Gabon Journal: Entering the Spirit World of Iboga
by Tom Riddle (©Tom Riddle, 2006)
Pictures by Tom Riddle and Candice
In late August and early September of 2006 I visited Gabon, Africa for the same reasons that for the last 27 years I’ve visited holy places around the world.
In 1979, when I was 28, I did my first Buddhist meditation retreat. From the first I was hooked. I had the sense that the more meditation I did, the more I understood about how the mind worked, and the more peaceful and happy I became. I meditated for weeks or months in meditation centers and holy places in Thailand, India, Tibet, Burma, Australia, France, Sri Lanka, Japan, and the United States. Gradually, however, like a mountain climber who scales the same peaks year after year, I got a little tired of the same path. So I tried other things: kundalini yoga, spiritual healing, shamanic workshops, and even a weekend "Miracle of Love" workshop where everyone, an equal number of men and women, got naked.
In May of this year a friend who knew that I was going to France to visit old friends, suggested that I go with him to a workshop based on a traditional healing method from Gabon that involved the ingestion of the bark of the iboga plant. This was the same friend who recommended that I get naked to discover the 'Miracle of Love." So I knew right away that this could be interesting.
I looked up iboga on the Internet. It is illegal in the US (isn't almost everything illegal in the US?), while legal in most of Europe. Apparently it has been used by the pygmies since the beginning of time. They eventually showed the non-forest people around them how to use the drug and it had a dramatic effect on the surrounding cultures. In Gabon even the president-for-life is an initiate of the iboga cult.
It is also mentioned by ethnobotanists as a possible candidate as the mythical tree of knowledge that resided in the Garden of Eden.
"One dose of ibogaine is equivalent to twenty years of psychotherapy,” he said. “The drug is like a laser-guided smart missile for trauma. It takes you right to the issues you have to deal with and allows you to deal with them in a detached manner.”
It all sounded good to me.
The workshop was three days in early July. At the end of it I told the leaders that nothing had happened. The iboga, which we had eaten in powder form, had simply given me insomnia. During my sleeplessness, I had done what I always do when I have insomnia—I meditated, specifically what Buddhists call “mindfulness of breathing.” For two sleepless nights I had watched my breath. The leaders of the retreat told me not to worry—benefits would come.
A day later, after most people had already left the retreat center, I was walking to breakfast when I had what is called in Zen Buddhism, a moment of satori, or awakening. From the area around my naval and spreading throughout the body came a deep feeling of security. Suddenly it became clear that the ups and downs of my relationships with the people in my life had really nothing to do with my own deeper sense of peace and happiness because there was someone who loved me with an unfathomable depth and warmth. That person was me. Amazing! It was great to be alive.
Later I asked the teacher about it. Other people at the workshop had felt that the iboga had helped them work through personality issues, or nagging issues left over from their childhoods and old relationships. The teacher said that I had worked through all those things through meditation and that the iboga had taken me directly to the next step. That was nice to hear. In addition to the new security, the knee and back pain that had been bothering me for years had vanished.
“More,” I thought, “I want more.”
The teacher said that the next step was to go to Gabon and become "initiated." A few times a year one of the two teachers took groups of six to ten people to Gabon for a three-week initiation. That sounded interesting. The problem was that while the teachers in France spoke English, no one in Gabon did, nor did any of the other people going there for initiation. Who wants to go to school and not understand the language of instruction?
Then I heard that two English women, who did not speak French, were going to go. I felt that if the teacher was going to translate for them, then she could just as well translate for me. So when a movie-making job in Vietnam fell through, I decided to go to Gabon.
I kept a journal in a little notebook or, at other times, on a laptop computer.
Tuesday, August 29, Libreville, Gabon, Africa
The flight from Marseilles, France to Libreville took at least 12 hours, but who knows for sure—too many time zones. We had one stop, Casablanca. The Casablanca Airport was jammed with every possible African, middle-eastern, and European dress and skin tone imaginable. They all though had one common and unpleasant denominator: everybody smoked. The idea of a “no-smoking” area or that a non-smoker would find it uncomfortable to be covered in smoke is not a part of the culture in Casablanca.
Complaining already, I see.
Anyway, the people of Gabon are tall, strong, and handsome and everybody walks like a statue. The people here are black, not tan, like African-Americans, but really black. Some of the women are drop-dead gorgeous and, judging from this cheap beachfront hotel where we’re staying, there is a scene here. This isn’t Bangkok, but there are some very sexy African ladies accompanying older European men here. Around the corner from this hotel, still on the beach, is a little bar. The ladies in that bar are not there to discuss politics and philosophy, you know?
I forgot my malaria medicine. Don’t know how I could, but I did. Is there a pharmacy? Yes, someone explains, just walk here, turn here, turn here and there it is. On the street are all kinds of little businesses—barbers, beauty shops, tailors, garages, music stores, bakeries, and tiny grocery stores. McDonalds and Wal-Mart have not made it to Gabon. Music is coming out of many stores—salsa, African, and some American pop music. The sewers are broken in a few places and in other places there are no sewers, but who cares? No one cares. Everything is in slow motion. People stand along side the road waiting for a taxi. The taxi stops, someone tells the driver where they want to go. If the driver is going in that general direction, the other passengers move over. If not, then have a nice day, and the taxi drives on. No hurry.
There is one stop light, but mostly roundabouts, which scare me. Nevertheless, eventually, I reach the pharmacy. It is modern and one of the few places that is air-conditioned. The clerk is beautiful, and she’s dancing to the music that is playing from the back of the store. Maybe not exactly dancing, but she’s moving. She smiles at me. I write down the name of my malaria medicine. She waves and tells me in French to wait a minute. She waltzes off. In a few minutes she waltzes back with the medicine. I pay for it, she thanks me, and all along she’s never missed a beat. What a country.
Later I visit one of the larger grocery stores. The security guard doesn’t bother with a nightstick or handcuffs: he holds a shotgun. Okay, I think, forget shoplifting in Gabon. The supermarket is full of French food—cheese, yogurt, meat, and freshly baked French baguettes.
Gabon is different than the other former French colonies I’ve visited—Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In those places there is French architecture everywhere. Here everything is “modern-slum-corrugated-aluminum-and-cinder block.” So no French architecture, but the people speak French and they even kiss each other on both cheeks like the French.
As usual, I’m getting ahead of my story. I’m traveling with four other people.
Andrea is the leader and this is her third trip to Gabon, her first as leader. In her mid-forties she looks like Marlene Dietrich which is not entirely surprising—she’s German although she has lived in France all of her adult life. I met her two months ago. She is one of those people who started out in a dysfunctional family and then re-invented herself. Andrea says that Tibetan meditation gave her a center, the South American healing vine ayuhuasca gave her a sense of the divine, and iboga grounded her. For the last few years she has made her living helping people at an iboga center in France. She seems happy and content with her life.
Elizabeth, who in her early thirties looks like a cross between Goldilocks and Snow White, spent ten years with a shaman in Mexico. In Mexico she recognized a Mexican man she had seen in a vision as her future husband. So she learned Spanish, married him and had two wonderful children, whom I’ve met. I’ve met her ex-husband too; he's cool. Elizabeth always speaks highly of him. It was a marriage, Elizabeth says, made in heaven until, “our vibrations changed.” I guess so.
I met Elizabeth’s younger sister Cindy when I met Elizabeth. Like Cinderella of the popular story, she is waiting for her prince charming. Cindy spent a few years in Mexico with the same shaman as Elizabeth. Now she has come to Africa, she says, to use iboga to balance out her masculine and feminine sides. What does that mean? I don’t know, but then again, I can’t understand most of what she tells me. She makes her living as an artist.
Candice I just met yesterday on the plane. She is in her mid-thirties and looks like a high fashion model. This is a woman who could walk down the catwalk with a Fedora on and a long black evening dress. Everyone freezes and waits for her to take off the Fedora. She never does and no one cares—they’ve already been hypnotized. Sometimes, I’ve found, it doesn’t help to be that beautiful. Other times, it hurts.
Two years ago, in France, she had her first taste of iboga. Shortly after that, the father of her young son left her for another woman. She says that she used Aikido and a kind of meditation called Holotropic Breathing to help her put the pieces of her life back together again.
A man saw her off at the airport. “He's my boyfriend,” Candice says casually. “We’ve only been together three months. I don't know what’s going to happen.”
She's open and honest, and I like her. Or maybe I’m just hypnotized. Candice makes her living as a back doctor.
This trip, three weeks, will be the longest that Elizabeth and Candice have been away from their kids.
Andrea, Cindy, and Candice smoke more than they admit. Elizabeth doesn’t. Not only that, but for the last two years Elizabeth hasn’t eaten cooked food. I’ve told her that if she survives Gabon without eating cooked food, she’ll be my hero.
Wednesday, August 30, second day in Libreville
Is there anything worse than going shopping with women? Usually not, but today was different. Andrea took us to Libreville’s biggest market, Mont-Bouet. A dirtier market in a big city I have never seen.
Lesson number one was don’t take any pictures without first asking. I saw some men carrying wheelbarrows full of what looked like freshly killed young deer. When I took a picture, the woman who owned the deer screamed at me, “Five thousand sifa for a picture.”
“Chill lady,” I shouted back at her. “Who cares about your stinking dead animals?”
