Date: Thu, 30 Oct 1997 01:12:05 EST
From: Chris Jenks <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>
Subject: Article about Bwiti (1/3)

  Dear Everyone,

  Thanks again to Howard Lotsof for providing me with a translation of P.
Barabe's french lecture on the Bwiti. Below, and in the next two messages,
is the complete text of that translation, provided for those of you who are
interested in the Bwiti.

                - Chris

Copyright 1997 by William J. Gladstone

Translation from French

"La religion d'Eboga ou le Bwiti des Fanges", Med. trop. 12(3):251-257,
(May/June) 1982.



                Barabe, P., Chief physician, Professor of Tropical Medicine

Lecture given at the closing session of the course of instruction for the
class of 1981 on July 10, 1981.

        Among the different countries of central Africa, Gabon is certainly one of
the most fascinating and mysterious. Its geographic location accounts for
its equatorial water and climate conditions and the existence of a dense
forest which was long a barrier to the establishment of routes of
communication and delayed the exploitation of its natural resources.
        This forest which is penetrable only with difficulty and is the site of an
invisible and fantastic world of the spirits has an irresistible effect on
the individuals. Also, the different ethnic groups, some forty in all,
remain isolated from each other and retain their way of life, traditions,
rites and beliefs.
        In the words of Bureau, "Gabon is to Africa what Tibet is to Asia, the
spiritual center of religious initiations".
        We will concentrate our attention more particularly on two ethnic groups
and two regions:
        Tsogo land and the Mitsogos;
        Woleu N'Tem and the Fangs or Pahouins.
        Tsogo land extends from Fernan Vaz lagoon in the West to Chaillu Mountains
in the East, named after the explorer Paul Belloni du Chaillu who, from
1857 to 1865, penetrated in the interior of the country. This region is
flat and dotted with lagoons along the ocean shores; it becomes rugged and
mountainous east of Mouila and reaches an altitude of 1575 meters on Mount
Iboundji. It is covered by a thick, oppressive forest which in most places
forms a veritable canopy of vegetation.
        The mountains are always veiled by mist, and the combination of a low
degree of sunlight and a high humidity accounts for the rather low
temperature, particularly during the dry season. "It is an unhealthful type
of heat, the kind of heat you associate with fever and hospitals", said G.
Simenon in his novel "Coup de lune" in 1932.
        Because of the inhospitable natural surroundings, the damp warmth of the
valleys, the tribal wars of the last century in which the Mitsogos were
driven back by the Bakeles between the left bank of the Ogoue and the
Ngounie, the villages are located on the high grounds.
        The essential preoccupation of the Mitsogos is the Bwiti, a primitive
Bwiti. According to Raponda Walker, the Bwiti of the Mitsogos may be
defined as "a male secret society that has its rites, its regulations, its
secret sessions and public sessions". There is no supreme chief for all of
the tribes that have adopted it and each village practices the Bwiti
independently of the others, under the authority of a local president. To
join the sect, you have to take an oath and swear "Na bwiti a besu" (by our
bwiti) before receiving an initiation with the sacred plant iboga.
        The Bwiti originally belonged to the Mitsogos and also to the Okandes and
the peoples of the Eshire group; subsequently, it extended down to the
coastal areas, the regions of the Middle Ogoue and the Woleu N'Tem where
the Fangs are to be found.
        The Woleu N'Tem, the northernmost region of Gabon, is relatively isolated
from the rest of the country by the chain of Crystal Mountains. This
Plateau is difficult to reach and is situated at an elevation of 700 to
1200 meters. A single winding road goes there. It is along this road,
somewhere between Oyem and Mitzic, that Pierre Benoit laid the plot of his
novel "Monsieur de la Ferte".
        In this region of Woleu N'Tem, "the novelist describes the equatorial
forest as gloomy, hostile, frightful, and evil. Every backwater pool teems
with caimans, and as soon as nightfall comes to the bivouac, you can expect
at any time to see lizards and snakes fall into the wrought iron mess kits.
But, still according to Pierre Benoit, these terrifying and unseen hosts
are nothing compared to the men who haunt the Gabon forest".
        These men are the Fangs or Pahouins. They probably came from central
Africa, perhaps from the regions of Ubangi and Chari, fleeing before Islam
in a southwesterly direction toward the ocean.
        They are sure of their own strength and of their ability to dominate,
eager to receive that which is new, convinced that they can integrate all
techniques and ideas into their own culture, and it became obvious around
1910 and especially since 1925 that they would take possession of the
primitive Bwiti of the Mitsogos and modify it. To it they added their
memories, their traditions and introduced ideas and rites that came from
Catholicism; finally, they initiated men and women. However, the chants
usually remained in the Tsogo language, the official language which is to
