IBOGA VARIETIES. The initial classification of Tabernanthe included two species,
both confined to Central Africa: Tabernanthe iboga and Tabernanthe elliptica.
In 1895, Otto Stapf consolidated the genus by describing seven other varieties of Tabernanthe, including Tabernanthe manii. Regardless, 125 years after that first taxonomy, its accuracy is questioned by various people, who advocate for the need to perform this taxonomic task
again, this time recording the relative quality and quantity of alkaloids in each variety.
Hybridization has been observed between the different so-called species, giving rise to fruit
plants whose carpels are more or less fused.
The varieties of T. iboga found in Gabon can be distinguished by the naked eye according to different physical qualities, such as the shape of the tree, the color and shape of the
fruit, or the flowers. However, in the absence of conclusive taxonomic studies, it has been
questioned as to whether all these varieties belong to the genus Tabernanthe iboga as it is
currently defined. In fact, when the Nganga do their training they are taught which varieties
are used for which pathologies and for which intended outcome.
Differences in efficacy, namely the concentration of alkaloids, are often attributed to the
environmental conditions within which the plant has grown, rather than to the variety itself.
The efficacy does not change when this variety or the other is taken. If you take this “bois sacré”
here, and compare it with the one downstream, you will see that it is very different there. Here we
are by the ocean, and there the soil is really pure and differently constituted. We see that it has
the same taste… but the virtues are no longer the same. There it is more effective [more alkaloids]
and it is a question of the type of soil. [E14-M.Vincent_02:07:56]
We do not know how long an T. iboga can live. According to some Ngangas, the lifespan of
an iboga plant is 80 to 100 years, whereas according to others the lifespan could also be up
to 500 years, although some also claim that each iboga plant is eternal. Some varieties grow
to about 6 metres tall, and when they reach this height their roots and branches begin to
There is a variety of “bois” for teachers, one for initiations, one for mental pathologies, for the
elderly, for very agitated people, for very relaxed people, etc. And they give them names, which
are transmitted only among the Ngangas. [E12b-Y.Guignon_02:17]
In terms of cultivation, there are some varieties that are more widely planted than others.
However, it seems that no one has yet mastered cultivating multiple varieties simultaneously,
and they do not even have a known common name. The cultivation of iboga is an activity that
is new for to local communities as well as for farmers, botanists, and entrepreneurs, who are
operating in a context of lack of previous studies and the benefit of accumulated experience.
WHO CAN GROW IBOGA? Anyone is free to grow iboga, whether initiated or not, and
each new plant is seen as a cause for celebration. However, the uninitiated should be aware
that, within the Bwiti tradition, iboga is a sacred tree and tradition states that it should only
be handled by individuals who are healthy or “clean of spirit.” Like with many sacred plants,
intention and reverence are of utmost importance in the cultivation process.
CULTIVATION METHODS. Although T. iboga cultivation has never been developed on a large scale, some processes are known and followed in the villages that may favor the cultivation and multiplication of this plant. Within Bwiti
communities there are four categories that describe how iboga is propagated:22
» Wild propagation. The plant has been propagated on its own with great success. The
spread of T. iboga is often assisted by various animals that eat its fruit and then spread
its seeds throughout the forested territory of the Congo Basin. These animals include
forest elephants, baboons, gorillas, porcupines or parrots, with whom the iboga plant
has established symbiotic relationships, the details of which remain a mystery.
» Propagation using the roots of an existing plant. Most people who grow iboga just
greedily uproot the entire tree, killing it in the process without replanting it. A good
practice for the plant regeneration is to always leave a part of the root in situ to allow
the tree to restore itself and continue to grow strongly.
» Cloning from cuttings. Just like a starfish, a new iboga bush will grow from any part
of the stalk. When a broken or cut branch of an iboga bush is planted back into the
ground, roots grow from its base and a new tree grows. After three to five years, there
are sufficient alkaloids in the bark of the new root and the plant can be harvested again.
» Seeds. The fruit of the iboga plant produces seeds for planting. The fruit are left to rot
and the seeds begin to germinate. Once germinated, they are planted in seedbeds,
and after they reach around 10cm in height, they are transplanted.
During our visits to plantations, we observed that most growers, in the interest of achieving
efficient long-term plantations, were strongly committed to the seed method of cultivation.