So I started asking if I could take pictures; other times I took the pictures very discretely.
They sell everything in the market from clothing to meat. We wanted “ceremonial objects.” The ceremonial object section of the market reminded me of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter books. On display were rattles, drums, skins, dried lizards, stuffed animals, gorilla hands, bird wings, hundreds of unidentifiable potions, tiny coffins, and even a gorilla head! The shopkeeper must have noticed the look of utter horror on my face, so he asked me what I thought. I told him that gorillas belong in the forest.
“I think so too, my friend,” he said. “But here in Gabon the magicians want to buy these things, so we have to sell them.”
“We believe that with a gorilla hand you can hit your enemies from miles away.”
“So why don’t they smack George Bush?”
“He has too much protection.” Protection, I’ve learned, means “ways to keep the bad spirits away.” Here everyone tries to protect themselves.
(Later someone else told me that in Gabon, if a man suspects that his wife is being unfaithful to him, he can get a magician to put a spell on her. Then when she has sex with another man, that man will be unable to physically remove his organ from the adulterous wife’s vagina. The man who told me this swore it was true.)
The children in the market let me take their picture—they all posed like American rap stars. As I photographed the kids, one man did an unsolicited street performance featuring his lengthy imitation of the American rapper Fifty Cent.
Before we left the market I ended up shaking hands with a severed gorilla hand. Mistake! Lesson number two: Don’t ever shake hands with a severed gorilla hand: it will give you vivid and scary dreams featuring that hand. Beware!
Now the plan is that we will travel 14 hours by van to where the initiation will be, the village of Tchibanga in the far south of Gabon. It is about 325 miles or 520 kilometers away. And guess what? We get to cross the equator.
In addition to the five of us, eight other people will be making the trip. They say that they will be providing music. Today, we stopped for soft drinks in the house of one of them. Immediately they started singing, dancing, and playing instruments. The music alone could make this trip worthwhile. Talent. Sexy dancing too.
It’s been wonderfully pleasant here in Libreville. Supposedly the temperature stays about the same all year—just warm enough to make you want to sit in the shade, but not warm enough to sweat in the shade and the nights are perfect for sleeping. I never turned on my room’s air-conditioner, except once in an effort to dry some clothes. It made a horrible racket, about like an airplane engine, but I wanted my clothes to dry so I left it on. Shortly afterward, Candice came to invite me to dinner. When she knocked, she got the shock of her life. I heard her scream, but I didn’t know what the problem was. I hurried to open the door and likewise felt every hair on my body stand up in shock. Now I understood the problem--the electricity for the air-conditioner was flowing through the door. I somehow managed to turn off the air-conditioner before we both fried. I didn’t even bother telling the staff—no one would care.
We leave early tomorrow morning.
Saturday, September 2 (two days later) in Tchibanga
Our 7:30 AM departure began promptly at 9:30 in the morning, in a van whose suspension, we discovered when the paved road ended, stopped working years ago. After the suspension went, the seats broke, the door handles fell off, and everything that could possibly shake started to rattle. Our rented van came not with one, but two drivers, one of whom knew the basics of car repair. Fortunately we only broke down a few times; most of our stops were at check points. It was always unclear what the police or soldiers were checking for. No one ever opened our bags. A few times they looked at our passports, a few times someone asked for a little money, but most of the time they just wanted to see who we were.
We reached Lambaréné, where Albert Schweitzer had his hospital, at 2 PM. When he lived here, it was a jungle outpost. Now it is a city, sort of. We stopped for lunch; afterwards I went to the toilet. It consisted of a shack with a hole in the floor. Still, the food wasn’t too bad—rice, fried bananas, and eggs.
Gradually the road stopped being paved and became a mess of potholes. After the pavement ended, every village that lined the road looked exactly the same—a few one-story dusty wooden shacks with coconut thatch roofs. Often there were bananas or plantain growing behind the houses. Life looked pretty rough.
Day turned into night. The van, at least for me, was impossible to sleep in. Every time I would get comfortable, we would hit a bump and my head would bang against the window. Or I’d fall asleep, holding onto the door handle above my head to pad my head. Nodding off, I would let go of the door handle and hurt my elbow on the broken arm rest.
We started out with a lot of singing. That eventually stopped. Then people in the back thought they could smoke if they opened the window far enough. Eventually that stopped too.
I sat next to Candice; next to her was a guy about her age who wore a brand-new denim jacket, a brand new T-shirt, new jeans, and sunglasses that he never took off. Who, I wondered, was he trying to impress?
After the first fourteen hours in the van I was sure that our final destination, Tchibanga, must be around the next bend. Finally, 12 hours later, at 10:30 in the morning, it was.
Tchibanga is a town of about ten thousand or so people. As you approach it from a distance, it looks rather picturesque perched as it sits on a small hilltop. Only when you get closer do you realize that in spite of the fact that he town is laid out in a nice grid, that the major roads are paved, and that there are even a few streetlights, it is a god awful mess of wrecked and abandoned vehicles and dusty broken down houses. One can’t help but wonder what army passed through town, looted everything, and left the wrecked cars as a monument to the horror that they wreaked. But in fact, a government initiative built Tchibanga and afterwards the dust was simply allowed to settle as nature saw fit. And besides, having wrecked cars around, a few with trees growing out of them, adds to the exoticness of the place.
Just before we entered Tchibanga, we stopped at a final checkpoint and this time they kept our passports. Who, I wondered, would ever want to stay in Tchibanga a day longer than they had to? Anyway from the customs checkpoint, it was just a short drive halfway up the Tchibanga hill, a turn off the paved road onto a dusty path, and there was, as proclaimed by a small billboard, “Le Monde du Bwiti, N’Zingo Magaurga.” In English that would be, “The World of the Spirit, hosted by Zingo.” We unpacked the van and took our bags into the biggest room of the biggest house on Zingo’s compound where Candice and I got another shock. “Candice,” I said, “forget everything you know about normal living.”
Inside there was no furniture, just four mattresses, two on one side of the room and two on the other, covered with bed sheets. The problem was that exactly where the dusty front yard, which was the neighborhood footpath, ended and where the main room began was not quite clear. There was a door, but half the people entering the house took off their shoes while the other half couldn’t really see the difference between the path and the room, so they kept their shoes on. Also, it seemed like the entire population of Tchibanga walked through the room to get to the kitchen, which is also the TV room and bedroom for a few children.
Before long, Zingo, the man in charge of the initiation, appeared. In his forties, he is trim, strong, and charming. He shook everyone’s hand, said our names, and did what he could to make us feel welcome. His room is just beside our room, and shortly he invited us in. It had a double bed (Zingo isn’t married, but who wants to be a monk?), a few shelves, a sound system, and some leopard skins on the wall. The room also has an assortment of ceremonial objects—rattles, ceremonial brooms, beads, horns, many old wine bottles filled with liquid iboga, a wine-bottle sized statue of the Virgin Mary, and a framed picture of the Blessed Mother. But the room is dominated by two life-sized posters of Britney Spears. I asked Zingo about Britney. “She likes to sing and dance,” he said. “I like to sing and dance. What’s the problem?””
No problem that I could see.
We unpacked our bags a bit and, with sleep being impossible, I walked around the compound. There are four buildings—two houses, a two-room shack, with the shower stall beside it, and a building the people here call “the temple.” At the back of the compound, with a garbage dump between them, are two out-houses that consist of a platform over a hole in the floor. Neither out-house has a proper door or walls that conceal much, but who cares about that?
The temple is about the size of a four-car garage. One end is open with another exit in the back. The floor is dirt, but unlike the house, shoes are totally forbidden inside.
As I walked around the compound I saw a baby chimpanzee. Cute. Would she bite? I touched her head and she looked at me affectionately. Julie, it turns out, lives here. She passes her time slowly moving around the compound looking for food and things she can play with like people’s shoes.
In the late afternoon we were all invited to meet with Zingo in the temple. Temple furnishings consist of low benches along the walls with one corner reserved for the leader’s chair. Zingo sat there. He didn’t bother with any of the questions that people usually ask: where are you from, how do you like it here, why did you come, how is the weather? That, I sensed, would be beneath his dignity. Andrea has already told us about Zingo. He learned about iboga and the spirit, or “bwiti” from his grandfather; when his grandfather died, Zingo became the leader of this particular branch of the bwiti. A few years ago Andrea’s teacher read a book on iboga, came to Gabon, met Zingo through the writer of that book, and felt that Zingo was sincere. What else do we need to know? Many of the people around here are his family. Other people are students who help him out with the initiations in exchange for a place to stay while they go to school here in the district capital. Other people just show up for initiations in the hope of getting a reward from the happy initiates, in this case, affluent foreigners like us.
Shortly Zingo offered all of us a glass of liquid iboga. I had only ever had the dried bark of the root of the iboga plant before. Andrea urged everyone to try some of the liquid. Well, okay. Zingo poured just a few ounces into a glass. It was a translucent dark brown. One-by-one we drank it. As is the custom, first we kneeled, then he handed us the glass, we put one hand on our head, gulped it down, and then stood up with a ceremonial jump. The liquid iboga was amazingly bitter, much bitterer than anything I’ve tasted. Whew. I felt it go down my throat and into my stomach. One hit was clearly enough.
