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Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism
by Vicent Ravalec, Mellendi, and Agn├Ęs Paicheler
Park Street Press 
2004 (hardcover), 2007 (paperback) 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 11/20/2008

Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism is an uneven book that makes a heroic effort to describe the potent psychedelic entheogen from many points of view. It describes the use of this plant by the Bwiti tradition of West Central Africa from its earliest recorded history in the nineteenth century through the present day. Iboga also chronicles the battle of Howard Lotsof, Deborah Mash and others to bring ibogaine to market as a remedy for opiate dependency. And, it contains chapters on the botany and chemistry of iboga, the pharmacology of ibogaine, and a great deal of well-intentioned advice from a Bwiti initiate pitched to anyone thinking about undergoing the rite.

If this sounds like a lot for a two-hundred page book, it is. The book’s many short chapters offer glimpses of a variety of aspects of iboga at the expense of cohesiveness and flow. It doesn’t help that the two primary authors, filmmaker Vincent Ravalec and social sciences researcher Agnès Paicheler, write in very different voices. As a Bwiti initiate, Ravalec speaks of iboga from an experiential point of view, while Paicheler writes in more academic prose.

Unfortunately, while Ravalec strives for a casual tone, his chapters frequently come off as amateurish and meandering. He offers a tutorial for the prospective iboga initiate in the second-person voice, addressing the reader as “you” and liberally speculating on what “you” are thinking. This stylistic conceit may be more effective in the original French, but in English it is tedious – especially when combined with his evangelical zeal for Bwiti. His wholehearted conviction in the power of Bwiti is striking given that he came late to the tradition from an alien culture. His style suggests the surplus conviction of a convert who over-compensates for a self-perceived outsider status.

Fortunately, Paicheler’s material is better-written and more interesting. Her history of Bwiti iboga rituals in West Central Africa is vivid, captivating, and rich with arresting details. For example, we learn that during the suppression of Bwiti by colonial forces in the twentieth century, iboga ceremonies were often conducted near waterfalls to conceal the sounds of the instruments. That kind of detail can transport a reader to a different time and place.

Though the book suffers stylistically for it, the “many points of view” approach does encourage the reader to think about iboga in different contexts. In traditional use, iboga is regarded as a sacred medicine that is not for recreation. The Bwiti do not take iboga as an end in itself; it is used for healing, for divination, and to make contact with the archetypal realm in which the ancestors dwell. Travel to that visionary space is considered arduous and demanding, and not to be taken lightly.

The authors insist that iboga is “not a drug” – at one point Ravalec refers to it as a “university”. I believe this means that iboga is not a thing in a box that one can take off the shelf and use however one pleases. In Gabonese culture, iboga is seen as a living thing that exists within a complex ecology – one that connects the depths of the human psyche with the webs of social organization that bind the tribe together. In initiatory rites, iboga bridges past and future, connecting the living and the dead. It is to be used with care and skill, and treated with reverence. If it were not, it would be just a drug, a mere alkaloid with interesting properties.

If iboga lives within a complex social, biological, and psychological matrix, then what are non-Africans to make of it? And what of the Gabonese living abroad? Is it possible to make use of iboga as a visionary tool without that traditional context? This book faces these questions head-on. In one of its most engrossing chapters, Mallendi, a Gabonese Bwiti initiator, describes the use of iboga in Africa and in Europe. He notes the importance of context and remarks on the different kinds of questions people bring to the experience.

Perhaps the tribe has grown larger than ever, as boundaries between nations become porous in an increasingly global culture. Mallendi does not doubt the power of iboga to bring any initiate – French, Gabonese, or otherwise – more deeply into the human fold. The very existence of this book, with its diverse and multinational perspectives on iboga, documents this possibility. The style of each author – especially the degree to which they locate themselves inside or outside its native context – sheds light on deep questions concerning the future of traditional entheogen shamanism in a global age.

While the cultural anthropology is fascinating, Paicheler’s detailed history of ibogaine as an opiate treatment is relentlessly dull. It consists of a dizzying array of conferences and meetings with the FDA, and a depiction of activist culture in the United States that struck this reader as a little naïve. Small but glaring errors cast doubt on the soundness of these names and dates. For example, Paicheler locates the origin of “war on drugs” rhetoric with Lyndon LaRouche in the early 1980s, though the term was famously used by Richard Nixon during his presidency. She refers to “Dr. Stolaroff”, though Myron Stolaroff holds no doctorate. Small points, but enough to leave me with questions.

In the final analysis Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism is a valuable hodgepodge of data and perspectives that will probably land somewhat differently for each reader, each of whom can chose which parts to skim and which parts to pore over. My understanding of iboga has been deepened by the book, and ultimately that is what I will carry away from it, despite its flaws.

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