LIBREVILLE, Gabon: Some in Gabon believe the bitter iboga root comes from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Others deride it as a dangerous drug.
Today a growing number of Westerners are traveling to the central African country to sample it as part of an ancestral rite called Bwiti, one of Gabon’s official religions.
Bwiti combines worship of ancient forest spirits with elements of Christianity. It is practiced regularly and involves ingesting the powerful psychoactive root iboga, which has effects similar to LSD, mescaline or amphetamines.
“Iboga cleans the insides,” says Tatayo, a French-Gabonese spiritual guide who receives many of the Western “bandzi,” or candidates for initiation. “The bandzi empties himself of everything bad that is buried inside before coming face to face with himself.”
But the deaths, deemed accidental, of two Western initiates saw the practice come under sharp scrutiny.
A report by the Mission of Vigilance against Sectarian Abuses (Miviludes) from 2007 called Bwiti a form of cult ritual that is dangerous “both physically and mentally.”
Tatayo himself concedes that “you must be closely watched when you ingest iboga.”
But Bwiti shamans like Tatayo believe that when they eat iboga, they are granted the power to see the future, heal the sick and speak with the dead.
Users say it helps them to break away from negative habits, and an extract from the root is now being used in Western medicine to treat drug addicts and alcoholics.
Ingested in high doses, iboga causes anxiety, extreme apprehension and hallucinations.
Outside the country, a dozen or so deaths have been reported in the United States and Europe among people who experimented with iboga, though the exact circumstances have not been clarified.
Yet despite the dangers and the high price, Tatayo says he receives around 20 to 25 new foreign initiates – mainly Europeans – a year.