After dark Andrea announced that Zingo wanted to have a ceremony to welcome us. I pointed out that no one had slept in 36 hours. That, Andrea informed me, was something that was not considered. I asked her how long the ceremony would take—I was sure that I’d last about an hour.
“All night. Every ceremony is all night.”
Oh. Meanwhile, I was a little dizzy from the iboga and Candice had already vomited. What the hell? Who needs sleep?
The ceremony began at 10 PM with iboga, singing, and dancing. The music was wonderful, and, surprise, I lasted for three hours, at which time I found my way to my mattress, lay down, and realized that the iboga was still in control. I couldn’t sleep, but the body was exhausted. The eyes closed, but sleep and darkness did not come. Instead came patterns of lights and then, out of the patterns I saw my late father dressed in his business suit. Somehow it seemed perfectly natural and I didn’t think much about it, even though this was the first time in all my years of meditation to, well, see something.
At four AM, I realized that I was never going to sleep. The room’s only light, a neon light that glowed a dull blue, showed me that the only people sleeping were Candice and two young girls. I could hear the music from the temple, so I went back and stayed until dawn when the ceremony finished. By the light of day I could see that Elizabeth and Cindy had stayed up all night, along with Andrea. Now, their faces were covered in dark red chalk.
Shortly Andrea showered and came into our room where she keeps her trunk. She was joyously happy. Zingo, Andrea said, had given her a leopard skin to signify that now she understood enough about the iboga and bwiti to do initiations on her own. But, she said, she doesn’t want to. Africa, according to Andrea, is the only place to really get the feel of the bwiti.
Cooking is done outside over an open fire.
Tonight, as I sit here in the dim blue glow of our room’s neon light writing all of this down, one of the men who came with us from Libreville, a musician, is drunk. No one cares. It turns out that even though in France I was told to avoid alcohol, “not even a drop for a month after you taste iboga” here alcohol is the drink of choice. In little Tchibanga within a five-minute walk of this compound are three bars, only two of which rate signs, “The World of Bacchus” and the “Major Bar.”
Sunday, September 3.
I was hoping to get a good night’s sleep last night, but with most of Tchibanga walking through the room as I slept, that wasn’t possible. I did, however, sleep for a few hours. I know that because while I was sleeping someone stole my flashlight (a Mag light that I’ve carried for fourteen years) from beside me as I slept. The thief opened Andrea’s backpack and stole the medical kit as well.
All the technical words you need are here:
Bwiti-pronounced bwee-tee is the spirit or God. In Gabon and Cameroon people think that if you eat enough iboga the spirit, or bwiti will speak through you. Iboga and the Bwiti religion come from the pygmies, but these days the bwiti is heavily influenced by the Christian idea of god.
Ganga-pronounced like the river in India is a male initiate of the bwiti religion.
Maboundy, pronounced Maw-boun-dee are female initiates.
M'congo, pronounced maw-gooong-go, is a musician instrument invented by the pygmies. It can be hypnotic. There are some MP3 files here.
Andrea sleeps in another room. When she came in here this morning, as Elizabeth and Cindy did their Thai Chi, and Candice amused the children, she announced the plan. The plan is that we can rest today, go to the market tomorrow, and on Tuesday we will go to the forest for the initiation. Zingo doesn’t want to have the initiation here, Andrea explained. He knows that if he has the initiation in Tchibanga, some (most) of his male initiates, the gangas, will sneak out for booze or come drunk. Now that he has stopped drinking, Zingo is a man on a mission.
That sounds good. Meanwhile, someone has stolen my shoes. Andrea said that borrowed might be a better word—the borrowed shoes can walk back. Nevertheless, I decided to buy new shoes so Candice, one of the gangas (all men, I see, are attracted to high-fashion models) and I walked to the market. Taking the inner roads, which are all unpaved, was okay in bare feet. As we walked the neighborhood children shyly looked at us and a few of the older people stopped us to shake our hands, “Bonjour.” When we walked by the bars the guys called out to Candice. A few guys spoke English—no one was obnoxious, just friendly. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “Come here, my friend.”
The commercial area is a few blocks of vegetable and fruit vendors, small stores selling shoes, clothing and farm implements, and two small supermarkets. Surprise, there is yogurt, cheese, and apples for sale. In one corner of the market is an Internet Café.
On the way back from the market Candice told me an interesting story about the man who sat beside her in the van in the gangster-rap uniform. The day after we arrived he told Candice that the spirit of the iboga, the Bwiti, had told him that Candice was meant to be his girlfriend. Candice told him to go to hell. He told her the same thing today and got the same answer. When Andrea found out about it, she told Candice that Mr. Gangster-Rap had told his pick-up line to a Western woman a few months ago and struck gold. Just before we came here his French “girlfriend in the bwiti” had given Andrea several hundred Euros to give to him. Andrea did and he had immediately spent some of the money on his gangster-rap uniform and sunglasses.
I had wondered why the guy looked so sad.
Candice was not rattled. When you’re that gorgeous, you’ve seen and heard it all before.
Toward dark Andrea invited Candice and me out to dinner. It turns out that besides being the district capital there is a game reserve within a few hours drive of Tchibanga, so the town rates one very nice hotel and restaurant. There is a swimming pool and the upstairs of the restaurant is surrounded by mosquito screen. I was amazed. The food looked good too.
We ordered our food. Candice said that she was surprised by Elizabeth; Andrea said that she was surprised by Zingo.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Elizabeth is sleeping with Zingo,” Candice said.
“Could you say that again?”
“Have you ever seen Elizabeth sleeping in our room?”
“Do you mean that Zingo seduced her?”
“One of the gangas told Elizabeth the Zingo was her king.”
Zingo sleeping with Elizabeth? Is this for real? In the Buddhist world that stuff happens, but the meditation teachers or monks who do it are ridiculed and outcaste. It’s considered to be especially bad form for a teacher to sleep with a student just before, or during, a meditation retreat.
“Elizabeth? Zingo? I can’t believe it,” I said.
Andrea reminded me where I was, “Remember, this is Africa.”
“She says that this is the lover she has waited lifetimes for,” Candice added.
Why do women always know this stuff before men?
Monday, September 4.
We have been in Gabon about a week now. More than half of that time I’ve been constipated. Yesterday someone told me to drink a can of condensed milk.
Andrea was walking to the market, so I went with her to find the milk. I must have looked pretty bad. One of the vegetable sellers, a woman in her thirties, looked at me and said, “Hey guy, wake up! Things aren’t that bad! This is Africa. Come on man! Here in Africa everyone is rocking. Get with the picture.” She smiled and did a little dance for me. I smiled back at her, sincerely appreciating her thoughtfulness.
I found the condensed milk. If one can is good, two cans are better, right? I bought and immediately drank two cans. Nothing happened.
When she got back from the market Andrea went to Zingo with my problem.
A short time later Zingo procured some firewood and a green banana. He then slit open the unpeeled banana lengthwise and filled the slit with what looked like black powder. The banana and spices were then baked on an open fire and presented to me wrapped in a leaf. Andrea told me that very possibly it would be the worst thing I had ever tasted. Could anything be worse than iboga? Fortunately, Andrea was wrong. The banana was about like eating a half-smoked cigar that had fallen in the dirt and been stepped on—not that bad.
Two hours later: relief!
Early morning, Tuesday, September 5—We leave for the forest today.
The original plan was that we would pay €1500 each for our initiation, which we all have. Our fee, by the way, is about one third of what the average person in Gabon earns in a year. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as accommodation, are supposedly included (Andrea paid her own airfare and has received nothing for guiding us). That deal, however, has turned out to be very wishful thinking. How can you give people breakfast and lunch when you yourself haven't slept for 24 or 48 hours? And, even if you did want to give them breakfast or lunch, how can you cook the food when there's no water and no money to buy food?
There's no water because there is no running water, or even a well, in this compound. To get water the children put the assortment of jugs and water containers that they find around the compound in a wheelbarrow, and walk the wheelbarrow down the road for about ten minutes to where there is a small store and the neighborhood tap. At the tap, after waiting in line a few minutes, they fill the containers. As soon as the water comes back to the compound, much of it will immediately be used by people who want to wash their clothes or take a shower, or who are just thirsty.
(Drinking water is NEVER boiled and as soon as a water jug is emptied, it is dropped in the dust where Julie will pick it up and check it for any remaining drops.)
So for breakfast and lunch we are on our own. Candice and I have walked down to the little store a few times to buy some biscuits or bread. The sisters spend a lot of time walking to the market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables so that Elizabeth can prepare her own uncooked food. Elizabeth and Cindy, have, by the way, been impeccable. Elizabeth encourages anyone who is around to taste her food and Cindy, even though she doesn’t speak French, tries to talk to everyone and spends a lot of her time amusing the children with games that include her Tarot Cards.
So food is a problem. Andrea’s solution has been to once-a-day to give money to someone to cook one meal. That person will then buy food for the initiates and about thirty other people. Our one meal, dinner, always comes late. Last night it came very late. For hours Candice and I sat outside under the neighborhood’s single street light, and waited for the cooks who sat patiently for hours beside the open fire.
For a week now Candice has been my patient translator, guide, informant, and comfort. As an old bachelor I always say that she is a “beautiful woman,” but being a good listener, and having patience, trust, and a sense of humor don't hurt either. After a while even aging bachelors don't care how beautiful a woman is. Anyway, last night she paused to tell me a little about her own life.
