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Bwiti 101

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

In the ethnobotanical world, we hear about Bwiti, which refers to various ethnic & religious groups from West-Central Africa using Tabernanthe iboga (Iboga or Eboga) as a plant medicine teacher for rites of passage and ritual. So who exactly are these people and what of their ancient herbal medicine knowledge? After my recent journey to Gabon, I've learnt a lot more about one particular sect of Bwiti called Mabanji, a less spoken about cult. What I share here is what I learned on the ground and in person with one particular group of people, and there are many differences group to group. Bwiti is specific, but always adapting and changing.

Tabernanthe iboga in flower (Eboga in Tsogo)

Bwiti is an official religion in Gabon, that took form in the early 20th century. Bwiti is also present in the neighbouring countries of Cameroon and Congo. It has many sects, just as Christianity is broken down into various factions. The varying forms of Bwiti differ greatly in their practices. What they have in common is that they use Iboga as a sacrament to commune with ancestors, spirits and God, all with their own extremely unique and complex ceremonial rituals. Another common feature to Bwiti cults are the sermons conducted by initiates in special temples. The symbology of the Initiation process being likened to a death and rebirth also rings true for all Bwiti cults. All Bwiti initiations involve a strict ceremony lasting multiple days usually with elements such as a cleansing bath, being painted and dressed in white/red/black/grass skirts and animal skins such as the African civet cat, traditional music being played and high intensity dancing. Bwiti is not only a religion, but based on how intrinsically it is entwined with the lives of followers, it is an animistic spiritual world view, a belief system, an ethnic culture, and a way of life. As Gabon is considered to have been located at the centre of Pangea, Eboga is literally at the heart of mankind’s history.

The Civet cat and its fur as a dried head piece used in Mabanji.

The pygmies, or less offensively known as the Babango (little) people, are the original and oldest known users of Iboga, a plant medicine. They were jungle hunters and gathers from West-Central Africa, who have influenced the development of Bwiti. Due to logging of Gabonese forests, and the impact of French colonisation, the Babango are no longer a nomadic people, and live in villages amidst other genetic lineages of Gabonese ethnic groups practicing Bwiti in various sects such as Mitsogo.

Babongo people live in this village mixed with other ethnic groups. Bwiti Fang, usually referred to as just the Fang, is a cult heavily influenced by Christianity that is more popular in the north of Gabon. This is common of traditional cultures to be influenced by Christianity and take on Christian iconography, language and rituals as a way of preserving their own culture - it has happened worldwide. The ceremonies are highly Christian, with iconography, terminology and saints of Christianity throughout, blended with certain tribal practices adopted and morphed from Bwiti Mistogo and pygmaea culture. Westerners are able to join the Fang cult. Fang is known to use exceptionally large doses of Iboga in a short period of time. 
(This article is not focused around the Fang so this is all I’ll say about Fang.)

Bwiti-Boumba is usually referred to as just Bwiti, however this isn't completely accurate, as Bwiti refers to the masculine cult, and Boumba the feminine cult. Together they are Bwiti-Boumba. There are also a few other smaller cults that can fall under the Bwiti-Boumba umbrella. Bwiti Missoko/Mitsogo is the masculine cult, and usually when someone says Bwiti, this is what they are referring to unless they specify Fang, whereas Boumba Mabanji is the feminine cult, a lesser known and documented tradition. Most westerners initiated into Bwiti are members of Mistogo. There are also the cults Dissumba, the original Bwiti from which Mitsogo evolved and later Fang, as well as a smaller scarification cult only open to Gabonese men. Mitsogo and Mabanji are open to foreigners. One defining difference of Dissumba to Mabanji & Mitsoko is that Dissumba is focused on the mystical and the occult, whereas Mabanji & Mitsoko are used specifically for healing ailments using iboga as a herbal medicine, the most important being infertility or reproductive issues. Whilst there may be many followers of the pagan Bwiti sects, and though perhaps 80% of Gabon's citizens have consumed Iboga (most psychedelic country on Earth yo!), not many go through initiation anymore, which is a more recent ceremonial ritual that has been created and changed over the last 200 years. A person usually only goes through initiation once in their life, but potentially twice, and usually into just one cult, but this is not always true. The reasons for initiation vary; marking a child's transition into adulthood, for health reasons, to train to be a healer and gain knowledge of the natural medicine world, and for sorcery & magick. Which cult one initiates into depends on one’s intentions. Age is not a defining factor, where adults or children as young as just 5 can be initiated.

Mitsogo Initiation with Ngangas dancing around the tree which symbolises an anchor between the Banzies and Earth. The mothers are dressed in red, black, white and straw skirts, whilst villagers watching on. A few defining features of Mitsogo

- The masculine sect of Bwiti-Boumba.

- Also called Bwiti Mitsogo or Mitsogo Bwiti.

- An older Bwiti evolved from Dissumba and from which Fang was created from.

- Numbers are said to be on the decline in comparison to the Fang religion.

- Initiation ceremony lasts about 3 days, with fasting.

- Focused on the individual and the mind.

- 1 main male shaman guiding the initiation.