bwiti iboga initiation

This 2-part guest story by filmmaker Jim Dziura recounts his Bwiti iboga initiation in the jungles near Libreville, Gabon.

THE WELL OF GRIEF

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

– David Whyte

There are two different psychedelics that are generally regarded as the most powerful on the planet- for two different reasons. 5-MeO-DMT, harvested from the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad, is short acting but takes one to a different realm. In fact, it obliterates one, entirely- you are no longer a person, you are no longer on earth. It is a rocket ship that lasts for 20-30 minutes but there is no sense of time while on that journey. The other “most powerful” psychedelic, however, earns its title through sheer, brute force. Iboga, the ancient African psychedelic traditionally used to initiate members into the Bwiti spiritual sect, hauls initiates through a war of the self that can last for upwards of 24 agonizing hours. It is known, colloquially, as the “Mount Everest of psychedelics” and, solemnly, in the way it addresses you, directly, as the “stern father.” It is also the only psychedelic on the planet that can kill you. It can seize the heart.

Iboga has been used as a rite of passage in (now-marginalized) African Bwiti sects for centuries but it remained a mystery to the Western world until it was discovered that iboga provides the strange effect of being an addiction-interrupter for opiate dependence. Western researchers discovered that iboga (particularly the ibogaine alkaloid contained within) had the potential to eliminate or severely diminish the physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal that many alcohol and opiate addicts face when trying to kick. One could go into an ibogaine session with a fullblown addiction and come out the other side largely withdrawal-symptom-free. The discovery wasn’t a cure-all but it offered desperate people a possible way out.

My days of recreational psychedelic use were over as I had long ago given up on the “bad trips” I believed I was having as a teenager in the 90s. But in 2014, as an adult, having faced my own version of stimulant abuse while working as a filmmaker in Los Angeles- and having finally found myself at a spiritual dead-end to address the crippling pain it was causing me as an otherwise high-functioning individual- I started digging beyond my conventional resources and stumbled across iboga. I was intrigued by the potential benefits of this mysterious plant medicine that promised to put one face-to-face with one’s hardest shit. I was ready to go into the fire.

Iboga and ibogaine are Schedule 1 outlawed substances in the United States. I did some research and found an ibogaine clinic in Mexico that primarily treated addicts in weeklong programs. But they also offered shorter, three-day “psycho-spiritual retreats” for people who just wanted to explore, and I signed up.

In a concrete medical clinic just across the border in Tijuana, strapped to a hospital bed, with my body attached to an IV and a heart monitor, I began my modern, spiritual journey with psychedelics.

I came out of the experience with very little contextual understanding for what had happened during my treatment. I had wrestled with the ibogaine, trying to allow the chemical to do its work, feeling that my list of intentions were being addressed but struggling or unwilling to access any potential, deeper, spiritual engagement. I later learned that there is a strong sentiment among many who work with these entheogens that there is some part of the soul of the master plant that is lost when the “active” ingredient is isolated or synthesized- that there is a deep lineage of wisdom, intelligence and experience that is severed by the western world in its pursuit of a quick fix. Indeed, there was a part of me that sensed, even then, that there was more to my healing than a 3-day trip to Mexico. I felt the seed of a burning, deep resonance with some part of this path that demanded that I explore it. And so I did. I spent the next two years participating in ceremonies with various psychedelics as I began to chip away at the layers of residue I had accumulated in my life.

I met Dimitri Mugianis at the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance conference in Tepotzlan, Mexico in 2016, two years after I had started my journey. He came to iboga fifteen years earlier through his own journey as a poet and opiate addict in New York’s underground punk scene. Since that time, he had become a luminary in the growing world of psychedelics and a devotee of the plant medicine that saved his life. At the conference, he spoke about iboga’s history of use in indigenous groups in Africa. In past interviews, when he has been asked what he tells people who are curious about iboga, he has said, “The first thing I try to do is talk somebody out of it, because it’s no joke.” But, as I found myself talking to him away from the others who had approached him after his presentation, perhaps there was something in my tone that conveyed that I was not merely curious. I knew that, eventually, I would want to experience this medicine in the motherland. In August 2016, Dimitri put me in touch with his Bwiti contact in Gabon, a peculiar Frenchman named Tatayo. It wasn’t until more than a year later, in November 2017, that I found myself with a plane ticket to Africa in my hand (alongside my intrepid spiritual, Russian sister from another mister, Gina). We would be spending Christmas in Gabon.