“Today is my son’s first day of school.”
“A big day in the life of a little boy.”
“And I’m not there.”
“But people who love him are there.”
“But not his mother.”
“His mother is becoming a better mother.”
“Are you sure?”
Candice, who at times I’ve thought is the life of the party because of the men who always surround her, told me that she has waves of anxiety when she thinks about going to the forest tomorrow for the initiation. I didn't tell her, but I do too.
In the group of initiates immediately before ours, about two months ago, two of the people dropped out after they came to Tchibanga and met Zingo. They simply did not want to put their lives in the hands of a quack. So they left. Other times people have done the initiation and regretted it. The “bwiti” and iboga are big business in Gabon. I looked on the Internet and found that there are other groups in Gabon who will give Westerners initiations. One of them, the pygmies, will only give Westerners a token amount of iboga--they're afraid that a Westerner will die in their hands and bring all kinds of trouble to them. In the other groups someone does indeed occasionally die from taking too much iboga. I haven't asked if anyone has died here.
Candice told me more about what was on her mind. The father of her son went to the same place that Candice did for his first taste of iboga. Later, in France, he met people from another school of iboga and came to Africa to do an initiation with them. He told Candice that Zingo is a rip-off artist and that if she came to Tchibanga she would have an incomplete initiation and “be forced to have sex with a black man.”
Zingo — con man, bozo, rip-off artist, and now accomplice to rape? He might have hesitated one second before jumping in bed with Elizabeth, one of the sweetest and gentlest women I’ve ever met. And in the time we’ve been here he has asked me only one question, “Can you loan me a razor?” (I gave him one of the three disposable razors I’ve brought with me.) Since then we really haven’t seen or heard much of Zingo. No orientation, no lecture, not even a good morning. We don’t even eat with him.
Gosh Candice, what have we gotten ourselves into? We both shudder when we think about it. Fortunately, we have three aces in our hands. The first is Andrea. She is a rock of competence and integrity. If she didn’t believe in Zingo, we wouldn’t be here. The second is the fact that although a few of the gangas are, well, drunken bums and thieves, a few aren’t. A few of them see the world as a place of light and goodness even though their own lives are pretty rough. One of them has malaria and, if he isn’t trembling with a tuberculin-like cough, he is sweating profusely thanks to the malaria. He found out about my stolen flashlight and Andrea’s stolen medical bag and hunted for them until he found them. He brought them back and silently handed them to Andrea. He says very little to me or to Candice, but he watches out for us. Another man has taken it upon himself to hug me every morning. He has rock-solid faith in the process and has told me many times not to worry—the iboga is good medicine. Our third ace is me. I’ve been around the block. If you live out of a backpack for thirty years in the developing world, you develop a sense of where danger lies and where it is safe to walk.
Everything, I told Candice, is going to be okay. As they say in Buddhist circles, the seen and unseen forces of the universe are there to help you.
Finally dinner came. It’s the same food every day: rice, fish, and boiled banana.
It was late by the time we finished eating. I brushed my teeth and lay down on my mattress. The kitchen has been moved to the other house in our hosts’ sincere desire that we get a good night’s sleep, so now our room is quieter. Someone has also thought to put the house’s only chair by the door to discourage thieves from entering. From my mattress, I saw Candice put the chair beside the door and then walk over to where I was lying. She wanted someone to hug her and tell her that everything was all right. She didn’t know it, but so did I, more than she.
Friday September 8, three days later
Candice woke up Tuesday morning still anxious about the initiation. Just to play it safe, we exchanged emergency contact information. Hey, why be stupid?
We left for the forest shortly after noon on Tuesday, September 5. Andrea said that we wouldn’t need much—a change of underwear, the ceremonial clothes that had been sewn for us, and a blanket. Mosquito repellent wasn’t allowed and she didn’t see any need to bring a toothbrush or a watch. Candice and I brought our cameras.
The lock of the front door of the house had broken long ago, so Andrea had bought a new lock along with some 7 cm, nails. I had wondered how the 7 cm, nails would work in the 2.5 cm, door. They worked very simply. Someone found a hard piece of wood to function as a hammer. It was then a simple matter of pounding the nails about 2 cm, into the door and then bending the nails over. It took the guy who did it several tries to get both sides of the lock lined up properly. When he finished, I pointed out to Andrea that with a good lunge someone could easily bust the door open. She said not to worry—in Gabon thieves don’t like to break locks. The medical kit had been stolen from an open pocket of her backpack. My flashlight was simply “available.” Any day now my shoes might walk back.
The forest camp, we had been told was two-hours away, “or three hours, but not four.” Most people, it was decided, would ride on a flat-bed truck while the initiates and Zingo would ride out in a taxi. The gangas and maboundis (female initiates) gave us the impression that they had thought carefully about what to take with us—food, four big drums, a bamboo drum, mats, their ceremonial clothes, make up, Julie, and assorted children and teenagers. Finally off we went. The camp turned out to be just after the next village, about 15 minutes away, near Zingo’s home village.
Actually, it was very pretty. A fast-moving stream passed through a wooded valley that featured a temple that was the same size as the one in Tchibanga. This temple had unwoven coconut leaf walls and a flat roof that had enough coconut leaves on it to provide some shade and yet let in enough light to make it pleasant inside. Behind the temple was a clearing for the men’s quarters and a hundred meters or so away, down a narrow path, was another clearing, this one covered in mats, for the women’s quarters.
The women immediately began washing in the stream what looked like every piece of clothing that they and their neighbors owned, while the men cut coconut leaves to decorate the temple, the men’s quarters, the women’s quarters, and to make a tiny one-person sauna.
I walked around, took pictures, explored the forest and thought about what was coming up.
In late afternoon Andrea announced Zingo’s latest plan: he wanted the initiation to last just two nights instead of three. Zingo felt that this way we would all have time to go to the beach over the weekend. Everyone was shocked. It was one thing for Zingo to forget to make sure that we were fed breakfast and lunch. But how could he cut short the reason we had come to Africa in the first place by a third? Facing a mutiny by the crew, Andrea went back to Zingo; he wisely agreed to run the initiation for the full three days. What a jerk!
As dusk fell, I found a quiet place along the stream and did meditation for a couple hours. The southern school of Buddhism, Theravada, has a systematized method of asking for and giving blessings before embarking on a journey or a venture. They call it metta, loving kindness. In metta practice one systematically wishes well for everyone one can think of and in turn asks for their blessings. I found it very calming.
Before the actual initiation could begin, we had to have a series of rituals. The first ritual was the smoke sauna. I was carefully dressed in a red loin cloth that the men tied on me until it was like a diaper. Then at the appropriate time I was led shirtless to the back of the temple to join the women who were, much to my surprise, also shirtless. I was placed beside Candice. She looked like a Greek goddess as she stood topless in her long white pleated skirt. “Nice dress,” I said.
We were standing beside the tiny smoke-sauna that could fit only one person. The only male, me, was first to enter. It was a very long ten or fifteen minutes inside the smoky teepee. Whew.
After all five of us took our turn in the sauna, an African lady whom none of us had seen before, and who was apparently joining us for the initiation, entered the sauna. She was wearing her blouse and bra when she entered the sauna, but she emerged topless. It was damned hot in there.
Later Andrea told me that going topless was something that they were told about only at the last second. Fortunately, no one protested and no one objected to anything except for one detail—Zingo had hired a man to come and video tape the ceremony. If you are ever searching the Internet for “topless white women at iboga initiations” and you see four beautiful topless women in long white dresses entering a small teepee-like sauna one-by-one, then Andrea’s worst nightmare has come true.
After the sauna I was taken to the river and told to bathe. Next someone rubbed oil over me, and then covered me with white powder that helped accent the red line that was drawn from my naval to the top of my head. Then I was fitted with a headband that had an eagle feather and a parrot feather in it. The women bathed in another part of the river. They then dressed in long dark dresses with their hair tightly braided to their heads.
We met again inside the temple. Andrea sat in the corner in the leader’s chair. The women’s bench flanked her on one side, the longer side, while the men’s bench was on the shorter side. I sat next to Andrea.
Zingo began the ceremony by dramatically pouring wine out of a wine bottle and announcing that even though it had taken him six months to do it, he had completely stopped the booze. In another six months, he pledged, everyone here would give up not only alcohol, but also smoking. The days of drunken chain-smoking gangas and maboundies were coming to an end, he announced as his body shook furiously with either malaria, tuberculosis, or a smoker’s cough.
His speech finished, the music began and he gave each of us about half a glass of iboga. It went down easily. A few minutes later came another half glass, and then a spoonful of iboga mixed with honey. I felt fine until the spoonful of iboga/honey slid down my throat. Suddenly my fingers were tingling like I had been electrically shocked. I must have looked stunned. Andrea told me that I was welcome to lie down in the narrow aisle between the feet of the singers and their baskets and instruments—I could put my head under her chair. Suddenly that seemed like very good idea, as I was rapidly losing sensation in my body. As I slid to the ground I looked at Candice and the other women and thought, “Hold onto your seats ladies—this iboga is about to knock you flat on your derrière.” Derrière is French for arse.
