the last decade, iboga has been promoted as a potential cure for treating addiction to narcotics. Researchers believe that the herb has the ability to reset the switches of addiction, freeing addicts from withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. Legal restrictions make the herb difficult to access, but I believe that this wonderful plant has the potential to be one of the most powerful healers of our time.

August 2nd, 2004 by