Growers explained that this method is preferred to that of using cuttings because the resulting plants grow larger root structures. Furthermore, this approach allows for eventual
traceability of each plant, ensuring that the resulting plantations are consistently produced
and controlled according to national and international quality standards, and with the aspiration of being able to legally sell these plants on the international market.
PREPARING TO HARVEST. As a sacred plant, iboga is always harvested and handled
mindfully. The Nganga must be spiritually healthy and clean at the time of harvest, and
therefore undertakes preparatory steps. These practices are more or less strict according
A2E Association member showing a child how to grow iboga at the Ebyeng community plantation,
in the Ogooué-Ivindo province. ©Ricard Faura
to tradition and rite and may consist of various elements, such as abstaining from all sexual
contact, not consuming alcohol or any substance of any kind, and assuming special diets for
at least three days beforehand. Likewise, the tools used to cut the iboga are only used for this
purpose. Finally, at harvest time, Ngangas ask permission from the plant, speaking to its spirit
and connecting to the spirit world to explain their intentions, always with great humility and
If we buy the plant, or send someone else to cut it for us, we must make sure we know the procedures of the person who has chosen this work, and you must know that he will talk to the plant
before asking it to sacrifice itself and before collecting it. Then, this person should cut the dark
part and replant the visible part. [E5-Tatayo_01:26:33]
HARVESTING PRACTICES. Informants shared that when harvesting iboga roots, the plant
needs to be at least five years old, although ideally 10 years old, no matter how tall it is. When
it is uprooted, as noted above, a portion of the root should be left in the ground, and several
cuttings should always be replanted ensuring that it can re-establish. In other words, a plant
should not be harvested without making sure that at least one plant will grow in its place. It
was emphasized that several cuttings are better than one. Or, if the plant is very large, the
harvester can choose to only take part of it, leaving the rest to re-grow, a process that takes
about three years.
Position on non-traditional uses
TRANSMISSION OF BWITI TO FOREIGNERS.
It is important to know that historically
many Bwiti practitioners in Gabon have often been opposed to non-African people – and especially white people – coming to get initiated into Bwiti. This fear and mistrust run deep and
is based in historical experiences. It was believed that if white people or other power-hungry
foreigners got a hold of this powerful knowledge, they could in the future use it for their own
benefit and use it against the various peoples of Gabon, as they have always done in the past
with local resources. Therefore, it is understandable that today many still do not wish to reveal many of the secrets of Bwiti to curious visitors.
Bwiti is considered by some as the last hidden stronghold in Central Africa that has not yet
been taken by colonial and post-colonial powers, among which, in addition to Europeans
and Americans, now also include the presence of Chinese, Indonesian, Arab, and Israeli
companies. And their fears are not unfounded. In fact, one of the greatest threats to which
iboga—and, with it, Bwiti—is currently subjected comes from the Western and international
pharmaceutical corporate world. Big Pharma sees the medicalization of ibogaine as an
opportunity to generate profits and shows little interest in establishing mechanisms of solidarity and reciprocity with the peoples and forests of Gabon.
Yet those we spoke with were careful to also state that these issues are not black and white;
there are many grey areas in how people in Gabon perceive international interest in iboga.
It’s time to discern how iboga can be best protected and respected. Currently, a complex
challenge for Bwiti practices appears to be from the inside, specifically from thriving, evangelical churches that are thriving. In this new context, foreigners who come to Gabon who
are genuinely interested in and respectful of local spiritual traditions, are seen as a new and
unexpected allies to help protect ancestral traditions.
Therefore, in general, the Bwiti communities we met in Gabon expressed an appreciation
of the growing interest that this plant and its special characteristics have generated internationally. These conversations also painted a picture of iboga in Gabon wherein it is part
of a broader framework of knowledge, values, and spiritual practices through different rites,
which are known globally as Bwiti. Some spiritual leaders stressed that iboga is for all of humanity, not just for Gabonese people or Bwiti practitioners. However, they add the nuance
that although iboga is for “everyone,” if not worked with carefully in ways guided by ancestral
knowledge, it can generate spiritual distress and can even carry great risks to one’s health
and life. Therefore, it is recognized that it is within Bwiti that these protocols for how to work
with iboga are collected, and which translate a cosmic order that encompasses wholeness.
NON-RITUAL USES IN THE GLOBAL NORTH.