Tatayo Gabon

Tatayo

Gina and I had met each other in an ayahuasca ceremony along our own, individual, enthusiastic paths and had taken an immediate liking to each other. We had sat in ceremonies together and traveled to the jungle in Ecuador. We were fast friends. She was interested in iboga but had no experience with it.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, Gina and I spent our days jumping through all of the logistical hoops of visas, vaccinations, and payments. And we spent our evenings researching anything we could find about this mysterious man, Tatayo (known as “Yo”), with whom I had had only broken communication, up to that point. The information was sparse and we unearthed conflicting reports about his facility. We did know that, in the past couple of years, two people had died while undergoing initiations with him. One man had been dishonest about some western medications he was taking that turned out to be contraindicated (Yo has a saying- “You lie, you die”) and the other man died from a heart attack he suffered after the initiation ceremony. Yo was matter-of-fact and forthright about it when we asked. He would later become a spiritual father to me and I would come to trust him with my life. But for now, all we knew was that we were wiring money to Africa and having faith that everything would be ok.

In our weekly sessions leading up to the trip, I worked with my therapist, Michael, to articulate and set my explicit intentions. It was a sincere and solemn process, imbued with the weight of my prayers- these would be the words that I would carry with me to the other side of the world. Over the previous two years of ceremonial work with psychedelics, most of my intentions, heading into ceremonies, had been of the flavor of wanting things:

Please bring me relief from cravings
Please help me reduce shame
Please help me heal this wound or that trauma
Please shed light on this confusion

But, serving through what I now believe to be a direct conduit to Source and led from the other side by my mother’s hand, Michael helped me to distill my prayers down to three simple intentions that took on a different tone:

1. Be an open channel for all feelings to flow
2. Be the embodiment of trust and faith
3. Be authentic and fully self-expressed

It seemed easy enough. I didn’t realize their true value until well after I had felt thoroughly betrayed by them as I went through hell in Africa.

As our departure drew closer, my ego started to get loud. I found myself being short with people. Old habits of self-destruction surfaced. Fear and doubt smirked at me as I tried to get everything in order. My days were full of frenetic, hectic energy as I buttoned up all the last-minute details and tried to hold myself together. I reminded myself of something that I had talked about in conversations with my girlfriend, Annie, and others- “Africa will start working on you well before you go.” The day before my flight, with my intentions written by hand on a piece of paper, I scrambled up into the hills above my house to bury the letter and set my prayers.

I hiked to a special spot, under a tree that Annie and I had shared in a relationship ceremony, earlier that year. But there was construction in the park below and security guards, workers and pedestrians milling around and I felt watched. Not knowing where to go that would be appropriate and feeling both the reverence that this act demanded and the shortness of time, I ran around anxiously, searching for a place that felt right. I was driving up into another section of hills when the answer struck me. I headed up Beachwood Canyon, directly below the famous Hollywood sign, got out of my car and stood in front of my first apartment in Los Angeles. The rustic little studio in a Tudor building was where things had started to fall apart for me, 15 years earlier. I stared at the window I had once put my fist through during a dark night of the soul. I looked down at where I was standing in the driveway, where my college girlfriend had packed her car, through tears, as she moved out.

Looking both ways to make sure the neighbors weren’t watching, I stuffed my letter deep into the guts of the tremendous Bougainvillea bloom outside the front door. I released my prayer and withdrew my hand, now scratched and bloodied by the vines.

The next day, I flew to San Francisco and spent the night on Gina’s little red couch, with which I had become familiar over the course of our friendship. In the morning, we flew from San Francisco to Paris but we missed our connecting flight to Libreville because of snowstorms, so we spent the night there. We finally landed in Gabon a full day later than expected, completely worn out from travel but exhilarated by views from the airport windows that told us we were in deeply foreign territory. There was some confusion about our visas upon arrival but we got it sorted and found our bags amidst the hustle of the baggage carousels.

Tatayo (Yo) showed up outside the terminal in the hot, smoky air to greet us. In his early sixties and lean, he wore a loose, white, button up shirt that was frayed at the collar, and baggy pants with sandals. He wore a floppy top hat that was covered in patches and pins and he had a satchel slung over his shoulder. He approached us with a genuine, gold-toothed smile, framed by a tangle of necklaces. As he reached his hands out to us, he revealed a jangling collection of bracelets and cryptic tattoos across his forearms. He had wild hair and a wild scent.