Andrea moved her feet so I could put my head slightly under her chair. Once I got comfortable, however, she moved the chair away, and then someone lifted the coconut fronds off the roof to give me a clear view of the strangely reddish-looking night sky. There were a few shooting stars. It was peaceful and beautiful. Then I heard Andrea talking as if she were right above me. I looked up towards her and as I did, I realized that my eyes appeared to be closed. What if I opened them? Okay, try. I forced my eyes open and surprise: the chair was still directly above me. I had hallucinated the night sky. Strange what iboga can do.
I closed my eyes again. This time everything went black. A minute later, however, a brilliant white sun flashed bright white, very bright white.
Suddenly I had to vomit. I reached up to the bench, embraced it, pulled myself up, and moved my face toward the coconut leaf wall. From the bottom of my stomach I felt a huge hot cannon ball of vomit moving from my gut to my mouth. When it reached my mouth, I let go with a spew of vomit and a lion’s roar. So much noise and so much vomit! Embarrassing, but what could I do? And then, again, and again, and again. I was sure that everyone heard the lion’s roar. Sometimes there wasn’t any vomit, just a massive belch and the lion’s roar. Finally I collapsed back to the ground, flat on my back. Whew. Had my vocal cords just been ripped out?
On my back, things went white again. This time, however, the white faded to gray and then it cleared to show a man sitting up in bed. He wasn’t under the covers, rather he was sitting on the bed, calmly, sage-like, in his pajamas with his legs straight out in front of him. He was in a hospital or some kind of care facility. The man, who was in his 80s or 90s, was thin, and had white hair combed neatly to the side. Slowly it occurred to me who it was—it was me. I was witnessing my own death. Right now, just then, I died. Game over. It was a peaceful letting go of the life force.
Across the room was an elegantly displayed Japanese scroll. On the scroll, in English, was a poem written by a 19th century Japanese poet.
Oh look, how quickly
the night has come.
As the words appeared, they scrolled up and away.
There was nothing particularly frightening in witnessing my own death. What happened next, however, was utterly terrifying.
I cannot not open my eyes-- I can hear everything around me though. The two sisters are still talking. How can that be? Had they thrown the iboga over their shoulders? The music continues. The singers produce amazing harmonies while just a few meters away from me two men pound a large hollow two-meter long bamboo pole to make it sound like a thousand horses are galloping through the temple. To the side, the m'congo player takes whoever wants to listen into a different world with his intricate melodies.
Suddenly I was in a huge race track, but cars weren’t racing by, instead all of humanity, or at least all of the humanity that I had ever known, was moving by. From where I was, I could see them coming from around a corner. I was too far away to recognize individual people except the leader-- a person who had a striking resemblance to, well, Ronald McDonald.
I tried to look closer at the people passing by. But every time I got close enough for a good look, they would morph into someone or something else I could not recognize. This got to be a bit dizzying so I went back to watching the entire parade. It was utterly terrifying. I don’t have words to describe the terror. If you can imagine being in a rowboat at night in a hurricane, knowing that you are going to die as you row helplessly up one huge wave and down another, then you’ll get the general idea.
There were voices too. As people would parade by, the two announcers would make comments about them. One announcer would make a factual statement about someone and the other announcer would counter it with something trivial of funny. “He was a good guy.” “He couldn’t take a joke.” “He worked hard to serve the community.” “He always watched out for himself.” The whole experience was mind-boggling, overwhelming, and utterly and completely terrifying.
Physically I couldn’t move. I was incapable of even lifting a finger. I was aware that I had a body; I just couldn’t move it. But I could still feel parts of it. The iboga had numbed and paralyzed my extremities and now it was shutting down the entire body. I was overdosing. The limbs were gone, the stomach area was almost beyond feeling, and now, finally, the heart and breathing were slowing down. This time I wasn’t visualizing my death; I was experiencing it. Death wasn’t as terrifying as the race track. I did, however, feel that my head was exploding from the inside. It was closing time, game over, hasta la vista baby.
Later I learned that Andrea had thought the same thing—she was losing me. She called Zingo over. He put his hand just below the left side of my rib cage. I felt his hand and then I heard him say in French to her, “No, it’s normal.”
That should have been a tremendous relief, but the terror continued.
Is there anyway out of this?
There was a road to the side of the race track. What if I got in a car and drove down that road? Yes, I could do that. The road led to an American suburb of middle-class houses, not unlike where I grew up in a small town in Ohio.
Suddenly I was back in Ohio and I was 16. There were my two brothers, teenagers as well—sitting at their desks in their bedrooms in our home, looking at me as I walked by their open bedroom doors, grinning as they recognized me. It must have been a Saturday night because every Saturday night my parents went out on a date. Here they were standing near the cupboard where they kept their alcohol, getting ready to go out. My mother wore a pretty red dress, make up, and high-heeled shoes; my father was wearing a business suit.
I could see myself at 16, 14, and ten, back in time until I was six or so. I was a teary-eyed little boy again.
The boy looked at me and then turned away.
I got back in the car. This time I drove down a country road. Suddenly from the side of the road a huge black cat—perhaps a panther—jumped in front of the car. I hit it and killed it. Then, as I drove off, it came back to life and darted to the other side of the road and disappeared into the thick undergrowth.
It is impossible for me to estimate how long any of this took or even what was happening to me physically during this time.
From the beginning, as I lay immobile in the narrow aisle, different gangas would get up to dance or walk around. Occasionally someone would accidentally step on me. At one point Andrea even stuck one more spoonful of iboga mixed with honey into my mouth!
After a while Zingo decided that the ceremony had proceeded long enough, now it was time for the initiates to lie down on mats in the center of the temple. I couldn’t move, so someone picked up my head, pushed my shoulders forward and somehow got me into a sitting position. I know this, because I saw it from a distance. I can’t explain logically how I saw it, but I did. Once I was sitting, they were able to pick me up by my armpits and drag me a few meters to where the mats were.
The grass mats covered bare earth and were cold and uncomfortable. Someone found a stick and let me use it as a pillow. The stick at least was softer than a rock. Someone else covered me with a blanket. That was nice. Shortly after that, Julie, the loveable chimpanzee, decided that the blanket and I would make a good place to sleep. Someone else, however, thought that this might not be the best time for Julie and me to bond, so they snatched up the stick that I was using a pillow, which bonked my head onto the ground. They then proceeded to beat Julie with the stick. Julie screamed, grabbed the blanket, screamed some more, and got hit again. Julie kept screaming and kept getting hit until she fled the temple.
The music continued. Now I was just a meter or so from where the two men were rhythmically pounding the two-meter bamboo pole. From this close it sounded less like a thousand galloping horse and more like a 50-caliber machine gun.
Hours later Zingo decided that it was time for the women to go to the women’s quarters. As the only male initiate, who couldn’t open his eyes anyway, it was decided that I would go with them. Andrea told me we were moving and asked, “Can you walk?”
With a tremendous effort, I moved my lips and whispered, “No.”
One of the gangas then hauled me to my feet and somehow, holding me under my arms with his arms locked around my chest, forced my legs, like I was a puppet and he was a puppeteer, to plunk on the ground—stick figure style—for over one hundred meters down the dark narrow forest path to the women’s quarters. I could hear everything; I just couldn’t open my eyes or move my feet properly. Once in the women’s quarters I was placed on another mat and, thankfully, covered with a blanket. Candice, Elizabeth, and Cindy were there too. From the women’s quarters I could still hear the singing—Zingo was directing a choir practice.
Hours later I could hear birds singing and feel rain on my face. Andrea asked me if I could walk; she thought that we should move back into the temple where we would be protected from the rain. I couldn’t move, so again someone carried me back to the temple.
It is impossible to describe how emotionally draining this all of this was.
Sometime late that morning or early in the afternoon (no one had a watch and it stayed cloudy all day) I opened my eyes. The singing had stopped, but a battery-powered tape player was still playing iboga music. Most people had left the temple. Candice, however, was laying down a few meters away from me. Shortly she opened her eyes and looked at me. I moved my lips and tried to make a sound. Nothing happened for a minute and then a shallow and hoarse voice found my lips. “Candice,” I said, “I can’t tell you how nice it is to see you.”
“How are you?”
She raised her eyebrows. Her face was pale and expressionless. Whatever had happened to her, it had been severe.
“You look good,” I said.
Sometime later I sat up. Later still I tried to stand up. One of the gangas saw me and rushed over to help. I reached for his arm—it was sturdier than a tree trunk. He helped me stand up and walk outside to pee.
Someone brought us food. A sip of water and a spoonful of rice were all I could handle. After that we were told to go in the river. “It will make you feel better,” someone said. A ganga walked me to the river and helped me crawl over the large rocks into the water. It felt wonderful. After that, all of the initiates were placed on a mat where we had the juice of a plant squeezed into our eyes to help clear the iboga. It stung a little, but never mind.
Everyone tried to make us feel better. After the bath, I could walk a few steps unaided, but I didn’t want to go anywhere except back to my mat.
I kept wondering, again and again, what had happened? Had I come close to death? Had I died and been reborn? Would I ever be “normal” again?
Elizabeth and Cindy seemed to be totally unaffected by the entire thing. They spent the day chatting away like canaries. Candice could speak a little, but she didn’t move around much. The African lady who did the initiation with us never, as far as I could tell, stood up.
