on December 14, 2013
One of the most powerful plant medicines known to man, is the root bark of the Iboga tree. For thousands of years, Iboga has been used by ancient ancestor cults in Gabon, Cameroon and Zaire for healing and divination purposes.
These cults believe in the existence of a supernatural spirit realm, where all souls reside. There one can not only talk to the dead, but one can also have access to the “infinite nature of the soul”. According to the ancestor cults, the ingestion of Iboga’s root bark supposedly grants entrance to this other world.
Since little is known about the discovery of Iboga, one has to go by the origin myth of the indigenous secret society named “Bwiti”:
“Zame ye Mebege [the last of the creator gods] gave us Eboka. One day… he saw… the Pygmy Bitamu, high in an Atanga tree, gathering his fruit. He made him fall. He died, and Zame brought his spirit to him. Zame cut off the little fingers and little toes of the cadaver of the Pygmy and planted them in various parts of the forest. They grew into the Eboka bush.”
When the Pygmy’s wife Atanga heard of the death of her husband, she went out to look for his body. After a long and troublesome search, she arrived at a cave in the middle of the forest. She saw a pile of bones there.
“As she entered the cave she suddenly heard a voice – as of the voice of her husband – asking who she was, where she came from, and whom she wished to speak with. The voice told her to look to the left at the mouth of the cave. There was the Eboka plant. The voice told her to eat its roots… She ate and felt very tired… Then she was told to turn around in the cave. The bones were gone and in their place stood her husband and other dead relatives. They talked to her and gave her a [new] name, Disoumba, and told her that she had found the plant that would enable men to see the dead. This was the first baptism into Bwiti and that was how men got the power to know the dead and have their counsel.”
As gruesome and bizarre as this myth may seem, today there are still several million people in Gabon, Cameroon and Zaire, who adhere to the tradition of the Bwiti. Their belief in the power of Iboga is so strong that even well-funded efforts by Christian and Islamic missionaries couldn’t deter them from their path.
Contrary to popular belief the name “Bwiti” neither refers to an African tribe nor to a local religion. In reality, it is an indigenous spiritual path that is practiced by several tribes in Gabon, Cameroon and Zaire.
Within the Bwiti tradition no form of dogma and preconceived beliefs are found. In fact, initiates are encouraged to find the truth on their own. Only what an individual can confirm by using his own senses is acceptable. Iboga is a powerful enabler in this context.
An individual becomes initiated to the Bwiti path by completing several initiations. When a member of the Bwiti tradition goes through his full initiation, it is seen as the time when he crosses over from childhood into adulthood (this can be as early as the age of 12).
It appears that among the tribes that practice the Bwiti tradition there are different factions. It is said that the Pygmies, who originally discovered Iboga shared their full knowledge with some of the Bantu tribes in the South of Gabon. Worried about what other tribes might do with the knowledge, the Bantu did not share their full wisdom with the tribes that came to them in order to learn about Iboga and the Bwiti.
It is thus suspected that the tribes with lesser knowledge were an easier target for the Christian missionaries that later entered the scene. From this time stem the traditions in which Christianity and Bwiti traditions were mixed. The Fang tribe in the north of Gabon for instance, will not only hold ceremonies in traditional temples, but also in Christian churches. During such ceremonies, crosses are carried and Christian songs are sung.
Such practices are frowned upon by members of the purer traditions. They believe that tribes like the Fang will never be able to access Iboga’s whole truth, as the necessary codes of nature have not been revealed to them.
Even though the word Iboga refers to a tree that is much like an apple tree, the part that is actually ingested by the patients is its root bark. Before the root bark can be harvested for medicinal use though, the tree needs to be able to grow for a few years. When the right time has come, the Bwiti initiates venture out into the jungle and collect exactly the right layer of root bark that is needed for their rituals. It is then brought back to the village, where it is processed into medicine.