Yo drove us through the dirty streets of Libreville in his beastly, old, white, diesel Land Cruiser. I watched out the windows and saw the complex layers of a country and a continent that had born witness to the best and worst of humanity. Below the pavement was bedrock that had been unmoved for 300 million years. Dinosaurs had walked on it and, then, upright humans. Mother Africa had patiently watched the comings and goings of vast civilization and empires from the ancient Egyptians to the invading Romans, to the European slave trade and eventual colonialism. East of Gabon was Sudan, home to the tallest people in the world, and below Sudan was the Congo, home to the shortest people in the world, the pygmies.

Bwiti initiation compound

The compound

We soon passed through a huge, red, metal gate that was swung open to receive us and drove on to the lawn of Yo’s compound- a chunk of land on the outskirts of the city that contained an old semi-truck trailer that he had converted into his residence, a giant metal hall with a corrugated roof that served as the central facility, a small oval temple with a thatched roof where ceremonies were held, and a scattering of pieced-together wood and concrete structures that sprawled their way beyond our view and served as living quarters for guests and workers. The whole place was surrounded by a heavy, tall, concrete wall, topped with embedded glass shards and barbed wire.

After we got settled in our separate, minimalist, concrete quarters, we met some of the other workers at the compound. Stephanie, Naika and Alice were young women who spoke very little English but had managed to carve out an existence for themselves that didn’t include the only other viable option afforded to Gabonese females- prostitution. In addition to being Gina’s only hands-on support throughout the ceremonies, they turned out to be the sole cooks, cleaners, and hardest-working members of the team. We also met a few of the male workers whose immediate personalities ranged from shy to stoic to super-smiley. I didn’t fully realize the significance of these men at that point – they would eventually shepherd me to the gates of insanity and death.

Over a dinner of simple but savory vegetables and meat (a luxury) at the modest table, Gina and I peppered Yo with questions. He explained that Bwiti tradition has been pushed away from modern society as the general populace, distracted by the fever-lust for money, views it as witchcraft. Yo correlated the plight of the pygmies to the tragedy of the Native Americans. Sitting there and hearing about this sad story, I was well-aware of and self-conscious about my white, privileged, western presence, amidst a population that appeared to be entirely without options and, largely, without hope.

I slept scattered, upside-down hours that night, under a mosquito net. Malarone, the preventative Malaria medication I had been taking for a week can have the bizarre side effect of creating extremely vivid dreams. That night, I dreamt that I was walking around naked in the streets of Libreville when a woman approached me and stuck a small, electrical receiver to my chest that said “Osmo” on it. It lifted me off the ground and I flew around, over the roofs of the city, with my man parts waving around in the wind. Yo instructed us that we would have to stop taking the medication before we eat “the wood.” Iboga does not take kindly to other medicines in the system.

The next day was a day of rest. We got acclimated and met Yo’s neighbor, an eccentric Russian woman who had married a Gabonese man. Gina, Yo and the Russian woman delighted in speaking to each other in French and Russian as I stood and watched. I was happy that Gina had found a familiar voice in this strange land. By that point in our tenured friendship, Gina and I were well beyond simple pleasantries and, on this trip, we had found ourselves being occasionally (and understandably) short with each other during the long days of travel, as we each tried to prepare for the unknown. In particular, I had a hard time resolving the contemplative space I was in with the silly and playful space that Gina appeared to be in. I was feeling the weight of the trip and I wasn’t in the mood. But I felt guilty about that, too, wondering why I was so easily irritated. I knew that it was a reflection of something that was coming up in me, perhaps a part of me that felt threatened to be exposed, and my ego was resisting. She later revealed to me, in a sweet, vulnerable space (that only two friends who have gone through battle alongside each other can share) that one of the ways she deals with her fear is by pushing it out with playfulness. We were each processing in different ways what our souls knew would be an impending storm of self-examination.

The third day (our second full day in the country), Gina and I began the ceremony process that would unfold over the next week. We were summoned to the temple where we sat and watched while Stephanie, Alice, Yo and four other men painted each other, gathered tools, supplies and musical instruments, and ate a spoonful of iboga in preparation for the forest trek, where we were headed. In smaller, single-spoon doses, iboga produces acute psychedelic effects and allows one to tap into the spirit of the medicine, but it does not deliver the herculean, oncein-a-lifetime, flood-dose experience that awaits one on the night of initiation. Gina and I were quiet as the more relaxed schedule of the previous day gave way to the solemn tone of the ceremony unfolding before us, and the full reminder that we were not on vacation. We climbed into the back of Yo’s land cruiser with the rest of the crew who were now in complete ceremony garb. We got our first taste of the intricate and complicated Bwiti music as Bokaye, the tallest and most engaging of the bunch- the one they called “The Spider”- started playing his harp. We drove past rows of shanty homes, piles of old tires, donkeys pulling carts, and smoking piles of debris. The other members of the group joined in with seed rattles, animal hoof shakers and singing and yelling that sounded, to my foreign ears, like a cacophony of broken time signatures. Still, it was hypnotic. As we made our way through the streets, suspicious onlookers and armed soldiers watched our rolling circus with narrowed eyes.

