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THE KING OF THE BWITI
"The Bwiti believe that before the ceremony, the neophyte is nothing," Daniel Lieberman told me on my first morning in Gabon, as we took a cab from the Libreville airport. "It is only through the initiation that you become something."
"What do you become?" I asked.
"You become a baanzi. One who knows the other world, because you have seen it with your own eyes."
"What do the Bwiti think of iboga?" I asked.
Lieberman barely hesitated. "For them, iboga is a super-conscious spiritual entity that guides mankind," he said.
Lieberman, an ethnobotanist from South Africa, wanted to make a business out of taking Westerners through the extreme Bwiti initiation. I had found him on the Internet. On his Website he posted photos from Gabon that seemed unrealtribal dancers in grass skirts, smiling shamans, and images of iboga itself, a modest, even unassuming-looking plant. The Bwiti's botanical sacrament, Tabernanthe iboga, is a bush that grows small, edible orange fruit that are tasteless and sticky. Under optimum conditions, iboga can grow into a tree that rises forty feet high. The hallucinatory compound is concentrated in the plant's rootbark, which is scraped off, dried, and shredded into gray powder. For an outsider coming from the United States, the Bwiti initiation costs over $7,000 with plane ticket, the cost of the ritual, and the botanist's fee. "I have spent time in the rain forests of Africa east and west, Madagascar, and the Amazon working with shamans, brujos, witch doctors, healers," Lieberman e-mailed me before the trip. "Iboga I feel to be the one plant that needs to be introduced to the world, and urgently."
In person, the botanist was thin and pallid, wearing Teva sandals and safari clothes. He seemed younger, less professional, more ill at ease than I had expected. He was an entomologist as well as a botanistlater he would show me hundreds of photographs he had taken of insects in the African rain forest. He seemed the type of person who would be happiest alone, trekking through a forest in search of rare beetles and butterflies. He told me his pale complexion and twitches appeared during a near-fatal bout of cerebral malaria. "I caught it during a Bwiti ceremony," he said. "It took me months to recover."
I expected my guide to be robust and adventurous. Instead, at thirty, he turned out to be two years younger than me, and shakier. He also told me that the last time he took iboga, he had been shown the date of his own death, and it wasn't too far away. From the somber way he said this, I knew he believed it was true. I didn't press him for detailslater I wished that I had.
Libreville was hot, stagnant, without vitality. The city seemed pressed under glass. Blinding sunlight reflected off the black mirrors of corporate towers, the headquarters of oil companies. Because of its oil deposits, Gabon, a small West African country on the equator, is richer, more secure, than other countries in the region. Iboga is another natural resource, but it will never be exploited for export by the Gabonese. Half the population of Gabon belongs to one Bwiti sect or another. Even the president-for-life, Omar Bongo, whose neutral and uninterested visage gazed down at us from posters around town, was known to be an initiate. The Bwiti seem to tolerate foreign interest in their sacred medicine, but they do not encourage it in any way.
"Why would the Bwiti allow me to join their sect?" I now asked.
"Bwiti is like Buddhism," he said. "Anyone can join if they are willing to be initiated. The word Bwiti simply means the experience of the iboga plant, which is the essence of love."
While Lieberman equated Bwiti with Buddhism, to most observers it remains an enigmatic cult. Some sects of Bwiti, such as the Fang, incorporate elements of Christianity, even wearing ostentatious costumes that resemble Mardi Gras versions of the vestments of Catholic bishops and nuns. Other groups, such as the one we were visiting, hold on to tribal beliefs. James Fernandez, an anthropologist who studied the sect at length, ended his book Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa inconclusively: "In the end, any attempt to demonstrate the coherence of the Bwiti cosmos founders upon the paradoxes with which it plays." For Fernandez, the Bwiti religion worked by "indirection and suggestion and other kinds of puzzlements," leaving "many loose ends and inconsistencies." In the text, a typically distanced work of anthropology, there was no indication that Fernandez had tried iboga himself.
I knew there was one other customer for this journey. A woman. I had fantasized, in advance, about hooking up with some brave and beautiful Australian heiress or young Peace Corps volunteer. Instead, to my dismay, I was introduced at the hotel to Elaine, a short, talkative, middle-aged Jewish psychoanalyst with a heavy New York accent.
