Bwiti is a spiritual tradition that was developed by the Bantu population of Gabon, beginning in the early 20th century. At the time French Christian missionaries had a large influence on the countries political environment, and many Bantus who wished to maintain their traditional spiritual practices and lifestyles retreated from their villages further into the jungle. This led to contact with the pygmy tribes, who eventually shared their knowledge about the use of iboga. The word “Bwiti” is roughly translated to mean “dead” or “ancestor,” but its etymology may be based on the term “Mbouiti,” which is the more accurate term for pygmy people located between Gabon and Zaire.1 Today, Bwiti is one of Gabon’s three official religions, and is practiced in both Bantu and pygmy communities.
Bwiti is a distinct spiritual tradition with many sects. Some of these have syncretized various elements of the Christian tradition and other belief systems. It is hard to generalize such a diverse tribal practice, but many Bwitists commonly believe that Gabon has a connection with the biblical Garden of Eden, and iboga with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.2 This is perhaps supported by the modern scientific narrative, which identifies the source-point of human genetics in the region between Kenya and Gabon. Also, according to geographical estimations, Gabon is estimated to have been located near the center of the Pangea super-continent.
Bwiti incorporates elements of ancestor worship as well as animism, which holds that all things hold within them the energy that was produced during the first moment of creation and that by learning the language of the spirit of things it is possible to communicate with God. Much of traditional Bwiti ritual is highly symbolic and representative of various aspects of creation, especially the pure expressions of masculine and feminine energies.
The practice of Bwiti is central to Gabonese culture, and has slowly started to spread to other parts of the surrounding region including Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Congo, and Zaire. Some believe that Bwiti to be one of the most important religious practices of Equatorial Africa.3
Bwiti has been slow to effectively spread outside of this region. In 2013, the Universalist Bwiti Society (UBS) was founded in the United States following a positive legal decision that had attempted to convict Dimitri “Mobengo” Mugianis, Robert “Bovenga” Payne, and Michael “Kombi” McKenna, three ibogaine therapy providers and Bwiti practitioners who were arrested in Seattle in the spring of 2011.4
Bwiti is an initiatory rite that involve the consumption of large amounts of iboga root bark, as well as other intricate ritual elements such as ritual baths, prayer, traditional music and energetic dancing. There is much variety from sect to sect, but for the most part, these initiations require at least several days of preparatory ritual, take place at night, and continue throughout the following days until the initiate (or banzi) has returned safety.
Initiation is approached for any number of reasons. While not a mandatory part of village life, many Bwitists chose to become initiated for personal reasons, which range from coming of age, to personal health issues, or other support with traumatic events.
Many Westerners have and continue to seek out traditional Bwiti initiation in Gabon. For various reasons, GITA highly recommends that a good starting to place to learn about Bwiti, as well as various aspects of Gabonese culture and art is Ebando, a not for profit located in Libreville, Gabon.
Image © 2014 Benjamin De Loenen. Used with permission.
Bwiti music involves a variety of instruments, primarily the mougongo, a monochord usually fashioned out of a single bent piece of wood and a taught string, and a ngombe, or a ritual harp with eight strings often fashioned out of fishing line. Traditional ritual music is accompanied by a variety of other percussion instruments, as well as several types of rattles, a wide variety of different bells, stick percussion, and various drums. These instruments and traditional songs are sung during initiations and other rituals. For more information about Bwiti instruments, please visit the Ebando website.
Swiderski S., 1990-1991. La religion Bouiti, V vols., Ottawa, Legas. ↩