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Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism

Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism by Vincent Ravalec, Mallendi, and Agnes Paicheler. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press; 2007. Paperback; 233 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59477-176-7. $18.95.

Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism introduces readers to the fascinating world of the cultural uses of iboga (Tabernanthe iboga, Apocynaceae), a shrub whose roots (the outer layer, dried and powdered) are used in Bwiti initiation ceremonies and traditions practiced by the Pygmies from Gabon. Bwiti is a religion and a philosophy of life in which practitioners use iboga root to help communicate with spiritual realms (of below and above, of dead and alive). Iboga is important to Bwiti because its psychoactive properties help facilitate the spiritual experience.

The purpose of the book is to widen readers’ perspectives, not to encourage drug use, since iboga is not a recreational drug and is used only as part of ceremonies in the context of Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism. Ngenza—a particular school of Bwiti—includes the ceremonial use of iboga and is commonly practiced by the Pygmies. The practice of Ngenza is closely tied to the natural world, including places such as the forests of Gabon.

The book—originally published in French—was written by Vincent Ravalec, a producer and director of numerous films and an author of many books. The book is co-authored by Mallendi, an initiator and traditional healer in Gabon, and Agnes Paicheler, a social-sciences researcher working in France.

Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism is divided into 3 parts. Part one is subdivided in several chapters starting with an overview of the sacred root of iboga and the origin and history of iboga and Bwiti-Ngenza.

Chapter 2 tells the story of the iboga root, how it was discovered by the Pygmies, and explains the Bwiti religion.

In chapter 3, Paicheler provides more details on the elements of Bwiti, the different places where initiation ceremonies take place, and examples of tools, music, and the different types of Bwiti.

Chapters 4 through 6 include a narrated dialogue between Ravelec and an apprentice, Raoul Martin, wherein Ravelec recounts his own initiation process under the guidance of his master or Nganga (Mallendi, the co-author of the book).

Chapter 8 contains a short interview with Mallendi, an initiation master of the Bwiti religion from Gabon. It tells the personal story of his initiation in Bwiti when he was young, and explains his decision to continue his healing education in mwiri (like secondary school) and kono, the higher education of healers.

Part 3 covers the uses, science, and politics of iboga and ibogaine—the primary active alkaloid from the root. This section starts with a botanical description of iboga, although the topic is weakly covered and contains some minor mistakes. For example, the authors referred to Voacanga africana (Apocynaceae) as a shrub, when in fact it is a tree. Additionally, some of the botanical names are not properly presented (e.g. V. Africana).

The rest of the third part describes the antidrug properties of iboga in reducing withdrawal symptoms of illegal drugs (particularly heroin) and alcoholic addictions. It also mentions that iboga allows consciousness to connect with the unconscious, like in dreams. Thus, iboga is also used to treat certain psychological disorders—reportedly treating some illnesses in a few days that otherwise would take several years through psychoanalysis.

The book also tells of how the Western world discovered iboga and how it was banned in the United States because of the abuse potential of psychotropic drugs. Although clinical trials have been conducted using ibogaine to treat addictions, the book discusses why iboga is not currently used as a source of officially approved medicine. The book closes with an afterword, resources, notes, bibliography, and an index. The resources contain websites and videos on the Internet.

Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism is recommended for those interested in psychoactive plants and the ethnobotanical uses of African plants, but also for those interested in African religions and traditional medicine. As evidenced by the personal accounts of the authors, the book provides more information on the cultural and historical aspects of iboga rather than on technical or botanical details of the plant.—H. Rodolfo Juliani, PhDAssistant Research ProfessorDepartment of Plant BiologyRutgers, The State University of New Jersey