Journey to Find Iboga
v 2.0 - November 7, 2014
Original text appeared in Portguese on Feb 2001 version of TerraMistica.com.br
Citation: Labate B. "Journey to Find Iboga." Erowid.org. Nov 7 2014. Online edition: Erowid.org/plants/iboga/iboga_article1.shtml
AfriqueI landed at the airport in Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon, with the aim of collecting data on a mysterious African root to which powerful therapeutic properties are attributed. The first sensation, the hot and clammy air, is familiar. The pagne, a traditional African garment, makes us feel for a moment that we are back in Salvador, Brazil; but we soon realize that it is not quite "the same thing." In just a few hours, all our conceptual references have disappeared. To an outsider, there is no coherence or aesthetic order. There are no streets or addresses; traffic is every man for himself. Music 24 hours a day. Men innocently holding hands in the streets. When you walk around the "city," people stare, make comments, and touch you. As a white person, you want to be invisible.
It's difficult not to be shocked by Africa, to be immune. Suddenly, it seems that we are waking from a dream: There, before our eyes, a whole continent is throbbing and spreading out its enormous natural wealth and economic poverty. Amidst this scenario, there are thousands of beautiful, creative hairstyles, expressing the power of a people, bewitching and infecting the visitor with a strong sense of joy.
Iboga1It was not difficult to find the plant. The active components are derived from the underground root of a plant that reaches 1.50 m in height and belongs to the Tabernanthe genus, which is made up of many different species, 650 of which have been identified in Central Africa. The one that has most interested Western medicine is Tabernanthe iboga, found mainly in the region of Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea. The shrub grows in tropical forest areas, swampy soils, or wet savannas. It blooms and produces fruit throughout the year. Its main alkaloid and active ingredient is ibogaine, which is extracted from the bark of the root, and represents 90% of the 30 alkaloids found in the roots of this species. Iboga is formally classified as part of the family of the hallucinogens, which include peyote, mushrooms, LSD and ayahuasca. Alper2 has claimed that its phenomenology is different from classic hallucinogens, and that serotonergic transmission, while generative of hallucinations, is not the cause of ibogaine's action in opioid withdrawal attenuation.
It is believed that the Pygmies have used iboga since time immemorial. Up until today, these people have used it in rituals that Whites have rarely been permitted to attend. According to the writings of an expert on the plant, the Italian Giorgio Samorini, some species of animals, including mandrills and wild boar, feed on the roots of the iboga to obtain inebriating effects. There is a speculative theory that the Pygmies discovered the hallucinogenic properties of iboga by observing the curious behavior of these animals. 3
Ibogaine was first isolated in 1901. It is reported that it was used in the West from the beginning of the century to treat flu, infectious diseases, neurasthenia, and sleep-related illnesses.
In 1962, Howard Lotsof, 4 a young heroin-dependent man in search of a new drug experience, discovered iboga. After a trip lasting 36 hours, he said that he had completely lost his craving for heroin and felt no withdrawal symptoms. He gave the substance to seven friends who were also dependent on heroin, and in all cases, the result was the same. In 1983, Lotsof reported the anti-addictive properties of ibogaine, and in 1985, obtained four US patents for the treatment of addiction to opium, cocaine, amphetamines, ethanol, and nicotine. He founded the International Coalition for Addict Self Help (ICASH) and developed the Endabuse method, an experimental pharmacotherapy that makes use of ibogaine HCl, the soluble form of ibogaine. By administering a single dose, the effect of which lasts for two days, considerable or complete attenuation of withdrawal symptoms has been reported, allowing the patient to painlessly detox. There is also allegedly an absence or lessening of the desire to take drugs for some period of time afterward.
The Initiation Rituals of the Bwiti5 TraditionCurrently, iboga is used by traditional healers of the countries of the Congo Basin and the Bwiti religion in Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and especially in Gabon, where important members of the political and military hierarchies are congregants. They make use particularly of the bark of the root, but medicinal properties are also attributed to the leaves, the bark of the trunk, and the root itself. In Gabon, the bark of the root and the root are easily found in traditional pharmacies and markets in major cities. There also exists an NGO dedicated entirely to iboga (Association for Nature, Culture, Future: EBANDO). Some claim that, if current trends continue, the collection of wild specimens of the root is putting it at risk of extinction. Iboga may be used alone or in combination with other plants. It is used in the treatment of infertility, depression, snakebites, male impotence, female infertility, AIDS, and also as a stimulant and aphrodisiac. In the belief of local healers, it is also helps to combat "mystical diseases," such as being possessed.