I could move my lips, but not very well.
Sleep was impossible. The day passed with me moving from my back to my side and back to my back. Eventually more of my voice returned but only in a harsh whisper. That was okay though, I didn’t have anything to say.
After dark though, everyone felt better. I ate a little more food and after the evening ceremony began I even had more iboga, a small glass and then, a few minutes later, some powder. I thought about Zingo’s plan for just a two-night initiation. Maybe he was right. After last night, I was sure that everything would be downhill from here and even now the iboga didn’t seem to be affecting me much. I was even able to sit up on the bench. Nothing was happening. The only thing I noticed was that shortly after my second dose of iboga, and not very long into the ceremony, I started to develop incredible night vision. I could literally see in the dark. A few minutes later though it became clear that I didn’t have night vision at all—the sun was rising. Somewhere between my first and second dose of iboga six hours had passed, and been lost. Totally lost.
After a breakfast of greasy noodles, I asked Candice to tell me about her initiation. She said that she had sat on the bench long after I was flat on my back. One of the African ladies told her to find a candle and stare at it. She did and presently a beam of pure white light emerged from the candle. On the beam was written, in French, “You are the light.” After that, still on the bench, she had visions of her family that included the story of why her father’s brother had become an alcoholic. She had never imagined that her family’s history could be so dark. Along with the history came instructions on how to live that included giving up cigarettes, alcohol, and meat.
Elizabeth and Cindy described their experiences as being “Full on, very full on.” What did that mean?
The African lady stayed prone or, at best, sitting up.
Now, well into day two, I started to walk around the camp a bit—taking pictures, talking to Candice, Elizabeth, and Cindy. Everyone was in a good mood. Cindy and Elizabeth were going to start a chocolate factory to raise money to build an iboga center on the coast of Gabon. It didn’t seem to matter that neither one of them had any business experience or that in the last year less than 30 people had come from France to Gabon to be initiated and a few of those people had thought that the entire experience had been a waste of time. “Everything is perfect,” Elizabeth said, “and everything that is meant to happen will happen.”
Who can argue with that?
Once Julie saw me walking around, approached me, put one hand up, and indicated that I should take her hand and walk with her around the camp. It didn’t matter to Julie where we walked, just so we were together. When she got tired of walking, she wrapped herself around my thigh and we continued. Chimpanzees, or at least Julie, are remarkable.
That afternoon I felt good enough to walk up stream with Andrea and Candice to a small waterfall. There I bathed and enjoyed the spectacular beauty of the water cascading down several layers of rock. Shortly Candice and Andrea drifted back down to the camp. I stayed there though—I had nothing to do in camp, and here it was cool and beautiful. A few of the gangas walked up to the waterfalls to bathe and smoke cigarettes. One of them explained to me that I was very rich and he was very poor. Could I, he asked, remember to give him some money before I went back to my own country? I told him I could. Another young man asked me if I would mind taking his picture. I said sure. He proceeded to take off all of his clothes and stand naked before the camera. Gosh, I thought, he wants his picture taken so that the world can see that he has no penis. After I showed him his picture, however, he started to laugh and revealed that in fact he had simply done a very clever strip-tease when he had taken off his clothes. His penis had been tucked between is legs. Everyone thought he was hilariously funny, and he was! The naked man then posed with some clothed gangas for some “Tarzan” style pictures. This was the first time for me to see the usually stone-faced gangas have a good time.
Walking back to camp, I was suddenly exhausted. The only thing I wanted to do was lie down and close my eyes. I did and for the first time a woman’s face appeared. It was a beautiful face, with clear skin, dark eyebrows, and beautiful crystal-like blue eyes. She looked deeply into my eyes and then turned away. After that, almost every time I closed my eyes, she would appear. I didn’t recognize her—I can’t say that I know a single blue-eyed woman. Andrea told me that she was a kind of block, a trick. Whoever she was, she was beautiful.
The third night of our initiation was, we were told, very special. On this evening they would begin cooking the meal that we would eat on our third morning, the end of the initiation. That meal would symbolize our re-birth as fully initiated gangas or maboundies. Preparations for the meal began with four women holding the chickens they had bought for us in their hands directly in front of them in the prayer position. As the women stood there praying, raising their hands and the chickens in them up and down, the chicken’s necks swayed until, all at the same time, the necks of all four chickens snapped. The chickens had died in prayer.
Later, after dark, everyone met in temple with one of the women sitting in the middle of the temple with a large mortar and pestle. We were then given handfuls of grains and nuts that we placed in the mortar. As we crowded around the woman who was in front of the mortar, my right hand was placed on top of the pestle, then everyone placed one hand on top of mine, until at least symbolically, there was a stack of 40 hands on top of the pestle pounding the grains together to the tune of a traditional song. It was very touching.
After we sat down again, the woman in charge of the mortar and pestle worked with incredible strength to finish pounding the mixture. (Earlier I had seen her take a huge hit of iboga powder.)
Everyone felt good. This was our last night in the forest. Somehow we were all bonded closer together now. I was amazed at how incredibly sincerely helpful the same people I had dismissed as drunken thieves had been. They were doing everything they possibly could for me. How could I ever repay them?
Everyone had a little iboga, even some of the children, including one boy who looked to be about four years old. The music was, as always, wonderful, and I was in a good mood. I decided to have one more hit of iboga. I asked Andrea if it was okay. She said sure—I just needed to walk around to the area in front of her, pick up a bottle filled with iboga, hand it to her, and she would pour it into a glass for me.
I followed her instructions, but when I got to the area in front of her, I didn’t know which bottle to pick up. So I just picked up a half-empty bottle and handed it to Andrea. She poured me half a glass, I drank it. If all of the other iboga I had tasted was dynamite, this was the atomic bomb. Candice had decided that she wanted some too. Andrea poured her a glass equal to mine. After we both sat down, we looked at each other: What had we just done? This was going to be a big one. In a few minutes I was unable to walk.
Just now, the woman pounding the grain finished her job and the next part of the ceremony involved everyone leaving the temple. The men and women were taken to separate places. The gangas took me to a little shack somewhere and placed me behind a small partition. I immediately splayed on the ground, totally immobile.
I couldn't see anything or sit up. It occurred to me that the gangas must have been thinking that I was some kind of idiot. How could anyone, they must have thought, be so sensitive to just one hit of iboga? Look at him, I was sure they were saying, one half glass and he can’t even sit up! Never mind, I thought, I can use my iboga-inspired psychic abilities to rise above this room and look down on everyone here. And that’s exactly what I did.
From the top of the shack the scene was eerily beautiful. There was one candle in the middle of the floor of what must have once been a tool shed. The night was unusually calm so that there was no flicker from the candle, just a deep warm-gold light that created sharp shadows. The men were spread out around the shack. One man sat in the doorway, another man in a low window, and two men leaned up against the wall. If ever black skin looked like polished ebony, this was it.
It occurred to me that the life of a ganga was pretty rough: sleeping and eating with brutal irregularity, no privacy, and living in near absolute poverty. What kind of life was this? What was their joy in life? I didn’t know and yet, for a moment at least I felt that I belonged here.
The night was unusually quiet. For the first time there wasn’t any singing or even the sound of the tape player. Just then I heard someone snap his little fingernail past his thumb—the sound someone would make to imitate the striking of a match. A voice broke the silence, “Got a light?”
With that a stranger appeared. He was a local man who was passing through our camp on the way back to his own village. Could he have a light for his cigarette? The man sitting in the doorway moved a bit and the stranger came in.
The stranger was excited. He explained that he was a local business and education specialist and he had just come from a seminar. Gabon, he said, was now set for unprecedented economic growth. Now was the time to go back to school and to invest in the country. Was anyone, he asked, interested? Some of the men clearly were.
The stranger continued. If one of them would loan him 100 Francs he could contact them later and give them more details. This was a unique opportunity for investment in the future. One of the guys thought this was a good idea. Another ganga, one of the older men, said that it was a scam.
The stranger left.
Shortly thereafter we moved from the shack to the men’s quarters behind the temple where I vomited. After another hour or so we went back to the temple to conclude the night’s ceremony.
After the first light I realized that I had forgotten something in the shack. I got up to go back there when I realized that indeed there was no shack and that this forest was too isolated for anyone to pass through it in the middle of the night. So where had I gone? What had happened? I didn’t know, but I knew that I hadn’t dreamed it. Still I was too embarrassed to say anything about it to anyone.
Candice told me that during the night, after vomiting, she had seen her son, grown up and working for the peaceful development of atomic energy.
In mid-morning Zingo came and took me back to the men’s quarters. It was time for the ritual meal. The meal began with Zingo taking a chicken’s gizzard, jamming half of it into my mouth, and indicating that I should bite down. I bit as Zingo ripped half the gizzard out of my mouth. This was my first taste of meat in more than 25 years. To a normal person this might have been a dramatic and revolting event. But after everything else I had been through, eating a sand-filled chicken gizzard didn’t seem that bad. It took a long time to chew it though. A chicken gizzard, it turns out, is one big strong sand-filled muscle. (The sand in the gizzard helps digest whatever grains and bugs the chicken swallows whole.) After I swallowed the last of what Zingo had put in my mouth, he put the other half in and I ate that too.
