Photo (C) Laurent Sazy

A Short Note on Bwiti and Appropriation

As many people know, Tabernanthe Iboga is a profoundly healing shrub found mostly in Gabon and parts of Cameroon. Its bark is at the centre of the traditional religion of Gabon — Bwiti — and induces altered states of consciousness. The consumption of iboga is used as a rite of passage into adulthood as well as for treating mental/spiritual malaise. Iboga is likely to have been a sacrament for the pygmies deep in the forests of central Africa for many thousands of years, before being discovered by the Fang and other ethnic groups in the past two centuries.

Thanks to the work of Howard Lotsof and others, one of the alkaloid constituents of iboga — ibogaine — was found to have the remarkable characteristic of effectively interrupting addiction. Although ibogaine is illegal in the US and a few other countries, in the past few years, over 70 clinics offering ibogaine-based therapy for people with addiction challenges have emerged, with nearly 50% of them in Mexico. Although not a magic bullet, ibogaine taken in an appropriate therapeutic context and with sufficient after-care can lead to up to a 75% success rate — a figure beyond the wildest dreams of those in conventional addiction therapy circles.

Although iboga (and ibogaine) is less popular than ayahuasca, MDMA, LSD or psilocybin for westerners and remains a slightly taboo aspect of the psychedelic renaissance, thanks to the advocacy work of organisations such as ICEERS and GITA, there is growing interest in the shrub. The latest research concerns the potential for ibogaine to treat Parkinson’s Disease by boosting the production of neurotrophic factor in the brain, with at least a couple of remarkable case studies so far.

So far so positive. However, there are several key issues with the growth of the ibogaine movement.

First of all, while Ngangas (shamans) who work with iboga in the Bwiti context of Gabon remain marginalised and often very poor, a lot of moolah has been made in Mexico from the ibogaine clinic business. This is not to disparage the pioneering efforts of western ibogaine practitioners, but simply to point out an asymmetry of wealth and power. Furthermore, there has often been little or no acknowledgement of the cultural source of the plant they work with, and practically no financial support for those back in Gabon working in the Bwiti context. The profits from ibogaine have gone to westerners, in yet another act of white appropriation. From Picasso and Presley, to ibogaine in our times.

For those white people, like myself, who have been to Gabon for initiation into Bwiti, the trip threatens to be over-determined, in some people’s eyes, by the baggage of colonialism and this threat of white appropriation. No matter how profound the spiritual journey one might make when visiting Gabon, images of white people caked in kaolin being chanted over by torchlight can be perceived as yet another form of cultural theft in the making. This problematic visual image cannot be ignored, but at the same time, it should not be allowed to be the dominant take-away. Bwiti (and iboga) is for everyone, including Africans from across the continent, and its work deals mostly in the invisible — in the realm of the ancestors and a consciousness that is raised to higher frequencies of being during the ceremony. There is no colour bar for Bwiti, and indeed, many Africans do visit Gabon for precisely this reason.

For all its many challenges, Gabon can be regarded as the “Tibet of Africa” — the national host of a deep and powerful spiritual tradition that should be regarded as a world heritage culture. Sadly, Bwiti, and the sacrament of iboga, is currently under intense threat. Demand for iboga (and ibogaine) outstrips supply and has led to corruption in the supply chain in Gabon thanks to unethical European-based suppliers. The shrub itself is vulnerable thanks to the mass killing of iboga seed spreading animals such as elephants for their ivory (a deadly Chinese trade), as well as further incursions by hostile and intolerant forms of Christianity. Bwiti, and iboga, needs all the help it can get. Fortunately, the work of ICEERS and Blessings of the Forest are there to promote knowledge of Bwiti culture and, for the latter organisation, to ensure that tabernanthe iboga is around for many more generations to come.

It would be wonderful if those who have lived well out of ibogaine therapy outside of Gabon would contribute more to the cause, and it needn’t eat into profit margins significantly.

In the spirit of love and unity, let’s not think of it as iboga vs. ibogaine, but simply acknowledge the source of a powerful healing practice, and commit to each playing a part in ensuring its survival for the beautiful ones not yet born.


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