Bwiti Revisited

Tom LeBlanc

June 20, 2004

Today is Father’s Day, which is very appropriate given the subject matter that I want to discuss. Once again, I am preparing to leave the known behind to seek the unknown. After five years of living in Northern California , I am taking my family to embark on a new adventure in life. We’ve sold our house. Kim and I are going to Pakistan for a short-term consultancy in education while we wait to find out whether I will get my top secret security clearance to join the Foreign Service as an education officer.

But right now, here I sit in Chico , California , twenty-two years after my Bwiti initiation when I was only twenty-two years old. I still wear the copper bracelet that was given to me when I completed my initiation. I still have my Bwiti antelope horn that I used to play at Bwiti ceremonies as well as my Bwiti bag in which I used to keep all my “stuff.” They serve as reminders of the most direct and intense spiritual experience of my life. On the one hand it seems like it happened just yesterday. On the other, it seems so far removed from my current middle-age reality—so distant, like a dream. Did it really happen? Did I really almost die to discover my true spiritual essence? Did I really leave my body to travel through the world of dreams, the land of the dead, and finally Paradise ? Just thinking about it brings the harsh taste of iboga back to my mouth. I have done so much during this amazing life, but my initiation into Bwiti ranks as the highest point of a thoroughly adventurous life.

I was a couple of weeks away from graduation at UMass/Amherst in May of 1981 when I finally received the invitation from the Peace Corps to go to Gabon . Like a lot of people I had no idea where it was. I had never heard of it even though I had taken a French course on West African Literature. When we finally got to Gabon and started our training in Lambaréné, I was very disappointed with the French component of our training program since I already knew how to speak French. But one of the most interesting sessions I had involved a one-page description of Bwiti. It floored me. I felt one of those “aha!” moments. I hadn’t figured out why I had been invited to go to Gabon since it wasn’t one of the countries I had requested when I had filled out the application form. But now it made perfect sense! I had always been interested in trying to understand alternative perspectives of reality. I had experimented with various forms of mind-altering drugs while in college and had had incredibly mind-opening experiences at Grateful Dead concerts, which, in my opinion, was a much deeper religious experience than I had ever had in all my years of going to Catholic Mass. I had also read all of Carlos Castaneda’s books on Don Juan and the Yaqui way of knowledge prior to joining the Peace Corps and really thought that this one page description of Bwiti was the African equivalent of what Castaneda had experienced and described in Mexico . I thought to myself, “So this is why I came to Gabon !”

Also during our «stage», Paul Giacomantonio brought a bunch of us to a local Bwiti ceremony where we all got a chance to taste iboga as well as witness a truly boring nightlong ceremony. I must admit that it really turned me off and I came to the conclusion that Bwiti was a joke. After we left Lambaréné and moved on to our week-long “live-in” followed by our technical teacher-training «stage» in Libreville , I didn’t give Bwiti much more thought.

But interestingly enough, I ended up getting greater exposure to it once I was posted to Fougamou. It turns out that Fougamou isn’t very far from the birth place of Bwiti, and that the Eshira were among the first three tribes to be introduced to Bwiti by the Pygmees.

While in Fougamou during my first year, I got to go to a number of local ceremonies—both Bwiti (which is primarily for men) and Mabangi (which is primarily for women). I also met a Frenchman who had copies of two doctoral dissertations written on Bwiti. But by the end of that first year, I had come to the same conclusion that the anthropologists who had written those dissertations had come to: Bwiti was simply a sociological/cultural reaction of the Gabonese to colonization, which had resulted in the loss of their «raison d’être». I rationalized that Bwiti was a way for these men to recapture their lost role in society, which colonization had taken away from them.

During the summer following my first year in Fougamou, I became a teacher trainer at the next TEFL «stage» in Libreville where I ran into Paul Giacomantonio whom I hadn’t seen in a year. I found out that he had gone through a Bwiti initiation himself and I was blown away by this news. We had some great discussions and he basically said that it was amazing and that if someone hadn’t been initiated (which was the case of those anthropologists who had written those dissertations), then there was absolutely no way that they could describe or know how profound the experience of getting initiated is.

