Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Bwiti Religion, Nganga, and Tabernanthe Iboga

A Bwiti ceremony

Bwiti (or Boeti or Bwete) is a religion practiced by the Babongo and the Apinji (or Metsogo, Metsogho, Mitsogo, or Mitsogho) of Gabon, and by the Fang of Gabon and Cameroon. It is also associated with the Massango (or Massangho) and the Baloumbo. It is the only truly African hallucinogenic plant cult.

Disumba, also called Mikongi, was the original Bwiti cult, syncretizing Fang Bieri and Metsogo Bwiti. Disumba was an adoption and adaptation of the Metsogo ancestor cult by Fang in lieu of their own failing rites. According to Muye of the Fang, the ancestor cult is said to have originated when Eve gave stillbirth to a white ball of gristle and bone, and Adam enclosed it in a bark container and consulted it when the two wished to consult God, for it knows the way to God. Early Disumba was an exchange by Fang of their own ancestor cult for the more dramatic and interesting and apparently effective ancestor cult of a neighboring people. The originator of Disumba is said to have been an itinerant Metsogo named Mbumba.

In the development of Bwiti subcultures, five main religious cultures have been influential: Fang Bieri, Tsogo Bwiti, Miene Mbiri – the curing cult and cult of wealth – and two forms of Christianity. There exist numerous branches of Bwiti, which incorporate various elements of the multiple religious cultures. While modern Disumba retains the songs, dances, miraculous apparitions, and drug-taking characteristic of the old Disumba, its method of making contact with the dead has recently changed.

The Bwiti believe that men should not try to look too far for God, as He is close by in the presence of the ancestral dead. Due to the European perception that practitioners obtained body parts by criminal means, the ritual use of human remains as a means to make contact with the ancestors was largely abandoned after the Second World War. Thus, the ceremonial use of the abum Bieri (or abum Bwiti or ebumba Bwiti) – a stomach containing the cleaned bones and dried body parts of the dead – was supplanted by the use of the abum ngĂ´mbi – the stomach of the cult harp, which contains the “sacred voices”. The Ebawga Nganga (or Ebawgo or Eboga Nzambe) branch of Bwiti also utilizes the cult harp, its name itself being pun on the word iboga and a verb referring to the skill with which the instrument is to be played.

Bwiti communities rely upon the wisdom of nganga or n’ganga, the term for the traditional holder of supranatural powers of healing and clairvoyance, as well as hexes and spells. While any Bwiti practitioner could have the ability to penetrate to unseen worlds and to regain the knowledge of the land above, nganga are experts at seeing through to hidden things, and they also possess self-transformative power. Chief dancers in night-long rituals are also nganga, and act as psychopomps, leading men from this life to the next.

Banzie – candidates for either male initiation into adulthood, initiation into the cult of the Bwiti, or people participating in wedding ceremonies – chew several grams of the root bark of the small, yellow-flowered bush Tabernanthe iboga, a relative of the coffee plant, which contains the psychoactive compound ibogaine (12-methoxyibogamine) as a means to induce an altered state of consciousness and to transform themselves. By doing this, they gain access to the wisdom of the ancestors. They believe that iboga frees the soul to leave the body and go on a great journey and to speak with the spirits of animals and plants. The Babongo also use the plant as a stimulant before hunting.

Ibogaine is known more as a powerful aphrodisiac than as a hallucinogen, and in sufficient doses it is capable of inducing a powerful visionary and emotional experience. Terence McKenna theorizes that Tabernanthe iboga’s reputation for being an aphrodisiac could well be partially related to its promotion of pair-bonding, and that iboga may activate a pheromone promoting pair-bonding. At large doses, it is lethal and causes vomiting and ataxia.

During many Bwiti ceremonies, a traditional torch made of bark and tree sap is burned. Musicians playing drums and a traditional Ngombi harp are central to the rites. The nganga and other participants usually dress in red, black, and white cloth, and may wear skirts of raffia material, small shells or beads, and animal skins such as civet cat fur.

Bwiti ceremonies usually begin at night and may last for days as the doses of the drug used in these ceremonies is particularly long lasting. The three-day initiation is used for spiritual and personal development. The iboga is supposed to allow seeing of the true self and visitation of the consequences of past actions. The iboga root may be made into a tea or more often taken in the form of scrapings, which are chewed. The initiate eats the iboga over a period of hours, watched over by his Bwiti father. The visions begin, and the iboga allows him to see into his true self and vividly revisit his past actions and their consequences.

After twenty-four hours, a typical Bwiti village ceremony may have the Banzie taken to the river and lifted into a construction of twigs shaped like a vulva suspended over the water, then washed with water soaked with leaves. Men pull a sapling of the sacred matombi tree from the forest, representing the initiate as a child, and plant it outside the Bwiti temple. Throughout the day the elders feed him small pieces of iboga, and the whole village performs, dancing in vivid costumes, in a way designed to bring on further hallucinations.

In the last phase of the ceremony, the initiate is called upon to see the Bwiti visions. Fire dancers sprint the length of the village to entice spirits from the darkness of the forest. The Banzie must tell the elders what he has seen; this is sacred knowledge, known only to them, and through it he becomes a man. Meanwhile, the villagers plant a forest around the matombi tree to represent the problems to be faced in adult life. Together, the men break up the trees branch by branch to symbolize the removal of all his problems.

During the course of their visions, Banzie meet the mother and father of all mankind, the creator-deities Zame ye Mebege or Nzamba-Kana (syncretized with Adam, Cain, and Jesus), and his sister, mother, and wife Disumba, or Nyingwan Mebege (syncretized with Eve, Abel, and Mary). The Fang call her Eve after evele, or red, the color of her blood, in which all life begins. She is the creative matrix of the world and the primordial source of wisdom.

In the Bwiti religion, Jesus is viewed as a personage who has the potentiality of transformation of character and is believed to have the capacity to intermediate between men and the gods. He is referred to as Eyen Zame (He Who Sees God), as nganga, and as emwan mot, “the child of man”. He saves Banzie by showing them how to tread the path of birth and death in order to reach God. In Bwiti’s Commencement of Life chapels (a Zogo Ebu splinter group), songs and ritual acts celebrate Jesus’s suffering, self-sacrifice, and his having shown men how to face engongol, the state of despair which is a constant preoccupation of Bwiti. His humanness and “everyman” status is emphasized, and he is viewed as but one manifestation of Deity absorbed by the genealogical model into Fang ancestry.

Bwiti practitioners believe that man’s sinfulness condemns him to discontinuity and death. The vertical discontinuity between God Above and God Below provides a tension. One means of obtaining continuity is to postulate the soul’s excursion from the Above to the Below and back to the Above, making the discontinuity into a circularity. The Fang believe that at death, the soul is reborn into the afterlife, and at birth, the soul in the afterlife dies. They also believe that their migration is a search for continuities between themselves and the gods and what they had lost.

Written in June 2009

Originally Published on October 24th, 2010

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