The rest of the meal consisted of other parts of the chicken and then some kind of greasy soup. Before I ate the soup, Zingo covered me with a leopard skin and had me crawl up to the soup, which had been poured onto a banana leaf, and eat it like a leopard would, by lapping it up. When I finished, he had me stand up, letting the leopard skin fall to the side.
On a one to ten scale of revulsion, I would rate breakfast at about a 9. However, as soon as I finished, the gangas ate absolutely everything else like it was the best meal of their lives.
When they had finished there was just a small puddle of grease left in the pot. Zingo took that and rubbed it all over my body. He told me to leave the grease on until after sunset.
The party over, everyone packed up to go home, leaving the river and the forest a horrible mess of plastic bags, cans, and assorted litter.
We walked out to the road. Out of the forest, the sunshine was god-awful bright—how can anyone stand sunshine this bright? Finally a taxi came and the new initiates piled in, leaving everyone else behind to wait for a truck. The taxi driver raced into Tchibanga like he had a rocket attached to the back of his taxi. Can he, I thought, possibly go any faster? In our wake we left a huge trail of noise and dust that must have choked the pedestrians, mostly women, who were walking along the road hauling on their backs huge loads of firewood and crops into town.
Up to this point, nearly three full days since coming to the forest, Andrea had possibly slept a little. The same was true for Elizabeth and Cindy, but certainly neither Candice nor I had slept a wink in three nights. I felt fine, but the thought of taking a shower and having a good night’s sleep sounded like something I would sacrifice anything for. So when we reached Zingo’s compound I told Candice that I would go to the hotel for the night. Candice thought that was a wonderful idea; she would come later.
I started walking to the hotel. Just as I was almost out of sight of Zingo’s compound one of the women called my name. Damn, I thought, she knows that I’m sneaking off to the hotel and she’s going to give me hell for it. Why was I leaving? Was her house too poor for me? Was I angry? Was something wrong? She ran up to me and I braced myself for the worst. “Tom, Tom,” she began. “Look at you! You are an absolute mess. We can’t have you walking around town looking like this. Here, let me see what I can do.” She then wiped my face with her hands until the grease and dirt that had accumulated on it for the last three days was, if not wiped off, at least more evenly distributed. She fixed my hair as well, concluding, “There! Now you’re better. You can go now.”
Gosh. What angel sent you?
The hotel was wonderful. I wrote most of what you’ve just read before I finally went to sleep.
The curse of being a writer.
Saturday, September 9: Back in the Real World
Candice never came to the hotel.
I slept for eight hours and woke up feeling alert. I did some meditation and yoga, showered again, and walked back to Zingo’s compound.
Now Tchibanga doesn’t seem so bad. Yes, it still is a god-awful mess with junked cars everywhere and what looks like the total absence of what Americans call “civic pride.” But now it is clear that the junked cars are there because they are supposed to be there. They belong there, and what harm do they do? And who cares about having a nice yard? There isn’t much trash in the yard, and if people come visiting, they aren’t going to stay in the god-damned yard anyway, so what does it matter? What matters is food, the family, visitors, good feelings, that kind of thing.
Walking around today, somehow, for some reason, the body felt good. It’s hard to describe—just imagine how a panther feels walking close to the ground, gracefully, but ready to spring. Something had shifted.
Stepping into this house, I set my shoulder bag inside the room where we’ve all stayed. The gangas and maboundies said hello. Are these, I wondered, the same people who carried me when I couldn’t walk? Are these the people who made sure that I didn’t fall over when I stumbled outside to pee? Have they all been through what I’ve been through? A few people asked me how I was. I pantomimed a man stumbling drunk and vomiting—they got the picture.
Candice said that she fell asleep shortly after I left her yesterday. Today she has already been to the market, but it was too much—too many people around, too many goods, too many cars. In other words, she felt like most people feel when they finish a long meditation retreat and the brakes are off the senses. When too much is coming into the brain, a clear head, it’s a shock.
That was the bad news. The good news was that she had called home on her cell phone and talked to her son. His first words were, “Mama I love you. When are you coming home?” She also talked to her boyfriend. All is well.
Andrea came in. We hugged. I thanked her for everything she did for me in the forest. Then I turned away—men don’t like women to see them crying. I couldn’t help it though—Zingo was right: Andrea is centered enough, knowledgeable enough, compassionate enough, strong enough, and insightful enough to lead initiations without him. She is a genius and a godsend. I couldn’t stop the tears.
Andrea congratulated me as well. She said that I’ve had a wonderful initiation and that I died so that I could be reborn. Reborn? Me?
The sisters went back to doing their Tai Chi. Everyone was happy. Cindy looked much better now, and her face was calmer. For all I know, her wish was granted and now her masculine and feminine sides are in perfect balance.
Eventually I wandered into town and went to the Internet Café. I feel that yes, I’m reborn, but I just don’t know who is reborn. Something is different. Usually I think too much and feel guilty about being an American. Remember, I’m from the country that kills and imprisons innocent people all around the world in the name of “fighting terrorism.” But today that’s gone. What else is different? Anything? Maybe I’m still drunk on iboga? Then I wonder if the tension is really gone from my back or did spending three days on my back just make standing up again feel good? Andrea says that when we all get back to our normal routines, we will notice minor changes. Is this what she means?
The shoes, that walked away, the day after we arrived, walked back today. Not much wear and tear either. Good as new.
Four days later, in Libreville, on Thursday September 14
We planned to leave Tchibanga on Monday, September 11, three days after returning from the forest. Funny thing: when we got back to Tchibanga from the forest, all of Zingo’s plans for visiting the beach, a forest where iboga grew, and even a wildlife reserve, were forgotten. Who cares? Zingo didn’t care. He and Elizabeth were in love, or maybe he had other things to do. Who knows? But even if he had wanted to take us somewhere he couldn’t have: fate intervened.
The police arrested Zingo and took him to jail.
When Andrea told me that in French, I asked her to repeat it in English: my French was failing me. But no my French wasn’t failing me—Zingo was in jail.
She explained that during the initiation one of Zingo’s assistants gave iboga to a young man from Tchibanga who had come, not for the initiation, but just to hang out. While hanging out, he thought he might as well try some of Zingo’s atomic bomb iboga. He was blasted up to the sky and didn’t come back down to earth. The assistant asked Zingo to help the poor guy leave heaven; but Zingo’s magic failed, so he could not leave heaven and come back down to earth. After that, the man’s mother went to the police and complained that Zingo’s people had damaged her child. The police decided that because Zingo was in charge he should be arrested and jailed.
Shock. Strange too because iboga is sold in the market in Tchibanga.
What to do? Later in the day Elizabeth and Andrea visited the jail—there was nothing they could do. The police assured them that justice was going to prevail. So, were we still going to leave Monday morning on schedule? No one knew.
Meanwhile, in the room that was reserved for informal day-time meetings the gangas had set up a workroom of sorts. There they spent countless hours weaving necklaces that ended up looking like a pregnant snake that had bitten its tail. In the bulge of the necklace were herbs and bits of bark that, we were told, would protect us from harm. No one ever said what kind of harm we would be protected from: black magic, evil spirits, or the devil. We were simply told that we would be protected by the “bwiti,” God. As they worked one man played the m'congo, giving the room a sort of other-worldly effect. By this time all of us were addicted to m'congo music. The pygmies invented it. M'congo music puts the psychedelic music that the hippies made in the 1960s to shame. Hippie music was made by people who took psychedelics as a fad. The pygmies made music that went back to the beginning of time.
To finish the initiation and to receive our protection we would have a ceremony that night, Sunday night. Everyone was hoping that somehow Zingo would be let out of jail by late evening to lead the ceremony, but that didn’t happen. As always, never mind—the show must go on.
The show began with speeches imploring everyone to pray for Zingo, and then Andrea presented to everyone the final donation from the Western initiates. She didn’t say that all of the money came from her, Candice and me. The sisters’ money, five-hundred Euros, had been stolen from their suitcase shortly after we had returned from the forest, so they didn’t give anything, although they had borrowed a lot of money from me to buy themselves a few African-print dresses and other souvenirs.
After the sentimental opening, the ceremony seemed like any other all-night ritual. We began with singing, chanting, eating iboga, and dancing. After a while came a break, at which time the men and women separated for ritual baths. The men walked behind the temple, and one-by-one we splashed the contents of a bucket filled with water, scented oil, and leaves over our bodies. In the cool darkness it felt good.
Back in the temple the women, now with makeup and brightly colored clothes, danced in groups of two, performing their highly stylized dances. Then the men trance-danced. Trance dancing means wildly moving your body to the beat and letting go, really letting go until you enter another reality. The trance dance of choice is about like jogging in place while shaking every possible part of your body to the sound of the fiercely and frantically pounding drums. I did it and felt a release—a part of me that hadn’t opened before, opened up. It was that simple. You start moving and after a while you aren’t moving any more—the music is moving you and you just have to let it do what it wants. I’m sure that floating in a world of iboga helped me enter the trance. Up until then trance dancing just looked, well, stupid. But it isn’t. When doing it, as Carlos Castaneda once said, “something shifted.”
Everything finished after dawn with our graduation. That meant that, with a surprising lack of ceremony, the four of us walked out of the temple holding bucket-sized baskets that contained our “protection.” The women were now “maboundies” and I was a “ganga.” No one shook our hands or said welcome to the club.