At the end of the «stage», Paul invited me and Zal Gueye (for those of you who don’t know Zal, he is a Senegalese who was a teacher in Lambaréné) to his small village, which was located in the northeast corner of Gabon . To arrive in Paul’s village was one of the longest and most difficult trips I have ever taken while in Gabon . To give you an idea, it took us about a day (daybreak to sunset) to travel by road from Libreville to Makokou, which was a distance of about 400 kms. It took us another entire day (this time daybreak to midnight ) to travel the remaining 100 kms, which included traveling with his truck followed by motorboat ride up the river. This is perhaps the most isolated place I’ve been to in Gabon . We arrived in his village at about 2:00 am . It was surreal and reminded me of a scene in “Apocalypse Now.”

When we finally arrived, Paul introduced me to his Bwiti priest. During the course of the week that we were there, I let him know that I was interested in getting initiated. He agreed to do it, but replied that it would take about month to gather from the forest everything that we would need for the initiation. Unfortunately, I could only spare a week because I had to get back to Fougamou for the new school year.

As an alternative, one night he had us eat a little bit of iboga while he played his harp (I still have a recording of the music played that night to this very day). The music he played was mesmerizing and I was very open to anything happening. I had a vision where I felt that I was at the bottom of a well looking up at the shadow of a figure who was looking down at me in the well. That was it. We were just looking at each other. It was as if this was a kind of exposure to the esoteric possibility that Bwiti represents.

Morning broke and that was the end of that. I gave my thanks and was on my way back to Fougamou. I thought to myself something like, “Well, that was interesting and I guess that is about all I’m going to experience with respect to Bwiti.” I figured I’d go back to Fougamou, finish off my second year in the Peace Corps and then head back to my hometown in Massachusetts . Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a long, strange trip.

When I got back to Fougamou, I was no longer living with Rachel (my girlfriend during my first year who taught me how to survive in Fougamou). She had moved to Lambaréné to continue her studies and I was left alone. I ended up meeting this old man, Paul, who had been a nurse at the local hospital for a few years but had still not been paid his salary—due to the usual bureaucratic red tape in Gabon . His wife had a plantation where she cultivated various local vegetables but they didn’t have ready access to meat. I, on the other hand, could buy meat at the local grocery store but didn’t have ready access to fresh vegetables. Since I was living alone, I offered to buy meat if his wife would cook it along with the vegetables she cultivated. It was the perfect situation for both of us and we spent many wonderful evenings eating dinner together.

Usually, once we finished eating dinner, we’d have some after-dinner conversations about different things. On one occasion, we had a conversation about religion. Paul praised the power of the Catholic and Protestant churches and how they had come to Gabon and civilized the Gabonese. I retorted that I didn’t think much of those religious institutions and that I didn’t really think they were very powerful spiritually and said something to the effect, “If you really want to talk about a spiritually powerful religion, then I must say that Bwiti is it.”

Paul smiled like the Cheshire cat in “ Alice in Wonderland.” It turned out that he was a Bwiti priest! When I found this out, I told him about my experience in Paul Giacomantonio’s village and asked him if he could tell me more. He talked for awhile without saying anything! I finally asked if he would consider initiating a white man. He thought about it for a bit and finally said he would. When I left his house that evening, my mind was racing. What should I do? After all, hadn’t I come to Gabon for this purpose? It seemed that all the events of my life were leading up to this moment. But it would be dangerous. I was already aware that getting initiated was difficult. Did I really want to take this chance? I felt both excited and nervous by this unexpected prospect.

After about week of deep self-reflection, I finally decided that I should do it. I went to see Paul in the middle of the day and announced my decision. He was taken aback and at first said that he didn’t think it was a good idea. It took quite a bit of persuading on my part and he finally agreed that he would talk to “his people” about it. Another week went by and when I came to Paul’s house for dinner, there was another old man there. Paul introduced me to him. The man looked at me, nodded his head, and left the room. I had no idea who he was. After he left, Paul said that the person who had just left was the head priest of Bwiti in Fougamou and he had just agreed to initiate me!

We started to make arrangements for my initiation. But as opposed to the one month that Paul Giacomantonio’s Bwiti priest said it would take to gather all we would need for my initiation from the forest, I was now told it would take three months! As I learned later, the initiation that I would go through was a lot different from the one that Paul Giacomantonio had gone through. Later, I equated it to the difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches—the Bwiti practiced in Fougamou was more “pure” as compared form of Bwiti practiced in Paul Giacomantonio’s village. After I had been initiated and met with Paul Giacomantonio the following summer in Libreville where we compared notes, it became readily apparent to both of us that our initiations had been completely different. His initiation was a joyride compared to mine!