We drove to a forest in the middle of nowhere and piled out of the Land Cruiser. Gina and I were steered to the middle of the group as we began to hike, vigorously and barefoot, along a single track of muddy, tangled overgrowth. We kept going deeper and deeper into the forest, marching through piles of red ants, briars, and bogs that sucked our legs in, up to our knees. With all of the research we had done about the millions of ways that one can become infected by a host of bugs and bacteria in this heartland of all things beautiful or horrific, Gina and I looked down at our muddy and bloody feet and then back at each other. Bokaye played the harp while we hiked, and Bongema, the shortest and most stoic member of the group, slashed ahead, in front, with his machete. Stephanie and Alice carried the heaviest loads on their backs- large baskets full of supplies. At one point, as we crossed a river on an old log, Gina slipped, fell, and almost went under. I could see the fear in her eyes. We had no idea where we were.

Eventually, we arrived at a clearing by a river. Gina and I sat and waited while the crew laid out mats and prepared the space. We were instructed to come and sit in front of Yo as he fed us each a spoon of Iboga- our first of the whole trip. Yo guided us as we each took a large leaf with a small offering of food, found an appropriate place at the edge of the clearing, and laid them down while we set our intentions and said our prayers. We offered red wine and juice to the spirits. I was on high alert, trying to stay tuned to the details but also driven by fear of the unknown. Gina said, later, that her adrenaline was pumping.

Bwiti cleansing ritual

Being bathed in the red river

We were stripped naked and dressed in large pieces of black fabric that the crew tied, tightly, around our bodies. We were led into the middle of the red river, up to our chests. The men washed me with handfuls of herbs and grass that smelled incredible, while the women washed Gina. They scrubbed us and then shoved the herbs into our own hands, with instructions to wash ourselves and throw the concoction over our heads, behind us, when finished. They guided us to dive under the water and rinse ourselves, clean. It was the first of many bathing ceremonies we would have throughout the week. When we stepped out of the river, Yo had a long fern, split in half on the bank, that we were told to step through, “into our new life.” It was not without emotion that I said a silent prayer for myself and stepped across the threshold.

Yo instructed us, at that point, to “not look back.” The crew changed us out of our black fabric and into white fabric that resembled big diapers. Gina had her chest covered, like a robe, mine was bare. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had said goodbye to our street clothes, at that point, for the duration of our time through the initiation ceremony, ten days later. They took handfuls of deep red bark and painted our arms, legs, faces and- in my case- chest. They produced beautiful crowns of vibrant green vines that were placed on our heads, showering verdant fragrances over us. These became sacred items that we wore the rest of our time as banzis (pre-initiates).

I could feel the spoonful of iboga working in me, washing over me, in waves. It had a stimulant effect that I was particularly sensitive to and I felt dizzy. I could see the visual effects as my mind played tricks on me in the forest. Iboga has peculiar effects on the body, causing the joints and muscles to stiffen with a condition called ataxia, which is literally a disruption between the brain and the signals it sends the body to move. In flood doses, it can cause complete paralysis. I felt my body constrict and get crunchy and I had to remind myself to stay open and breathe. Many times in psychedelic experiences, I have gotten very self-critical and hard on myself. I felt some of that arise and tried to keep it from spiraling out. I hadn’t had any delusions about the extremity of this work, going into it, but, deep in the middle of the forest in Gabon, it was becoming startlingly clear how far we were going.

We started to hike out of the forest with the repeated direction to “not look back.” Yo told us that if we did look back, by accident, that we had to spin a complete 360 degrees and continue on. I felt silly doing it the couple times I accidentally looked back but I knew how serious this all was and there was no way I was going to temp the spirits. My heart was racing and I felt the high voltage of fear, exhilaration, and immense, unreal, indescribable beauty, coursing through me. I got a glimpse, as I have occasionally received in other medicine experiences, of divine gratitude for the struggle and suffering that led me there. I thought of our loved ones back home who were worried about us and I wanted to share that moment with Annie- me, deep in a forest in Gabon, approaching my healing with the heart of a warrior.

