The Babongo of Gabon used to be known as Pygmies. They're still treated as second-class citizens by their neighbours. But their expertise and knowledge of the forests is unique and their use of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic which lies at the heart of Babongo culture, makes them famous throughout Gabon.

In this video, part of the BBC Series called Tribe presented by Bruce Parry who lives with the Babongo of Gabon and gets initiated into the ritualistic use of the sacred African root, Iboga, the holy sacrament of the Bwiti religion.

The Babongo follow Bwiti, an animistic religion based on a belief in spirits which started in the forests thousands of years ago. More recently Bwiti, influenced in curious ways by Christianity, has become one of Gabon's official religions - there are Bwiti churches, ceremonies and initiations in the capital, Libreville, and the first President was an initiate.

In the city, the Bwiti drug Iboga is taken almost as Catholics take the host at Mass, and festivals follow the Christian calendar. But out in the forest, the original form of the religion is still practiced, in all its potency.

The Babongo cultivate the drug Iboga for their ceremonies, and worship it as the source of spiritual knowledge. Some Bwiti scholars believe it is the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. It comes from the bitter root of the Iboga tree, and is a powerful psycho-active drug - something like LSD, mescaline or amphetamines. Taking Iboga brings a sense of anxiety, extreme apprehension and visual hallucinations - effects which can be made stronger by darkness, ambience and suggestion. It makes you violently sick, can lead to a state of lethargy lasting four to five days and, in extreme doses, it can kill.
When Bwiti shamans eat Iboga, they are granted the power to see the future, heal the sick and speak with the dead. The Babongo use it as a stimulant before hunting and during initiation ceremonies. They believe that Iboga frees your soul to leave your body and go on a great journey, to speak with the spirits of animals and plants.
The three-day initiation ceremony is used for spiritual or personal development, and to become a man. First the initiate eats the sliced root of the Iboga tree over a period of hours, monitored by his Bwiti father, and the visions begin. The Iboga allows him to see into his true self and vividly revisit the consequences of his past actions. After 24 hours of this, the initiate is taken to the river by the men. They lift him through a construction of twigs shaped like a vulva suspended over the water, then wash him with water soaked with leaves. The men pull a sapling of the sacred matombi tree from the forest, and plant it outside the Bwiti temple - it represents the initiate as a child. Throughout the day the elders feed him small pieces of Iboga, and the whole village perform, dancing in vivid costumes, in a way designed to bring on further hallucinations.
In the last phase, the initiate is called upon to see the Bwiti visions. Fire dancers sprint the length of the village to entice the Macoi spirits from the darkness of the forest. The initiate must tell the elders what he has seen; this is sacred knowledge, known only to them, and through it he becomes a man. The villagers meanwhile plant a forest around the matombi tree, to represent the problems to be faced in adult life. Together, the men break up the trees branch by branch to symbolise the removal of all his problems.
As well as influencing religious belief across Gabon, Iboga is also of increasing interest to Western medicine. One of its active ingredients, ibogain, has been used to treat heroin addicts, alcoholics and people who have been traumatised in childhood. Advocates say its particular powerful effects allow those who take it to move on from their previous lives and habits. Source : BBC Related Articles :
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