Tonye Mahop, a researcher at the Limbe Botanical Gardens, says, "there are a number of records of it curing cigarette dependency, mganga (marijuana) and fofo (a local alcohol concentrate made from palm wine) with iboga in the Bwiti rituals. The problem is that the informers do not tell how they prepare and use the plant, so that there is always a part of the knowledge that is kept secret."
There are two types of Bwiti: the traditional, which rejects Christianity, and the syncretic, which is more widespread. The first is practiced by the Mitsogho, and the later by the Fang, both Bantu groups. It is likely that during the nineteenth century the Pygmies transmitted their knowledge to the Apindji, who in turn passed it on to the Mitsogho, both southern Gabon tribal groups. During the nineteenth century, these groups developed the cult of the dead, which characterizes the traditional Bwiti. The syncretic Bwiti or Fang Bwiti was formulated at the time of the First World War. This form is the product of traditional Bwiti influences; the traditional ancestor worship of the Fang; the Bieri, who used a different hallucinogenic plant; and Christian evangelization, especially Catholic. Currently, there are at least nine branches of Bwiti. There is also another cult that uses iboga, Abri, which has been little studied. This cult is controlled by women and treats diseases by using medicinal plants and iboga.
Abada Mangue Clavina is President of the Bombo Ima et Bandeei Association (ASSOKOBINAC) of Cameroon and the leader of the Bwiti Dissumba Mono Bata Church in Yaoundé, whose base is his nuclear family consisting of his two wives and 10 children. There are prière [prayer] sessions every Saturday. He says that there is a specific iboga treatment for problematic drug use that lasts two or three days, depending on the patient and severity of the problem. Two, three, or four teaspoons (4-8 grams) of powdered, scraped, and chopped root bark are administered. "Iboga purifies the blood. We have been successful in 100% of the cases." The most difficult cases may require an initiation, which costs 200,000 African francs (CFA) (about $260.00 in 2011) as opposed to the 50,000 (US $66.00) that ordinary treatment will cost.
The initiation lasts three days. At the beginning, the candidate confesses all his sins and takes a ritual bath. The climactic moment in the life of the Bwitist is marked by the consumption, after fasting, of an enormous amount of eboka (up to 500 g) and ossoup, a kind of cold tea made from the root of the plant. A group follows the neophyte during the prière, where all sing, play music, and dance into the night.
The initiation ceremony aims at inducing a coma, but scholars have not yet been able to precisely time its duration. According to practitioners, at a certain moment the spirit leaves the body and travels to the level of creation, on the "other side"; in other words, it visits the world of the dead, where one can receive revelations, be healed, or communicate with one's ancestors. The citar, the "sacred harp," guides the journey and brings the spirit back to the body. After the ceremony, the subject, reborn with a new identity--that of Bandzi, "he who ate"--must report his visions and experiences in detail. The difference between the Bwiti ritual and that of other rites of passage traditionally studied by anthropologists is that, in this case, death might not be metaphorical or symbolic, but almost real, as it might take the subject to the absolute limit between life and death.
The healer Nanga Nga Owono Justine, initiated 25 years ago in the dissumba of the Bwiti branch, explains to this author: "Eboka is a science that corrects. It is like a door that only opens when a person dies. Eboka has given Black people the chance to visit a place we go to when we die, but we go there before we die, and this is an opportunity to become transformed." Her mother, the elderly Bilbang Nga Owono Christine, adds: "In order to become healed you have to be convinced, and you will heal yourself. You need the will, eboka, and faith in God, who is the master of everything." Recalling her own initiation, when she had an "eye disease," she said that "a star guided me to a hospital on the other side, where my eyes were operated. I saw my spirit leaving my body and the doctors operating me. I returned cured."
Death may occur in the Bwiti initiation rituals. According to Calvin, this may be the result of several factors. One would be the incompetence or lack of ability of the guerriseur [healer]. Another is that eboka cannot be given to someone who is physically too weak. Finally, "if the one undergoing the initiation is a witch or sorcerer, during the trip to the stars, the spirit will want to travel to the zone of darkness and may lose its way and not return, causing the death of the physical body." The Fang know an antidote, a leaf called ebebing, which they affirm can reverse the effect of the eboka.
