from the Introduction
How to explain the unexplainable?
Can the irrational be rationalized?
Do archaic traditions have points of relevance that can be absorbed into our modern cultures?
Does the globalization that exports fast food but also rites and knowledge from another era really generate anything other than negative aspects?
Can we put the skills of the past to work for a particular concept of what the man or woman of tomorrow might be?
Up to what point is it possible to find where conceptual systems as different as those of the traditions of the forest, the world of spirits, and the cult of ancestors clash with the systems that govern the Internet and the world of audiovisual media?
And yet is it not illusory to think that knowledge could be based on a chemistry, even that of plants?
And isn’t it dangerous to disseminate this information?
It is clear that these questions inevitably crop up when one embarks on writing a book on a subject as complex as iboga.
Iboga, which has been in use since the most remote times, is used mainly in Gabon in the setting of a secret, initiatory tradition called “bwiti-nganza.” It is one of the great initiatory plants, similar to peyote or ayahuasca, which, through Castaneda’s books about peyote and The Cosmic Serpent by Jeremy Narby about ayahuasca, have been brought to the public’s attention and have generated numerous followers in recent decades. Although we may smile at the kind of fascination that flourished during the 1960s, it is clear that today we are on the threshold of a revolution that is equal to the discovery of the New World in the fifteenth century or to the invention of optics. Everywhere on the planet people who are not at all idle dreamers are experiencing this type of knowledge. Scientists, even advanced-level individuals, are turning their attention to what was recently considered the stuff of dreams for the sensation starved. Ethnologists, anthropologists, and physicists are being initiated by those we would have termed sorcerers in the past: sorcerers who are turning up everywhere and who are ready to share what formerly they kept as their sole possession.
This book participates in this dynamic. Its goal is to present a plant, iboga, and the techniques of its use as they have been forged through millennia of practice by the Pygmies and the bwitists-ngenza of Gabon. Its further intent is to cast bridges between fundamentally opposed conceptual systems and to weave connections between cultures and peoples through a system of knowledge that is, in its essence, universal.
Iboga is a plant with powerful and unique effects. In Gabon it is called the Holy Wood, or simply “The Wood,” because it provides the keys to a magic universe, the universe of the night, of ancestors and spirits with whom it facilitates communication, and of divination. It is at the heart of several rites, being used for spiritual or therapeutic purposes but not exclusively either one or the other. A large number of Gabonese are involved with these rites. The two principal groups are the ombwiri, a brotherhood of healers for whom the root is used primarily to carry out diagnoses, and the bwiti, at one and the same time a religion, ancestor worship, and a brotherhood. Bwiti allows each participant to travel in the world of the spirits, and it also has a therapeutic aim. More marginally, and more secretly also, some use iboga for sorcery, like an “invisible rifle,” to cast spells. Iboga and bwiti are inseparable. Initiation, which makes each participant a bwitist, consists precisely in the massive ingestion of the root of the iboga tree, and we can really consider bwiti as the religion of iboga.
Iboga is not taken under just any circumstances, but only as part of ceremonies: after initiation, after feasts marking the life and the death of members of the community, after feasts of the dry season, and so on. These ceremonies always take place at night for reasons of secrecy and because the world of night is the world of spirits and magic. Eating the root is a ritual act, watched over and accompanied by a nganga, the chief healer of the community, and guided by music and dances. Each element of the whole of the ceremony has a very precise function. The place and the articles of the service, the throbbing rhythms of the musical instruments and the dances, flickering light, and the sweet odor of torches made of okoumé resin that are lit throughout the ceremony, all these transport the initiates together.
Once the door of initiation is opened, the banzi can decide whether he wants to follow the path of bwiti apprenticeship. But never again will he eat as much root as he has done during these three days of initiation. He will take only small doses, as a stimulant, to keep himself awake and relax his body during the ceremonies. Even the ngangas, who have gone right to the end of the cycle of apprenticeship in this university of the universal that is bwiti, who direct the ceremonies and treat people, will never again take as much. Because the aim of the ritual apprenticeship is to gain progressive mastery over the root, to get past the passivity of the young initiate, it is necessary to learn how to progressively control its effects, to achieve these effects with small doses; in short, to work with the iboga, rather than the iboga working on you.