Bwiti is a spiritual discipline of the forest-dwelling Punu people and Mitsogo peoples of Gabon (where it is recognized as one of three official religions) and by the Fang people of Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Modern Bwiti incorporates animism, ancestor worship, and in some cases, Christianity, into a syncretistic belief system.
Bwiti practitioners use the psychedelic, dissociative root bark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant, specially cultivated for the religion, to promote radical spiritual growth, to stabilize community and family structure, to meet religious requirements, and to resolve pathological problems. The root bark has been consumed for hundreds of years in a Bwiti rite of passage ceremony, as well as in initiation rites and acts of healing. The experience yields complex visions and insights anticipated to be valuable to the initiate and the chapel.
Taking Iboga brings both open and closed-eye visions which can be made stronger by darkness, ambiance, and suggestion. Following the visions, users experience an introspective mindset in which they often recount past experiences in life. Difficulty sleeping, nausea, and vomiting sometimes last until the day after consumption.
Bwiti ceremonies are led by a spiritual leader called N'ganga who is a very important member of the community and has extensive knowledge of traditional healing practices, hexes, and spells. The crucial rite of Bwiti is the initiation ceremony, when young Gabonese women and men take iboga for the first time in the huts specific to each gender to become members of the spiritual practice. There are many ceremonies at different times of the year to give homage to the ancestors. Special ceremonies may be held to heal sick persons or drive out malevolent spirits.
During some ceremonies, a traditional torch made of bark and tree sap, the mupeto, is burned. Music and dance are central to the Bwiti tradition. Participants sing and play drums and shakers. Some traditions use the Ngombi harp, while other use the traditional Mongongo. The N'ganga and other participants usually dress in red, black, and white cloth. They may wear skirts of raffia material and small shells or beads. Animal skins, such as Genet fur, are often worn. The iboga root may be made into a tea or more often taken in the form of scrapings. Ceremonies usually begin at night and may last for days since the effects of doses of the drug of the size employed in such ceremonies are particularly long lasting.
The term "Bwiti" is often misrepresented in the west. This is likely due to a lack of information dissemination (considering it is an oral tradition), appropriation and modification of rites amongst the different populations, and purposeful disinformation to keep rites secret. The Pygmy peoples are often cited as the origin of Bwiti, or at least of the use of Iboga in a ritualistic context.
Missoko Bwiti rituals and ceremonies are powerfully rich expressions of the human spirit.
As a traditional spiritual path that studies life itself, Bwiti offers very practical advice on how to live a healthy life. In addition, many of the teachings were directly given by Iboga’s spirit, making them a perfect complement to Iboga ceremonies. A Bwiti Iboga ceremony begins with a “fire talk” where the teachings are presented before ingesting the Iboga. In order to promote wisdom in the community, the Shaman and elders will also consistently provide counseling rooted in Bwiti teachings.
The Initiation is another “coming of age” ceremony where Iboga is consumed. The initiation is the way that they are brought into and connected to the Bwiti tradition, and the spirit of Iboga. It is also where they learn the reality of life and meet their soul, learn who they truly are. It is typically done when someone is in their teens, but can also be something they do later in life, or much earlier if they are to be a Shaman.
In Missoko Bwiti, there are 5 different initiations corresponding to the different branches of practice. They are: Ngonde’ na Dipouma (screening, or diagnostics), Miobe’ (herbs, plants, and their usage), Seguedia (knowledge and creation), Boussouka (protection), Maboundi (empowering women)
The Rite of Passage, a “coming of age” ritual for women and men of all ages, lasting varying amounts of time, delivering changed people on the other side – true adults in the community. This works as a way to promote integrity, strength, and connection, which is something lost upon us in the west. In Bwiti, we keep the details of the Rites of Passage private in order to protect its potency for those involved.
There are several different types of dancing found in Bwiti ceremonies and practices. Both the men and women have their own unique dances, while the room is left open to be creative, as well. Having usually started from a young age, they are incredibly skilled.
Dancers are often decorated with a special red paste (Mongoli), white chalk, feathers, skirts, headbands, hats, jewelry, and leaves. They also sometimes wear bells and shells to bring beautiful sounds to accompany their dance. One of the most captivating dances is when they use the torch.
Bwiti Music is truly original in its sound and is a seriously important aspect of Bwiti ceremonies. Throughout the ceremonies, you will have singing from both men and women, each with their own set of songs where they lead with the others responding.
The polyrhythmic instrumental music enhances the effectiveness of Iboga and also brings the ceremonies to life. It has also been shown to have both somatic and psychological effects, like generating theta frequencies.
There are 3 main instruments in Bwiti ceremonies: The Ngombi (Harp), Muogoungo (Mouthbow), and Drums (sticks on the ground and stand-up). There are also varying forms of rattles, and bells worn by dancers.
Shamans (Nimas) are the spiritual leaders of the community and go through rigorous training for decades. The new Shaman is usually someone within the bloodline of the previous shaman but is not necessarily their son or daughter. The Shaman is the main healer and spiritual guide of the community. When someone is sick or having spiritual difficulties, they turn to the Shaman who has the whole toolbox of the jungle and spirits to assist them in their healing. A good Shaman is a master of the plant medicines found in the jungle, knowing hundreds of plants inside and out.