"I just came from Bhutan where I got a terrible bladder infection," the analyst immediately announced. "You're a New Yorker also? What a surprise! I'm a psychoanalyst in the West Village. Maybe you know my friend who works for the New York Times? Or my sister, the novelist?"
I nodded at the familiar names, trying to recover from the shock of unwanted familiarity. I had yearned for some severe and pristine pursuit of the sacred, the exotic "Other" encountered in novels of Joseph Conrad or Paul Bowles. Instead, I would be sharing my tribal adventure with a woman I might have tried to avoid at a Manhattan cocktail party. I admired Elaine's courage and her reasons for taking this tripshe said that some of her patients abused drugs, especially coke, and she wanted to know if she should recommend ibogaine to them. But her presence on my journey seemed like some carefully orchestrated karmic punishment.
We went to meet our shaman, Tsanga Jean Moutamba, who called himself "The King of the Bwiti." What we would later discover about The King's belligerence and greed and tyrannical theatricality was not evident during this first encounter. At his Libreville house, The King seemed gruff but basically friendly as we set the arrangements for the trip. His purple robe, ample stomach, bushy gray beard, and necklace of lion's teeth gave him the larger-than-life presence of a 1960s avant-garde jazz musician. With shy smiles, members of his huge family came to shake handswe were told by Lieberman that he had eight wives and fourteen children, plus an untold number of Bwiti initiates who called him "Papa." The tribe packed our bags into a jeep, and The King himself drove us down Gabon's single highway, four hours into the dense jungle, while green foliage unfolded monotonously under a lead gray sky. He played a tape of the twangy, unsettling Bwiti music over and over again on his tape recorder as we drove. The music did not sound tribal; to me it had a sci-fi quality. When we stopped at one of the frequent military checkpoints, the guards would take one look at his lion's tooth necklace and wave us past.
During my time in Gabon, I kept trying to find out the meaning of Moutamba's status as "Le Roi du Gabon Bwiti," as the hand-painted sign outside his tribal village proudly proclaimed. I received different answers, sometimes from the same person. Alain Dukaga, an English-speaking Gabonese with a limp, who acted as our translator, first told me: "Moutamba is like Jesus to us. Most of the people now are like lacking roots. They got tied to the Christian ways and forgot their culture. Moutamba is helping to bring back our culture. We hope soon they will start teaching Bwiti again in the schools." A few days later, when relations soured between us and our shaman, Alain reversed himself. "Moutamba?" he scoffed. "He's not the king of anything. He just call himself that."
It was my first time in Africa, the one continent I had never wanted to visit. When I thought of Africa I thought of vast disasters, cruelty on a biblical scale: famines, tribal wars, inescapable poverty, despotic dictatorships, epidemics of AIDS and ebola. It was a continent where friends of mine went to prove themselveswriting journalism, photographing exotic atrocities, acting out Hemingway-esque safari fantasies, joining the Peace Corps, contracting bizarre diseases. The ebola virus first appeared in the forests of Gabon. Sometimes I mused on the unsettling near-homophony of ebola and iboga.
My trip seemed to be tempting fate. Every detail of it gave me as much resistance as I could handle. I had an assignment to write about the iboga initiation for Vibe Magazine, but I only received the money I needed a few days before the trip. After paying off Lieberman and everyone else, my bank account was reduced to a few hundred dollars. The visa I needed to enter the countrya full-page purple passport stamp of a mother and babywas held up, for no obvious reason, at the Gabonese consulate in Washington. It finally arrived at my apartment via FedEx a few hours before my departure, interrupting my fit of hysterics. When I reached Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I learned that Air France had canceled their once-a-week flight to Libreville, which was supposed to leave that night. Air France gave me 1,500 francs in consolation and stashed me in an airport hotel for two nights, before the next departure to Libreville, on Air Gabon. At the hotel, I ate with a few elegantly dressed Gabonese people who were also stranded. They mocked the wine and the service in rapid-fire French. I told one of the men I was planning to visit the Bwiti. He gave me a strange look. "Les Bwiti, ils sont dangereux," he said solemnly, quickly turning away. I had no way of getting in touch with Lieberman to explain the delay; I could only hope he would still be waiting for me when I arrived.