By the light of day, we learned that Zingo was still in jail, so we would not be leaving Tchibanga. How could we leave, Andrea reasoned, without the final blessing of the leader? With that Andrea and Candice went back to the jail, negotiated some more, and after paying a 300 Euro fine, got Zingo released. Justice had been served. (Later we learned that the man who had gone to heaven and not come back was the brother of one of the female dancers. The mother of that dancer banned her daughter from ever stepping foot in Zingo’s compound again. I don’t know what finally happened to her son/brother.)
All of this was told to me by Candice as she ate a breakfast of ripe banana, chocolate sauce, bread, and imported French cheese. One of the men had taken a liking to her and had taken upon himself to buy her her favorite foods, some of which she shared with me.
“So when do we leave?” I asked.
“Tomorrow morning, after another ceremony tonight!”
I repeated her words as if she had just said, “You will be tortured all night and shot by a firing squad at dawn.” For added emphasis I said the northern English word for fornication, “Fook.”
“What did you say?” she asked surprised.
“Fook! Up all night again? Fook!”
She thought it was funny. “Yes, get over it guy.”
I could still feel the iboga—like I had just drunk ten cups of coffee, but without the shaking—flowing through my veins. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep all day. In fact, however, now that it seemed that I would survive, staying up all night again didn’t seem bad at all. Trance dancing had been fun and now that I was a ganga, why not just live the irresponsible life of a ganga? Party on.
At our final ceremony I reasoned that this would be my last iboga for a very long time, maybe for my life. With that, I took a huge hit of iboga and hoped for the best. Soon my balance was off or at least I couldn’t make my feet go where I wanted them to go and then I was vomiting outside in the gutter. Back inside, even though it was difficult for me to stand, everyone remembered my performance from the night before, so I was led through a particularly difficult dance that involves dancing with a torch, a fire dance. It was about like running a marathon while drunk, dancing while drunk, and carrying a torch that was blinding me and burning my hand at the same time. Once, during a break in the dancing, I closed my eyes and wondered if I would see anything. Two lions appeared on a savannah. One of them roared and then they both walked away across the infinite plane. Somehow it all seemed very natural—I didn’t give it a second thought.
With the first rays of light I saw that the truck that Andrea had contracted to take us to Libreville was waiting outside. To add drama to the scene, the police were there as well. Yesterday, just after Zingo was released, Cindy had gone to the police to report the stolen money and now the police wanted to inspect the crime scene. They eventually gave her a police report. She had insurance and thought that it would help her get the money back.
Suddenly it was time to go. No one showered—we just packed everything, gave away more possessions, more money, and hugged everyone.
The people of Tchibanga had, of course, seen it all before. We were, in the end, just another group of white people passing through Tchibanga. Here today and gone tomorrow to a place of infinite wealth, opportunity, and comfort.
I wondered, but didn’t say it, whether Zingo would ever see Elizabeth again. I couldn’t imagine him writing her a letter in a language that she could not understand. How could he even telephone her to speak to her in a language that she didn’t know? Elizabeth asked me to take picture after picture of her and the lover she had “waited lifetimes to meet.” I did what I could. Zingo was as cheerful as ever, and did the final good-byes by posing for pictures and hugging everyone.
One of the women said to me very seriously, “If you can come back, you are welcome. We will be right here.” Another woman, the beautiful dancer who was over six feet tall, hugged me and said the first words she had ever said to me, “All the best.” A part of me wanted to shout out, “Guys, ladies and gentlemen of Tchibanga, of Zingo’s compound, gangas and maboundies, I’m sorry that I didn’t do more for you, appreciate you more, thank you more. I’m sorry to leave you here in your poverty in this god-awful place. You’ve done your best, may the spirits, whatever you call them, bless and protect you.” But I didn’t. Rather I did what everyone else did, I hugged a lot of people.
Someone had tied Julie up inside the temple. I found a cup of water and handed it to her. She took the cup in her tiny hands and drank the water in one gulp. I said good-bye to her and her engrossing and affectionate brown eyes. I knew, if she didn’t, that in a few years she would be too big, too strong, and too aggressive to be a pet in this compound any longer. At that time she would become someone’s dinner, what the people here call “bush meat.” But right now Julie was a wonderful little girl. Hey, good luck Julie.
I had developed an affection for one of the children in the compound. She liked me and would occasionally play tag with me, or poke me in the ribs. She was about 11, just entering puberty, and was totally deaf. She didn’t know how to speak in signs and, as far as I could tell, didn’t have any deaf friends, but she was very sweet. She also was a dancer and danced as well as anyone else. I asked Candice to take my picture with her and Makongo, the brilliant four-year-old who had dedicated herself to the futile task of teaching Candice and me how to dance properly. Remembering the children from the Libreville market, I posed like a rap star. The children in Tchibanga didn't get it.
Candice said a tearful good-bye to the ganga who had looked after her. She ended up giving him her flashlight and the travel pouch that she kept her documents in. He was sad to see her go and kissed her good-bye.
The ride back to Libreville took only 14 hours, thanks to the fact that this time we had a Mitsubishi pickup truck and a driver who drove like he was going to get a ten percent bonus for breaking the world’s land speed record. In the cab of the truck were, including the driver, seven adults with two small children on our laps. In the back, exposed to the open road and the dust were another ten people who were traveling for free. After a few hours, as we zoomed along, one of those ten people fell out. Miraculously, he was not badly injured. After someone poured a bottle of water over his head, he stood up, and got back in the truck.
All in all it was one of the worst days of my life. I once heard about a mental illness where people have clothes on but are convinced that they are naked. That was me. It’s also true that usually when people walk down the street they have a self image that allows them not to hide behind trees when other people walk by. If I could have gotten out of the truck and hid behind a tree, I would have. Where was the panther now? Does anybody here have a self image they can lend me? So much for the irresponsible life of a ganga. Human beings were meant to sleep, not take drugs, stay up for days and dance all night.
The hotel we planned to sleep in was full, so we stayed at the house of one of the gangas. The house was luxurious. Not only was there electricity, there was running water, a toilet, and a shower. Andrea slept in one room, the four new initiates slept in another with Candice and me sharing a bed, but not blankets. We didn’t lie down until 1 AM. Just as we did Candice asked me the only thing she asked me all day, “Can you still feel the iboga?”
“Yes.” I could feel every vein in my body tingling with iboga.
“So can I.”
We both woke up at 5:30 and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and began typing. She remained in bed.
Later in the day I confessed to Candice that yesterday had been on of the worst days of my life. “Mine too,” she said with her usual honesty.
Happiness, I realize now, is having a friend who is going crazy with you.
November 19, 2006
I've been out of Gabon two months now. Now my feet are as good as new. In the forest, seven little bugs crawled under my skin and grew into white hard painful lumps. One of the gangas in Libreville took a pocket knife and dug them out, missing one for me to find in England. Nevertheless, I still wondered if anything else might have been left behind, but the best hospital in Bangkok said that I'm better than ever—no malaria and no parasites. In malarial Tchibanga I never slept under a mosquito net, washed my hands after going to the toilet, or drank boiled water. (In the forest we all drank directly from the stream.) So a clean bill of health is appreciated.
The doctors missed a few things though. They didn't tell me why I can now do yoga poses that I haven't done for twenty years or why, after more than twenty years of having a beer or a glass of wine almost every day, I haven't had the slightest desire to drink alcohol since I first tasted iboga five months ago
Candice writes me sometimes. I asked her—yes, she really did give up smoking, meat, alcohol, and coffee. She was reborn, although she’ll never say it.
She says that I might be the only person who can understand what she has been through. Can I understand what I’ve been through?
The sisters left Gabon the day after we returned to Libreville. Elizabeth said that she wanted to get back to her children; Cindy, as always, followed along. Candice had wanted to hurry back to her son, but was caught up in the trip and then, more than anyone else, got violently sick. I thought she might have malaria or dengue fever. Andrea said that the iboga was cleaning her out and Candice agreed. Up until the end, even though she could barely walk, various men still lined up to guide her, with me in tow, around Libreville. If being sick wasn't bad enough, a few days before we left Gabon, someone opened her purse and stole her cell phone from the room where we were sleeping.
The three of us left Gabon, on schedule, exactly three weeks after we arrived and parted in the airport in Marseilles. Candice’s boyfriend was there to meet her. To Andrea and me he looked like a giant. We had forgotten how much milk, meat, and a trip to the gym can give Western men that 'pumped up' look.
I walked Andrea to her car. Somehow the sky was bluer than we had remembered it and the air smelled like flowers.
A few hours later I flew to England and then back to Thailand. Two days later I joined a ten-day meditation retreat in Southern Thailand. I wanted to see if anything had changed. Meditation was still hard work. It takes effort, concentration, discipline, all that stuff. Nothing had changed. The only difference was now the body cooperated more. And then, after a week of meditation, when usually the mind manages cough up parts of myself that I’d prefer not to see there came something very different—a desire to wish everyone well.
-- END --
Three months after leaving Africa I traveled to Brazil to meet Mother Auyahuasca. If working with healing plants interests you, plese see my Brazilian jounal, Meeting Mother Auyahuasca,
notes on Drinking Auyahuasca in Brazil and Peru.