The Scientific VersionThe scientific literature on the subject is controversial. It is known that ibogaine produces ataxia (loss of body balance), tremors, and lowered body temperature, slowing of heart rate (bradycardia) and lowered blood pressure. Studies in rats have shown that ibogaine in a dosage of 100 mg/kg given intraperitoneally (i.p.) is neurotoxic; a dose considerably higher than the 40 mg/kg i.p. typically used in studies on drug self-administration and withdrawal (the dose in Lotsof's treatment method is usually 15 to 25 mg/kg in humans). It is different from other drugs in that it acts directly to reduce craving and withdrawal by an unknown mechanism in the human body. However, its exact degree of effectiveness is unknown: There are cases of recovery but also of failure. There is no scientific study that proves that ibogaine "cures addiction"--however complicated this notion is--only substantial anecdotal evidence. Similar to reports of death in the Bwiti initiation rites using iboga, there have also been 19 reported deaths as a result of the uncontrolled treatment of clients with ibogaine in the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland. 6 According to Ken Alper, a world expert on this topic, "one important hazard in the use of iboga is polymorphic ventricular tachycardia, including torsades de pointes," resulting in irregular ventricular fibrillation that could lead to death. But there are also many enthusiasts of the plant's virtues, and a quick tour of the Internet can yield many reports of ibogaine cures for problematic drug use.
Treatment with ibogaine is not allowed in the US, the UK, France or Switzerland. Even so, it has been used illegally in treatments in hotel rooms and apartments. In Panama, the institution founded by Lotsof charges from $8,000 to $20,000 for the treatment; in Italy and Costa Rica, the cost is $2,500, and in North America it averages between $3,500 and $6,500. The cost in Thailand is cheaper, usually a few thousand dollars, not including airfare. 7 There has been an attempt in Israel to study iboga for use in the treatment of "post-war syndrome" affecting soldiers, among other widely dispersed research projects popping up around the globe.
According to Antonio Bianchi, Italian physician and toxicologist with a research specialty in natural products, ibogaine "acts on an incredible number of neuronal receptors. Its main characteristic is its action on the NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) s. These receptors are mainly found in two areas: the hippocampus, which controls the memory and memories, and proprioceptive sensitivity, responsible for the sensation we have of our physical body." If these receptors are blocked, the person builds up an image of "the self" which is not related to the physical self; that is, it is outside the body. This would be the neurophysiological mechanism of "astral travel," the meeting point between native and scientific theory. "In these circumstances, a person tends to build what is defined as a bird's-eye image, i.e., the subject assumes a projection of himself from a position of being above," says the doctor.
This feeling is not only caused by ibogaine. It can also be produced by ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, or as the result of a shock, a deep meditation, or other impacts on the nervous system. Medicine has devoted increasing attention to a phenomenon known as "near death experiences," experienced by people who have been close to death. There are multiple reports of a recurrence of this type of experience: the presence of an infinite light which is divinity itself, meetings with the dead, a panoramic view of the subject's own past lives, and the presence of a guide or religious figure leading one through a tube or path to the light.
Scientifically, one explanation is that the brain, when subjected to enormous stress (such as a heart attack, for example) produces hallucinations, immediately rebuilding a fantastic ersatz world. Initiation with iboga is an experience of this kind. In fact, some of the Bwitists' descriptions of the "world beyond" coincide with reports of people who have been near death. For the mystics, on the contrary, this is evidence that this world really exists, and that there is a continuation of life after death.
The Bwiti ProphecyThere is a Bwiti prophecy that appeared in the 1940s when French Catholic colonial missionaries aggressively attacked the Bwiti, which says that this religion would spread and unite all the Black people in the world. The Bwitists are, however, open to White people being initiated, and in recent years, many foreigners, especially from France, have undergone the experience. 8 The healer Justine, however, remarked, "we've found that Europeans do not have the same organism as we do. So we make a more lightweight treatment; you can't give them the same amount of eboka we give to an African. When we know the person has 'travelled,' we stop."
I attended a prière and took a spoonful of iboga. The effect was very strong and lasted 24 hours. I can't say I understood very much; I thought the ritual was very tiring. My feeling was that the Fang are right; iboga is something that has little to do with this world, and has more to do with the world of the dead. I was enormously curious but afraid of undergoing the initiation. Africa, on its own, was already quite intoxicating.
PostscriptShortly after finishing this text, my travelling companion discovered that he had malaria. I was stuck for six days in the north of the country, in a Muslim region (I discovered that a man in this region can have a maximum of four wives). Savannah: hot and very dusty. The various medicines did not work. The treatment is continuing. L'Afrique c'est dure.
Yaoundé, February 2001
Bia Labate, PhD is an anthropologist and researcher with NEIP, the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (www.neip.info)