We spent the next couple of days participating in various ceremonies and rituals, each rich in detail and texture and steeped in meaning. There was the bucket ceremony where we prepared a concoction of bright-smelling herbs and leaves that we let soak overnight in the temple- each placed within a circle of chalk- and then bathed with. My main helper, Bongema, circled around us with a torch, slashing the air as we stood with our chests, arms and palms open to receive the cleansing – WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH. As the members of our crew chanted, I reflected on what it might mean to truly forgive myself, to bring all parts of myself into the circle. I thought about what that might look like- truly- to leave no part of me behind.

During those early days on the compound, we became enamored by the quirks of its residents. There was a tiny puppy named Maron who we saw grow up before our eyes, from suckling to chewing on our fingertips. There was a small parrot named Jolie Coeur who had chewed all of her feathers out from stress. Her name translated to “sweetheart” and she would greet us with, “Bonjour!” every time we walked by. Incidentally, the Latin word for heart is “cour” which is where the word “courage” comes from. There was also a young woman, named Nege, who Yo had taken under his wing as she had run astray in the underworld of Libreville and, apparently, was making money doing what she had to, to survive. She had a wild and frenetic energy that suggested she had become comfortable in some pretty rough situations. She would throw greetings to us from across the compound as she came and went, sometimes disappearing for a couple days at a time. But she was friendly and, at one point, after one of our twice-daily bathing ceremonies, she delighted to point at us with a smile and yell “Jesus clothes!” at the minimalist white fabric we were wearing.

I felt exposed in what Gina and I referred to as our “diapers.” I felt stripped of my usual clothes, unable to hide behind my usual presentation of “this is who I am” based on what I was wearing. I felt the impact of realizing how much of my identity is carved, in the Western world, from aesthetic presentation of clothes, haircut, car I drive, etc. In Africa, I did not have the benefit of that facade. In fact, there were certain things that I realized I actively hid in my normal life, that were, now, hanging out for all to see. I have a scar on my leg from a dark night when I accidentally burned myself, while unconscious. It is a small, ugly reminder that I would rather not see. I found myself, there in Africa, with no option but to see it, daily, and have it exposed to others. No part of me outside the circle, no part of me left behind.

There was a purging ceremony where we were bathed and then covered in white chalk and painted with a single, bold red line that went from our belly buttons, up our chests, up our throats, up our faces, and landed at the top of our heads. We knelt over empty buckets as 24-ounce mason jars were filled from a stew of acidic green liquid that had been brewing all night over a fire. It tasted like cactus as I started to drink it. I made it almost to the bottom of the jar when I began to throw up with deep, guttural stomach convulsions, as the body tried to expel what it saw as poison. Tatayo’s #2 guy was a sinewy 43-year old Frenchman named Pemba who had not an ounce of fat on his body. He had the lean energy of a hyena and he approached these ceremonies with the seriousness of a drill instructor. After heavy puking, I was surprised to see him fill my mason jar back up to the top and hand it back to me. After another round of purging, Pemba finally tipped our buckets to look at their contents, with a torch. Yo later explained that Pemba was looking to see how much we could purge- to determine how much iboga it was safe to give us on initiation night. If we couldn’t vomit, it wasn’t safe or wise to give us too much. There is no “off” switch once you go in deep.

Pemba iboga

Pemba

In the afternoons, daily thunderstorms descended on us. The dark clouds moved in and hammered the hot ground with rain and mighty cracks and booms in the sky for a couple hours before they moved on, leaving steam to rise as the sun broke through again. I had a lot of time to sit alone with mother Africa, as I journaled, watched the rain, and thought about everything that had brought me there. Even in its most moderate amount before our forest hike, I had felt the medicine work on me and I had felt my ego start to push back. I had felt my usual fears around abandonment get loud. I felt my feelings of “not being enough” surface. In those reflective days in the compound before our initiation, I spent a lot of time thinking about the poverty in the country and what my presence, there, meant. I wondered how I was viewed- is this a sacred rite of passage that indigenous people are deeply moved to share with the me, or am I exploiting a culture, seen as an intruder who is reluctantly tolerated as a sad way of survival for people who are betraying their values? It was hard to gather any information about our crew as they didn’t speak English and went about their jobs stoically and silently. It was hard to pick up on any cues- did they like us? Did they respect what we were doing? Were we just tourists?