In Gabon, iboga is conceived of as a universal medicine that has come into the world to save all of humanity. This is why anyone in the
world who is ill can take it without having to be initiated into Bwiti. However, the guardians of
the plant claim that in order to use it as a spiritual tool, initiation into Bwiti is recommended.
Any unwell person that uses iboga opens a spiritual path, whether they know it or not and
this spiritual opening can present as a new and strange experience. Therefore, even when it
comes to healing ailments, knowledge holders advise initiation, as it can help in giving meaning to the experience.
According to Bwiti practitioners, the use of iboga in profane ways can generate fears and
anxiety when the individual experiences the spiritual dimension. The set and setting provided through initiation provide a safe container within which fears are addressed and dissolved. Traditional ritual use incorporates all the experiences within a spiritual epistemology
that brings security and tranquility to the complexity of the experience, which can lead to a
greater integration of the experience.
When one has to cure a disease, it is not necessary to come and be initiated into the Bwiti, because iboga is a spirit that came to help all of humanity, and to bring health to disease. […] But
there are certain senses that are going to be awakened after consuming iboga. You will have another way… a new way of seeing things in life. Iboga can lead you to perceive someone who is not
healthy internally without you knowing it. That’s why we should explain to you what is happening,
because you are going to take iboga, a spiritual medicine, and we need to be able to explain it to
TREATMENT FOR ADDICTION AND PROBLEMATIC SUBSTANCE USE.
In the 1990s,
Professor Jean-Noel Gassita, the first Gabonese person to extract ibogaine from Tabernanthe
iboga, received a visit from Howard Lotsof, the American who discovered the anti-addictive
effects of ibogaine. The two forged a great friendship that lasted until Lotsof’s death in 2010.
Today, the opiate crisis in the West, and especially in North America, generally is far removed
from the Bwiti practitioners in Gabon. However, stakeholders in Gabon are becoming more
aware of the growing international interest in ibogaine for treating addiction.
As mentioned above, the Nimas insist that iboga is there to help all of humanity, not just the
peoples of Gabon. This implies that iboga is also here to assist people all over the world to
overcome problems such as drug addiction. If foreigners in their own countries use iboga
and Bwiti knowledge for the good of humanity, they will always be respected and welcomed
in Gabon by the Bwiti communities.
That said, there appears to be some controversy and difference of opinion among Bwiti communities about how iboga can be used in non-initiatory and secular contexts. While some
believe that any secular use is exempt from the requirements of Bwiti, other more orthodox
believers claim that any use of iboga for healing must be done in accordance with Bwiti protocols, whether in Gabon or elsewhere and whether facilitated by a Gabonese or a foreigner.
RITUALS AND PROTOCOLS. Individuals interested in learning how to work with iboga are
required to work through several phases of learning, from Bandzi (initiate), to Nganga (spiritual practitioner), to Kambo (guardian of the temple), to Nima (master initiator). This type of
learning takes time (10 to 15 years to become a Nima, if not more) and Bwiti communities
are concerned about impostors (i.e. individuals who have not undergone adequate training),
as their actions can hurt the reputation of the tradition and practitioners. Spiritual leaders
are calling for the formal regulation of the training to become Nganga and Nima. This is also
why some Nimas are unwilling to permit the knowledge of Bwiti, and thus teachings around
iboga, to be shared if existing protocols are not respected. IBOGA VARIETIES.
We know very well that the only purpose of the [Bwiti] tradition is to awaken the consciousness
of human beings. It is a tradition that must be addressed to all of humanity. What I find a little
regrettable is that there are Bwiti masters who think our knowledge should not be passed on.
Of course it should not be opened so wide, we just have to respect the codes of transmission. […]
But that transmission, of course, is based on codes. These are the codes that we ask everyone to
respect. […] For me, it is forbidden to refuse to transmit, but what is also forbidden is to transmit in
disorder. Codes must be respected.
According to interviewees, anyone (including lay people) can take iboga, but anyone who
wants to facilitate rituals or ceremonies with iboga must learn the Bwiti protocols and procedures, otherwise physical and spiritual accidents may occur. Therefore, learning and following what is sometimes called “the procedure” is critical. If the procedure
is not followed, inappropriate use of iboga by the facilitator can sometimes lead to serious
accidents or even the death of the person who is being treated.