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What even is a Grandmother?

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

I thought Grandmother fed you lollies. Slipped you money. Bought you birthday presents even when you’re an adult. Sent you cards handwritten. Had a timeless love of baking with way too much raw sugar & had the most sophisticated hanging plant garden..

I was so, so wrong..

Grandmothers are so much more badass than I thought.

Last year I travelled to Gabon to be initiated into a feminine Bwiti cult known as Mabanji. This was not in Libreville, the capital, at a cosy home-stay. I went jungle, to be closer to the original Eboga eaters, the Babongo, the Pygmies.

It took 2 days of driving at scarily fast speeds, passing multiple army checkpoints, having passports checked way too many times [ the neighbouring Congo was in warfare ], losing bottles of herbal medicine to police, but being able to pass forward by showing we have Eboga and we’re medicine crew yo, clutching onto whatever you can to survive many hours of 4wding, only stopping for mid-jungle repair work, fresh monkey meat & palm wine to get there. The village welcomed us with celebration and I cried. It was surreal and beautiful. 

There are quite a few Bwiti sects, which are considered religions in West-Central Africa. I’d be working with the women, how comforting! Here I am feeling a preconception of motherly gentle love. Held by pacha mama! Yes, that’s how I’ll take my Tabernanthe iboga in the jungle please, with mother, with grandmother guides *insert warm sighs of relief*. You know what they say about expectations, yeah? Turns out the imprint of mothers and grandmothers I was raised with, is so very different from a jungle mamma.

We toured the town, the Mabanji side of things looked pretty grim. The living conditions were compiled of rustic huts. Grandmother lived on the floor and her roof leaked. The Mitsogo side of town had houses, couches, some TVs even. Mitsogo is the masculine cult, it dwells in the mind, the cerebral, the visionary. In tantra the masculine is considered consciousness itself. The feminine sect is about the body, feeling, movement. In tantra the feminine is energy. I suddenly wonder if I should be working with the men....

Village life

What happened next was a rite of passage. It wasn’t even about Eboga in the end. It was about using the wood to teach you to get out of your own way to allow trance-states. The 8 mothers & grandmothers I worked with were the most experienced in the wider area. They had the most initiations tallied to their names. They were the strongest, most resilient women I have even met. Crafted by their landscape. They work hard. There were few men in their village. The respect their presence demanded intimidates me from over here. Something I can’t forget, that and they won’t let me. They seem to journey with me on most plant medicine trips now.

I soon realise no one is going to be wiping me down saying, ”There-there. You got this” when I spew on myself, are they. Gulping down strength now.

I won’t go into the details of my initation and Iboga journey; you can read this linked blog for that. But what I learned of Mother & Grandmother is that I’m not one, and in their reflection, I barely feel like a woman. Not yet. I’m like a teenage child. I’ve been spoilt & cotton-wooled over here in West-Land. The kids rule the show here. Anything for you baby dearest. Stuck in an age grasping for immortalised youth, we become big kids. None of that here. You transition out of the child phase, and not just by becoming a parent to a child, but through your efforts to die to your youth & rebirth yourself as adult.

I would glance to the 15 year old being initiated with me, and think to myself, "We’re the same age you and I, except I have like 11 years of wear on you." In many ways she was so much more powerful than I will ever be. The spirit in her eyes.. Little jaguar sister; you amaze me.

Little-Jaguar Mougali had to stay in the temple for 2 more months. Never leaving [even hand-held toilet breaks]. When I need strength I remember her, and realise I'm soft.

Little-Jaguar Mougali had to stay in the temple for 2 more months. Never leaving [hand-held toilet breaks]. When I need strength I remember her, and realise I'm soft.

Step up or die. This demands respect, wisdom, maturity, fear even. The conditions are so much sharper; brutality a lived thing. Surviving here requires the feminine to exist in a way I’m so very new to. There’s love yes, and care, but it’s expressed in such a tough-love way. She does not linger more than she needs to. Here is my love & care, now be on with things. I definitely felt as a female, that the women are harder on me than my male co-banzes. They expected more of me, because they shared a part of me. But they also saw me try more than I was capable, and that’s all they were asking of me; to exceed my very very best. And when I somehow did, they were so warm to me, for a moment, and then more of me was required. Step up or die.

Grandmother & the Mothers preparing the temple. This woman is the most experienced shaman in the area.