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.
- A Mitsogo temple is distinguished as a simple hut with thick layers of palm leaves covering the front.
- Bassé is a Mitsogo term akin to Aho, a term of recognition.
- Compared to Mabanji, a larger amount of Eboga is usually consumed, however dosing is incrementally given over the course of days. Compared to the Fang, this is considered a small dose of herbal medicine. This may be because you will be required to dance and move often in Bwiti-Boumba.
A Mitsogo temple identified by its thick leaves at the front. A few defining features of Mabanji
- The feminine sect of Bwiti-Boumba.
- Also called Boumba Mabanji or Mabanji Boumba.
- 2 month initiation process with a 5 day ceremony involving the village, and mostly fasting throughout.
- Focused on the somatic experience and possession/ecstatic trance.
- Performing possession trance is mandatory for Mabanji, and through initiation one will be taught, and have to learn how to control the trance. Witnessing a possession trance is common place for Mabanji, so new local initiates can induce it easily, whereas Westerner’s will find this challenging to go into.
- No water is drunk whilst eating Iboga, this could be for up to 48 hours.
- Multiple and many women shaman’s guiding the initiation.
- A Mabanji temple is distinguished as a simple hut with thin & sparse layers of palm leaves hanging intermittently at the front.
- Mbiambié is a Mabanji term akin to Aho, a term of recognition.
- Compared to Mitsoko, a smaller amount of Eboga is usually consumed, however dosing is incrementally given over the course of days. Compared to the Fang, this is considered a small dose. This may be because you will be required to dance and move often in Bwiti-Boumba.
A Mabanji temple with much finer leaves at the front. The centre pole has been fershly painted in preparation for the Initiation ceremony. The leaves of the abomenzan plant (Piper umbellatum) were used as decoration and in the bathing/cleansing part of Initiation.
A few other key terms, points & definitions:
- Tsogo is the Bwiti language and also refers to the land & ethnic groups of people located in south-western Gabon.
- Kombo refers to the initiate name that one receives or comes up with based on their visions on Eboga. A key part of initiation is to rebirth and discover who & what one is and receive both a name & song. This could be a person, a spirit, an animal or stone, and an appropriate Tsogo word will be adopted as one’s spiritual name.
- In Bwiti-Boumba an initiate will share their visions and experience with the shamans of the ceremony. There is an expectation that one will see certain things, and the mothers and fathers will help to decipher the visions.
- A Banzi is an initiate, and also someone who has been initiated.
- A Nganga is an experienced shaman and healer.
- Initiation is a ceremony using Iboga as a plant medicine & various rituals to travel to meet oneself and meet their spirit; one dies to be reborn. The Banzi asks themselves the questions “Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?” The initiation process symbolises death and mourning. Banzies stay on the temple ground most of the ceremony under constant supervision and are not able to leave the temple. This is a time to reconnect with mother earth. From the ground up; reborn.
- Bwiti-Boumba ceremonies involve the whole village dancing, singing, eating iboga, drinking palm wine and essentially partying for days. The shamans and music players will all consume iboga as it helps to dance.
- Bwiti-Boumba utilises the Gabonese instruments of the older Moungongo mouth bow (masculine instrument of the night) and the younger Ngombe 8-stringed harp (feminine instrument of the day), which both date back thousands of years. These are played for hours by usually men who may also sing. Percussion accompanies these in the form of drums and bamboo clapping sticks, rattles, shakers and whistles (sometimes made from bullets). Whilst there is usually only one Ngombe or Moungongo played, there will be tens of people playing rattles, drums and sticks, often the whole village singing, clapping and contributing. Music is played at a fast pace to create an intense atmosphere that empowers the Eboga.
- Bwiti music is poly-rhythmic which may help to stabilise heart rhythms, create neuroplasticity and stimulate deeply sedated and hypnotic like brain waves, combining with the Eboga to create a powerful experience. Music is continued throughout the night even whilst initiates are sleeping.
- Iboga is striped as fresh root bark, combined with various other plants including wild honey and is administered as a herbal medicine in fresh green balls.
The Ngombe stringed harp (left), Moungongo mouth bow (centre), and percussion (right) instruments of Bwiti.
To really understand Bwiti fully, one will have to go through initiation, as there are many aspects of the religion that cannot be transmitted linguistically, but only understood through feeling and being. But once one goes through initiation, they will never be quite the same. It is a true rite of passage, a way to find and redefine yourself from the dirt up using plant medicine as an agent of change in your own human journey.