In retrospect, and even at the time, it almost seemed as if the difficulties were a kind of test, an ordeal prepared for me before I could even reach the ordeal of the initiation. Although I was anxious, it did not occur to me to turn back.
I was driven to try iboga by a yearning that went far deeper than the desire to get a good story. I saw the assignment as a mystical lottery ticket. I was committed to this once-in-a-lifetime long shot to visit the Bwiti, to access their spirit world. Or any spirit world.
MAD TO BE SAVED
My initiation into the Bwiti came at a time when I was losing interest in myself. I felt like an actor who had lost the motivation for his part. Or I was like the character of "Daniel Pinchbeck," trapped in a half-finished novel that an incompetent author was in the sluggish, surly process of abandoning.
I fell into a spiritual crisis.
I fell, and I could not get up.
Wandering the streets of the East Village, I spent so much time contemplating the meaninglessness of existence that I sometimes felt like a ghost. Perhaps I am already dead, I thought to myself. The world seemed to be wrapped in a cocoon I could not tear open, and I was suffocating in it. I did not want what other people wanted, but I didn't know how to find what I needed. I wanted truthmy own truth, whatever bleak fragment of whatever hellish totality it might turn out to be.
There are reasons why I, particularly, got sucked into this spiritual void. When I look back over my life, I can see the open jaws of the abyss awaiting me. Through my mother, Joyce Johnson, a writer of novels and memoirs, I was linked to the often maligned and sometimes revered writers of the Beat Generation, frantic in their pursuit of mystical experience across the globe (when Jack Kerouac was on a TV talk show in the late 1950s, he was asked what he was looking for. Drunk and defiant, he replied, honestly, "I am waiting for God to show me His Face." At the time, my poor mother, all of twenty-two years old, was anxiously waiting for him backstage). My mother sent mixed signals about her Beat past. On the one hand the high school yearbook quote she dedicated to me was from On the Road: "mad to live, mad to love, mad to be saved. . . ." Yet the life she seemed to want me to lead was that of a sheltered middle-class intellectual. She had seen too many friends destroyed by bohemian excesses, ruined by alcohol or speed.
A second reason lies in my preposterous last name, which sometimes feels like wearing a clown's red nose. The word can be found in any good dictionary: "pinchbeck" is a type of false gold. This shiny alloy of tin, still used in costume jewelry, was invented by Christopher Pinchbeck, an eighteenth-century English alchemist who was also a maker of intricate mechanical clocks for British aristocrats. Later, the definition of "pinchbeck" expanded to mean anything false or spuriousfor instance, according to the example in one old dictionary, "The 19th Century was a pinchbeck age of literature." James Joyce included the word in Ulysses. Recently, William Safire championed its revival.
This spurious moniker has kept me remote, to some extent, from the hard facts of existence. Behind the pinchbeck facade, life always seems slightly illusory, an alchemical and improbable process. Perhaps I also inherited my ancestor's urge to seek out wonder, as well as my father's yearning for transcendence, expressed in his enormous and brooding abstract paintings. In the quest described in this book, I suspect I am working through some business left over from my heritage, as if mystical yearnings run, like rogue genes, in family trees.
My reference points for a spiritual crisis were books and authorsNausea, Notes from Undergound, The Stranger; Kafka, Beckett, Rilkethe eloquent despair of twentieth-century literature. As I wandered the streets in a desolate funk, I would ask myself the impossible, the embarrassing, the ultimate childish question of Why?Why this city? Why this life? Why anything? Of course I knew that "why" was a question you were supposed to stop asking around the age of ten, but I couldn't free myself from it.
I mocked myself by recalling a sequence from Hannah and Her Sisters where the character portrayed by Woody Allen first learns he has a brain tumor, then finds out he doesn't have one after all, yet still realizesno matter how improbable it seemed before, when he was, like most of us, in cheerful denialhe will die someday. Suddenly obsessed with finding a meaning to life, he joins several religions including Hare Krisna and Catholicismfor the skit's high point, he goes to the supermarket to buy a loaf of white Wonder Bread as a sign of his new Christian faith. In the end, he resolves his crisis at a Marx Brothers double feature, realizing that laughter is, if not an answer, at least the only solace he can imagine.