In order for Iboga to maintain its full strength and spirit, only certain members of the tribe are allowed to handle it. As for the initiates themselves, it is important that each of their bodies and spirits have been cleansed of negative energies before attempting the full initiation. Typically, this is done by making the initiates attend several cleansing ceremonies, which are held at local rivers.
Before such a ceremony, the participants are asked to set their intentions about the things they want in their lives and about the things they don’t want in their lives. Those intentions are then communicated to spirit; sometimes represented by a leaf. After this is done the initiates are bathed in the river water and washed with sacred African herbs and woodbarks.
When the cleansing process is over, the initiates change into new clothes and leave their old ones behind. This is a representation of the rebirth process that will be completed by partaking in the full initiation. Each full initiation ceremony is led by a healer called the “N’ganga”. While men will have a male N’ganga, women will have a female N’ganga. The rituals for men and women are also held in different temples and different instruments are used.
Women will use an 8-string Ngombi harp and men will use a Mongongo mouth-bow. In addition, lots of stomping, clapping and singing will accompany each ceremony. During the initiation the initiates (banzis) will ingest large amounts of iboga root bark, rendering them paralyzed for a number of hours. It is believed that during this time where only their eyes can move, the spirit of the initiate can travel as far back as to the creation of the universe; the revelation of ultimate truth if you will.
In contrast to Ayahuasca, Iboga is regarded as a male spirit. The fact that it is male seems to reflect on the ceremony as well. For one: The physical symptoms that one experiences when taking in Iboga are much stronger than those of other plant medicines. Extreme nausea, violent vomiting and weak muscles are all symptoms that can be expected upon the ingestion of Iboga.
Also in a spiritual sense, Iboga is a lot more direct than its more dreamy female counterparts. On the Joe Rogan podcast, writer Aubrey Marcus has likened its presentation to “a stern father talking to you”. Correspondingly, the spirit of Iboga is sometimes encountered as a tall African man. This “African man”, as the Bwiti believe, can open the door to one’s own spirit or “true self”; drawing upon infinite knowledge that extends back to the very beginning of time.
During Iboga ceremonies it is thus common practice to guide patients to their “true self” and ask it questions. The answers one receives are often simple spiritual truths that carry tremendous power when applied to an individual’s life.
Within the Bwiti tradition Iboga is used for many things: rites of passage, initiation ceremonies and protection ceremonies are only the tip of the iceberg. First and foremost though, the purpose of Iboga pertains to healing. Infertility treatment, detoxification, treatment of physical health problems and emotional/spiritual issues are all purposes for which Iboga can be used.
In the West however, the property that Iboga is most well known for, is its astonishing effectiveness in the treatment of drug addictions. Upon being treated with Iboga, even heroin and crack addictions have successfully been cured. Furthermore, Iboga is said to be highly effective in the detoxification from fluoride and mercury. Even though this is not well understood yet, it is suspected that the repeated vomiting, which is caused by the ingestion of Iboga, plays a significant part in the inner cleansing of the body.
Apart from the physical benefits, patients also report mental benefits. Going by the testimonies of previous patients, it appears that Iboga allows for a sort of “reset of the mind”. By taking the patients to the deepest levels of their self and showing them their subconscious thought patterns, Iboga has the power to significantly alter the patient’s life course.
Since Iboga has rightly earned itself a reputation as a powerful healer, more and more people from around the world are seeking its counsel. What many of the seekers don’t know though, is that high quality Iboga is hard to get by even for Africans.
In the cities of Gabon, Cameroon and Zaire many people will never get to see proper Iboga. Even when they do see it, it is usually just low grade version, which has been processed from other parts of the Iboga tree.The sale of fake Iboga on city markets is not unheard of either.
This being the case, it is not surprising that Iboga rarely ever makes its way into the Western world. What can be found in the West is a substance called Ibogaine, which is the result of laboratory experiments in France and the US. Ibogaine is an extract from Iboga that contains only one of the root’s many alkaloids. Even though some positive results may come from ingesting Ibogaine, the Bwiti believe that the Spirit of Iboga cannot reside in it, which makes a full healing impossible.