After taking three months to collect all the things needed for the initiation, Paul told me to go home and not to return until I was called. That was mid-December. Then on December 24 at about 7 pm there was a knock on the door. It was a young boy who said, «C’est l’heure.»

On Christmas Eve in 1982 I headed over to Paul’s house to start my initiation. There were eight old men waiting for me. We stayed up all night long just sitting around. Every once in awhile two of them would do some drumming with short sticks on long stick that they were also manipulating with their feet. I had never seen that kind of drumming before.

After staying awake all night, they stripped me and had me wear a red pagne around my waist. They also put red paint from my forehead down to my waist and from my shoulders to my wrists. We were in a hut and daylight was just breaking. They had me sit on the floor with my legs spread apart. An old man whose role was to be my “mother” asked me if anyone had forced me to do this. I said “no.” He also said that whatever happened I had to tell the truth. At this point, two other old men brought in what I thought was the limb of a tree but turned out to be a root of iboga. It was enormous! And unlike the description that Paul Giacomantonio had given me for his Bwiti priest chopping up the iboga into a fine powder which he could eat more or less at his leisure while drinking tea, my “mother” was cutting big pieces of the bark directly from the root and telling me «mange!» I had to take a sliver of iboga bark, put it in my mouth, chew it, and then swallow it—all on an empty stomach. The taste was absolutely horrible and I started vomiting immediately. The first piece that I ate wasn’t that difficult, but after that it was almost impossible.

This went on for about an hour—eating the iboga and vomiting immediately—at which time I started to feel like I was hallucinating. Light was coming into the hut through cracks in the wall and the light started to bend. I knew that I was pretty high at this point and I felt terrible physically. I was starting to shake and couldn’t stand eating any more of the iboga but my “mother” kept telling me «mange!». He would also say things like, “Did we force you to come here? Who told you to come here? Keep eating!”

There came a point where they decided it was time to get up and go outside. I couldn’t walk. I was like a baby. My “mother” put out a hand and picked me up. We went outside the hut and started heading toward the river, through a path in the forest. After awhile, my “mother” turned to me and said, “you’re a strong boy, right?” I nodded my head. He said, “I want  you to jump like this.” He jumped up with both feet and landed with both feet at the same time. I did it and was amazed. I felt like I jumped up about 10 feet into the air and came down hard on the ground leaving an imprint of me bare feet in the soil. I was thoroughly impressed. My “mother” just laughed and grabbed my hand and we continued our walk into the forest.

After while, we stopped and he had me sit down with my legs open. Some of the other guys brought the basket in which the slivers of iboga had been placed and put it in front of me. I was totally bummed out. I had thought that I wouldn’t need to eat anymore iboga and was seriously bumming out. I started thinking what in the world had I been thinking when I decided to go through this initiation. I was really afraid now. I was in a serious state of hallucination and felt that I had two choices: either keep eating this stuff and die or else stop eating and stay in this state of mind for the rest of my life. I decided I’d rather die. All of a sudden, off to my left I heard someone call my name in English, “Hey Tom!” But when I looked, it was one of the old men playing this bowed instrument. Another Bwitist saw me looking at the instrument and pointed to his ear, indicating that I should listen to what the instrument was telling me. I nodded my head.

After eating some more iboga, I finally vomited blood. I knew that I was going to die. Afterwards, they told me that it was at this point that they jammed a needle into my arm and I didn’t react. They knew that I was ready. They took the basket away and my “mother” told me to look to my right into the forest: “Do you see anything? Don’t lie. Don’t hold anything back.” I looked as hard as I could because I knew that if I said “no” that they would make me eat more iboga. But I couldn’t see anything and indicated as much. Then my “mother” said “Look to your left. Do you see anything?” Again, I looked as hard as I could to see something but indicated that I didn’t see anything. Finally, he said, “Look in the sky. Do you see anything?” I did! It was incredible. It was like viewing a multi-cinema. I could see about 16 images simultaneously. My “mother” told me to tell them what I saw. Every time I said that I saw something, all eight of the old Bwitists would scream at the same time. The sound was amazing in my head. Meanwhile, one of the Bwitists kept playing that bowed instrument.