Bwiti what Latin is to the Church.
        Currently, the primitive Bwiti of the Mitsogos is on the decline while the
Bwiti of the Fangs is expanding, though perhaps, according to some, it is
losing a little of its initial purity.
        The Gabon forest is a veritable phytotherapeutic gold mine and its plants
are an element indispensable to sylvan life and rites.
        Among the plants with magical properties, the most widely used is the
sacred plant, a type of apocynacea, Tabernanthe iboga, the foundation of
the Bwiti and the basis of visions of the next world.
        Tabernanthe iboga is a small smooth shrub that grows up to a height of 1.5
meters. The flowers are white with pink spots and the ellipsoid fruits have
globular seeds. It has a pivoting branching root that is more or less
twisted. When you chew its bark, it has a bitter, astringent taste and
produces an anesthetic sensation after a few minutes.
        The alkaloids are found mainly in the cortex of this root but are
contained in every part of the plant. The number of alkaloids known at this
time is 22. The principal ones are:
        Ibogaine and the related alkaloids have very special properties.
        In low doses, ibogaine reduces sleep, makes it possible to resist hunger
and fatigue, activates circulation and respiration, promotes and activates
secretions and diuresis.
        In high doses, it produces a hallucinatory inebriation with motor
incoordination, and sometimes a state of lethargy lasting 4 to 5 days.
        In massive doses, ibogaine may cause death as a result of bulbar
involvement and paralysis of the respiratory muscles.
        The essential effect is its hallucinogenic property. The drug is a
psychodysleptic that produces a state of anxiety and extreme apprehension
and a visual hallucination, considerably enhanced by darkness, the ambiance
and suggestion. This action is not unlike that of LSD, mescaline and
        The current studies by Goutarel, Potier and Dacosta suggest that these are
substances of particular interest which produce an increased state of
wakefulness without producing side effects.
        The Pygmies attribute the discovery of this plant to the warthogs who, it
seems, are very fond of it. These animals dig holes at the foot of the
iboga shrubs to chew the bark of the roots. They then go into a state of
wild frenzy, leaping and fleeing as though they were prey to terrifying
visions. Porcupines and gorillas also search for these roots.
        This plant was recommended for use in human clinical practices in 1905 by
Pouchet and Chevallier who advocated it in the treatment of neurasthenia
and in convalescence, and by Kuborn who recommended it in the treatment of
sleeping sickness. The iboga alkaloids have their place in the
pharmacopoeia under the name of Lambarene and glutaminic Lambarene B2 PP;
these products were withdrawn from the market about ten years ago.
        Iboga is still used as a stimulant by hunters and warriors who stalk at
night, by trackers, and by those who paddle canoes and pirogues.
        Actually, iboga is reserved for the bwiti cult. This sacred plant has
served to unify a whole people, and to some extent has enabled it to resist
the influence of Western civilization.
        Iboga is the very source of the bwiti religion, commonly called "religion
of Eboga". Iboga gives knowledge of the beyond through the spiritual death,
in advance of its time, that it produces. By the visions that it brings
about, ritual mastication of iboga permits contact with ancestors and gods:
        Mebeghe is the name of the divinity in the Fangs, a supreme being without
mother or father or spouse. It engenders the three divinities by bursting
the divine primordial egg.
        Nzame-Mebeghe, God, is born with his brothers and sister but remains pure.
        Nyingone-Mebeghe, "sister of God", the female principle of the universe,
goddess of fertility and of the night. At the instigation of Evus, she
committed Nsem, incest, with None. As punishment, she must carry the earth
on her head.
        None-Mebeghe, the third individual in the divinity, the male principle,
has committed Nsem.
        Ekurana has issued fourth from the placenta and umbilical body of the
divine egg. It possesses thunder and makes order reign.
        Evus, twin brother of Ekurana, has been punished with a thunder clap on
orders from Nzame. He is the tempter and initiator of Nsem.
        All of these divinities are represented in the temple, the place for
night-time ceremonies, the place for celebrations on the occasion of feasts
and initiations, the place for funeral dances on the death of a person of
standing. The temple may also serve as a meeting room, as a courthouse or a
guardhouse. It is called Mbandja.
        It is a vast rectangular hut, measuring on the average twenty meters in
length and ten meters in width, completely closed in the back, partially or
completely closed on the sides, and with a wide opening in the front. The
dimensions depend on the size of the village, the repute of the chiefs, the
number of followers and their wealth. The long axis is laid out northeast
by southwest, parallel to the route followed by the Pahouin group during
its migration in the last century.