Gabon is not a country known for tourism – with the help of a drug called iboga that may change
Standing in the customs line of Libreville’s airport, Jose Saenz stares nervously at his visa form. “First time in Gabon?” Yes. “Purpose of your visit?” He pauses, then hesitantly writes: “tourism.” It’s probably more prudent than writing down the actual purpose of his visit: drugs.
The 42-year-old has taken a break from his wife, children and full time job as a furniture vendor in New York to come and try one the world’s rarest and most powerful hallucinogenic drugs, iboga. The Bwiti culture of Gabon uses the wood of this sacred plant for medicinal purposes and to contact their ancestors. But its supposedly magic powers have now begun attracting thrill-seeking tourists from around the globe.
Granted, most of them could not place Gabon on a map. This central African nation, the size of the UK, has only one million inhabitants and is carpeted by untouched equatorial forests home to an impressive catalogue of exotic fauna – from endangered forest elephants to rare orchids. Still, due to a lack of infrastructure and investment, the country has virtually no tourism.
Many of the foreigners coming to take part in an iboga initiation end up staying at Hugues Poitevin´s house. The eccentric Frenchman – known to most by his medicine man name, “Tatayo” – has been living in Gabon since the 70s and was the first white man to be allowed to guide iboga initiations. “A spirit compelled me to do it,” he says coyly, sitting inside his small, purple caravan-turned-bedroom.
His compound in Libreville feels like a youth hostel yet looks like an ethnological museum. Day and night, young faces wander between camping tents and rooms filled with dusty books, discoloured photos and local art. The temple is in the garden. It´s where the ceremonies take place, under a long hut lined with benches facing an altar packed with bwiti statues and musical instruments. For Tatayo, tradition is important. And he thinks drug tourism may be key to preserving it. “When people come they discover the country and the culture,” he says. Besides iboga ceremonies, he also provides guided tours and workshops on bwiti culture.
The pygmies of Gabon are said to have first discovered iboga in the depths of the forest, a thousand years ago. “Iboga has been a well kept secret for centuries,” says traditional doctor, Paul Akouma, who learned the secrets of the forest from his father and runs a plant-based medical clinic. “You have to earn the right to learn about it.” While iboga is classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States (alongside cocaine and heroin), it’s just as legal as rosemary in Gabon. One can spot it growing undeterred from Tatayo’s backyard to the entrance of the Libreville’s Pharmacological Institute.
Before consumption, the wood of the iboga needs to be dried out and cut into small brown chips. It is then presented in a small spoon and swallowed with a generous gulp of liquid. But before taking it, one must prepare. “The body must be cleansed for iboga to work,” explains Tatayo. Preparation can last up to three weeks and includes hours of chanting, sitting in a small tent full of smoke and ingesting small doses of the drug. Only once the body is purged and the mind is readied can tourists take their first “flood dose” – ranging from seven up to over 30 spoonfuls, depending on the person. Then the actual trip starts.
After taking the drug most people lay on the ground, tucked in blankets for several hours and are taken care of by the expert hands of Tatayo and his assistants. Unlike ayahuasca – the well-known South American hallucinogenic, the effects of which can peak at about four hours – an iboga trip lasts all night and well into the morning. The music is a crucial part of the experience and goes along until sunrise. Some people will feel the effects of iboga for weeks, months, even years after. “The wood continues to work in you for as long as it’s needed,” explains Tatayo.
The day after the last ceremony, the house is quiet and everybody paces slowly. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” says Saenz, who has previously taken peyote and attended 30 ayahuasca ceremonies. All participants agree the feeling is indescribable but involves powerful visions and out-of-body experiences. Curled up in a couch nearby is a tall Danish man in his fifties. He says he needs time to process and would rather not talk.
Besides the life changing visions, iboga is also said to cure addiction. The plant appears to be particularly helpful in overcoming dependence to methadone and heroin. Several clinical studies have shown ibogaine facilitates abstinence without replacing the habit. But tourists come with the hopes of getting rid of all types of ailments. “Iboga cures at so many levels,” says Ana, an ex-heroin addict from the Philippines, “besides my addiction, I have had a rare bladder problem for years. Now it’s gone!”
But not everybody buys into the healing powers of ground woodchips. Gabon is a deeply Catholic country and pastors have spent decades warning their flock against “traditional witchcraft” and the evil nature of iboga. Meanwhile, traditionalists worry foreigners will desecrate the spirit of the ‘Holy Wood’. “Westerners often have no respect for what they don’t understand,” says Dr Akouma, “and learning the secrets of the bwiti requires years of reverence and sacrifice.”
There seems to be little risk of iboga tourism gaining a mass appeal though. Unlike ayahuasca or peyote, iboga initiations have no dedicated Instagram accounts, Trip Advisor ratings or group discounts. Even the simplest Google search turns up preciously little. Price is also a deterrent. An initiation ceremony for four people costs around $3000 per head, not including flights. Then there are the deaths. There’s only been a handful in the last decades – mostly because of mixing with other drugs – but enough to scare potential visitors.
Still, Tatayo’s business, and that of others, is slowly picking up. There are currently two more Western men being trained as iboga facilitators and, every month, dozens of iboga rituals take place around the country. “If people don’t recognize the value of the iboga it will fade into oblivion,” says Tatayo. After all, he adds, drugs are culture and “culture can only be preserved by sharing it.”