After awhile, I couldn’t see anything else. My “mother” said, “okay, that’s it. It’s finished. Now you can lie down.” I started to lie down backwards on my back, but then my “mother” moved me into the fetal position. I couldn’t believe that this was it—that there wasn’t anything else. “That was it? All this just to see those visualizations?”  I was a bit surprised and disappointed.

I had my eyes open and my “mother” told me to close my eyes. As soon as I closed my eyes, I felt that my spirit went through the top of my skull! In a nutshell, I traveled through the world of dreams, the land of the dead, and finally Paradise . Afterwards, I was sworn to secrecy never to reveal the details of this part of the initiation to anyone about what happened, but essentially I met someone I knew who accompanied me to these places and I was allowed to ask any questions I wanted. I asked about three or four questions and was completely blown away in a positive way by the responses. Once all my questions were answered and I had no more questions, I was told that it was time for me to go back and not to return until I was called back.

When I woke up, my body was in great pain but I was in ecstasy. I was so happy that I couldn’t stop laughing. Yet, I couldn’t get up. Also, I didn’t want anything. The Bwitists around me kept saying, «Tu as vu Bwiti?» and they would shake their hand in front of their eyes. They laughed and gave each other slaps on their hands. Everybody was happy. At this time in my life, I smoked a lot of cigarettes. They decided to have a bit of fun with me and offered me a cigarette which I immediately refused. Just the thought of smoking a cigarette made me want to vomit. Then they offered me food. Again, I had the same feeling and immediately nodded my head in the negative with a grimace on my face. They just laughed. They offered me water. I had the same reaction. Then I noticed that there was a dead chicken on the side of me and realized that the chicken’s life had been offered in exchange for my spirit to come back into my body…

Until this point, my initiation had been a complete secret. Only these eight old men had known about it. Since I didn’t die, they decided to let everyone in Fougamou and all the surrounding villages know about the initiation. Before I knew it, there were hundreds of people coming to see me and making offerings to me. Each person repeated the same thing, «Tu as vu Bwiti?» as they dropped some coins in front of me.

After awhile, I noticed that there were only the eight Bwitists and me. I didn’t realize it, but my initiation had just begun and before we could go any further, they had to interrogate me. «Alors, tu as vu Bwiti?» I nodded in the affirmative. Then they asked me to describe what happened. Where had I gone? Who did I see? There was a bit of tension in the air as I answered these questions. They weren’t quite satisfied. Then they asked, “Did you see X?” I said “no.” They were very disappointed. But then I said, “But I saw Y.” And they all jumped up and started clapping each other in total relief. I had passed my initiation. I had gone where all Bwitists go and I had seen who all Bwitists see.

I could go on and describe what happened over the next several months in great detail, but I will save that for anyone who is interested in knowing more at the 17 août fête at Rock Point in Burlington , VT this summer. Until then, suffice it to say that we had a Bwiti ceremony that lasted about three days. All Bwitists from Fougamou and neighboring villages came to the ceremony. There were around 30 to 40 Bwitists present. It was quite a sight for everyone to see a white man get initiated.

I had seen many Bwiti ceremonies before my initiation and hadn’t understood anything that was going on. Now that I was initiated, I understood everything. But what I had gone through was overwhelming for my conscious mind that I had to push everything into my subconscious mind. I spent about a week trying to forget everything that I had experienced because none of it made any sense. How could I have left my body?  How is it possible that I had gone to those places and met who I had met? It didn’t make any sense. During that week, I some times felt like I was going to lose my mind. It also took a week to get me back to “normal” (that is, to drink, eat and even smoke cigarettes again). I also spent the next six months going through “training.” Whenever there was a Bwiti ceremony, I was invited. I got to the point where I could dance with fire. Finally I had an exit ceremony where I became a full fledged Bwitist and, as they say, the rest is history.

I should also mention that when the local police found out about the initiation, they were not very happy. They came by and gave my initiators a piece of their mind. They said that if I had died that my initiators would have been sent to prison and that they shouldn’t initiate white people. When the local Protestant missionary found out about it (he was away on Sabbatical that year), he was furious and warned the volunteers that replaced me in Fougamou not even to think about getting initiated. I have to admit that the policemen’s warning was a sobering reminder to me of how serious this undertaking had been. I went through this initiation when I was twenty-two years old. It happened twenty-two years ago—half a lifetime ago. I am really happy that I did it, but if I had known how hard it was going to be—that I would almost die—I probably wouldn’t have done it. Still, I’m grateful I did. Sometimes ignorance is a good thing.