Many of those insecurities are ones that I have dragged around with me for a long time- rooted in struggles of not feeling safe in the world, of not having a home, of not belonging. I was separated from my older brother when I was a year old. I moved every two years growing up, leaving my home and friends behind, over and over. And in a great, final cleaving, my mother died when I was 20. It pitched me into decades of feeling lost. Even if there was a way for her and I to have been able to say good-bye to each other in a way that wouldn’t have left me feeling abandoned, we were both panicked. The cancer was quick as it stole her brain, her mind, her self, and forced me to watch as she turned into a withered, jaundiced shell, before she died. There was no chance to wrap it up in any tidy way. And how could you? When she died, while I held her hand, I decided that I would lock up that part of me forever, I would never forgive God and I would never forget.

Our dinners with Yo were un-rushed and we often spent hours sitting at the table with him, talking. He has a beautiful heart and he believes in the work he is doing. He believes that iboga can uplift the world.

Once, while we were sipping on bone broth, I asked Yo about the cultural climate in Africa and how foreigners were viewed. I was hoping for some reassurance, to hear that I was welcome. But he got distracted and turned the conversation political, talking about the disparities of wealth and the suffering of the poor. My heart went out to the people of the country as I was left to still figure out what my place was.

Tatayo iboga

Yo at the dinner table

In the western world, great care is usually made to explain to one what one can expect leading up to a psychedelic cereony, what the procedure will be, etc- an orientation or FAQ. In Africa, we received very little of that. Gina and I would ask Yo questions, partially because we were genuinely fascinated and curious, but also because we were anxious. How’s it gonna go? He was gracious to answer all of our questions but he didn’t seem concerned to offer much beyond them and it dawned on me that, perhaps, this would be part of my process of letting go- of the need to be in control.

Yo explained that the dosing of iboga is peculiar and doesn’t match up with how we think of traditional medicines in the sense that more doesn’t always mean “more.” He said that 6 spoons isn’t twice as much as 3. He said he had a dentist come down and take massive amounts of iboga and feel nothing. He came again and did the same thing and felt nothing, again, and left frustrated and disappointed. Yo made the point that the medicine works in mysterious ways and will bring you the experience you need and it is not tied to the dose. We asked him about the last person who died there and he said that he had 3 spoons. After a moment, Yo looked down at the table, shook his head, and said that he had given him CPR and mouth-to-mouth in the back of his Land Cruiser as they raced to the hospital, but he was already gone.

The last, major ceremony we did before our initiation night was the smoke bath ceremony. We were changed from our white clothes into the black “bathing” clothes. We were instructed to smear a inky, molasses-like substance all over our bodies and then sit on stools that were positioned over metal buckets, buried in the ground. There was wood at the bottom of the buckets, already on fire, and I felt the heat on my thighs as I positioned myself over it. We were tented with heavy canvas tarps, like a teepee, with just our heads poking out the top. Already, I knew that this was going to be intense.

The crew settled into their spots along the benches and started playing their instruments. There was no communication about any of this and we had no idea how this ceremony would proceed or how long it would last. As they played, we slowly began to cook ourselves. I could feel sweat start to run down my stomach and legs. It coated my face and stung my eyes. As the fire grew below me, the smoke leaked out the top where my neck was otherwise sealed and choked my nose and mouth. The crew played song after song. They would finish one song, pause for a minute and then launch into another one. My nose ran as my lips cracked. My testicles and the inside of my legs started to burn and became itchy and then lost feeling, altogether. I would have thought that maybe I could do 5 minutes of this as the heat, smoke, sweat, coughing, burning and stinging became unbearable. But I sat there, choking and being cooked alive, as 10 minutes passed and then, 20 and 30.

I lost all feeling in my legs, chest, stomach and arms. Pemba occasionally lifted the canvas to examine the smoke and regulate it by adjusting palm fronds that were laid over the buckets. I trusted that he knew what he was doing and that this process would not leave me with permanent nerve damage. At one point, he circled us with a torch and said a prayer in French, that Gina translated for me, “May you find light, truth, love, happiness, and a mission in life.”

As with everything we had experienced so far, it was clear that this ceremony was part of our overall initiation. As well as being a purging and cleansing ritual, it was also a test of endurance. We were pushed beyond what we would have otherwise suspected we were capable of. And it was not meant to be pleasant.

After what felt like an eternity, we were bathed and dressed back in white. My skin was orange, at that point, including my fingernails. As they redressed me, I was struck, again, by the beauty, richness and attention to detail that our crew brought to every part of these ceremonies. I stood in awe, once again, at my path that had brought me there.

Part 2 of “Holy War” by Jim Dziura will be published next week.