bwiti iboga initiation

This 2-part guest story by filmmaker Jim Dziura recounts his Bwiti iboga initiation in the jungles near Libreville, Gabon. Part 1 can be read here.

Thursday was the day of the initiation ceremony. We spent the first part of the day being bathed and painted. We also painted blue the ceremony tree that we would be sitting under that night. But, by early afternoon, dark clouds had built up in the sky. They started to crack open and hammer down rain with tremendous flashes of light and rolling thunder. We stood, shivering, in the shelter of the metal warehouse and watched the downpour that seemed to have no end in sight. The decision was made to move the ceremony into the temple from the usual outdoor space that was now a lake. We were changed from our white clothes into red, for the first time. We were given shakers and rattles to be used as “tools.” We were painted with red and white chalk. Needing a moment to myself, I retreated to my room. I listened to the rain and thunder, as the light faded from my window, thinking, this is a hell of a way to begin.

I heard Pemba’s horn from across the compound, signaling us to gather. I darted around my room trying to get all of my last-minute details buttoned up- did I have everything I might need? I had no clue what I might need. I could hear my ego making noise as it felt threatened by what it knew was coming, like an army starting to build just over the hill. When I finally made it to the temple, Yo, Pemba and the rest of the crew were sitting, waiting for us. Torches were burning and there was heavy silence. I sat down on my thin straw mat next to Gina, in front of Tatayo. They said a few blessings and Yo recited each of our names, in my case, calling me by my full name in his thick French accent, “James Dziura, son of Michael Simpson and Barbara Dziura.” It was bizarre to hear my parents’ names said aloud, as well as my own. My mother was twenty years dead. And my father was a conservative cowboy, living in Colorado, with whom I had little relationship. And yet, their names were being said aloud by a French shaman on the outskirts of Libreville, the embattled capital city of Gabon, as I prepared to ingest the strongest psychedelic known to man.

My father left my life when I was a year old, by decision of my mother, following their divorce. I thought about how different he and I are, how different he and my mom were- country mouse and city mouse. I thought of how my brother and I grew up, apart, he with my dad, me with my mom, and I thought, as I had many times before, how strange of a decision that was for them to make- to separate us. From out of nowhere, I also thought about my biological father’s parents who I had never known well. I recalled a distant memory, perhaps spurred by the thunder overhead, of being at their house in Anaheim as a very young child, and watching the fireworks from neighboring Disneyland that burst over their house, like magic, every night.

Gina and I had received a preparatory spoon of iboga while being dressed, earlier and, now, Yo served us another three heaping spoons, piled high with the root bark. Knowing how much one spoon affected me, I braced for impact. We were instructed to sit in staff pose, upright, with our legs straight in front of us. With no back support, this is a challenging pose that pushes the limits of even the most disciplined of yoga students. We would sit like that for hours, with a mirror placed in front of each of us so we were forced to watch our own descent. That was the first time I had gotten a good look at myself, certainly the first time I saw myself in ceremony garb, and definitely the first time I ever stared into my soul on a headful of iboga. By that time, the crew behind us had started to play music, with every instrument together- shakers, harp, bow, clackers and loud wooden blocks whose African name literally translated to “thought-breakers”. Through the frenetic and shattered time signatures that sounded like chaos to my ears, I knew that everything about this experience would aim to break me.

Yo told us, “use your tools,” gesturing at the shakers in our hands. As we shook our tools and stared at our faces, I felt the fear rise. What if this had been a terrible mistake? The men screamed behind us, as the music got progressively louder, faster, and more intense. The songs seemed to last for eternities. After two hours of sitting upright in staff pose, staring at myself in the mirror, the medicine flooding through my system, I collapsed on my back. I was in the thick of it- complete disorientation, disrupted motor function, eyes twitching, vision scattered and unable to focus. If I moved my hand in front of my face, it left a thick trail of ghost images of different colors, shifting, turning into faces that would stare and smile and lunge at me. I tried to play it cool in front of everybody but I could feel a Hiroshima building inside me.

At some point, Yo appeared at my feet with his bowl of “the wood.” He tugged on my toe and I managed to fight through the impaired function and the growing terror inside of me to sit upright and eat four more spoons. I was operating purely on ego and the desire to push myself as hard as I could. Ironically, it was also my ego that was screaming the loudest in fear. I felt utterly trapped in the middle, not able to tell which end was up.

The music did not relent. Hammering rhythms. As one song ended, another would ramp up and build to a chaotic crescendo that would last for an hour. My body was rigid and I felt sharp pains through my shoulder blades and hips- any point that was making contact with the hard ground. We were encouraged to stay on our backs but I thrashed around. I looked over at Gina and she was as calm as a turtle in the sun.

Wild-child Nege

There are various techniques I had picked up and developed along my path with plant medicines that can aid in working with deep journeys, things like regulating my breath to return to center, engaging with Buddhist Tonglen meditation, blinking rapidly to disrupt stuck thought patterns, metaphorically shifting from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat to navigate a journey, talking to the medicine and telling it things like, “Please show me in a way that I can understand” and more. But all of those things went out the window as a metaphorical tornado leveled the barn. It reminded me of a quote from Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

I was spiraling. I had experienced journeys before where things got dark, where I could feel dark thoughts intrude from the edges. But I had always been in a safe container, a westernized space with people to work with me and take care of me, if needed. Here, I was on my own, in the middle of Africa as Tatayo watched me thrash around and the crew provided the schizophrenic soundtrack to fuel it. At one point, as somebody circled us in a feverish, spinning dance with a torch, I saw a flaming ember fly off and drift down, slowly, and land on my head and burn my forehead and hair. I was paralyzed and couldn’t move out of the way. I was alone on this path as it led deeper into terror.

I felt the deepest, darkest thoughts advance and there was nothing I could do to stop them. They swarmed me. Everywhere I looked, I saw visions of the worst atrocities that have ever existed. I felt tidal waves of suffering. I felt every drop that has ever existed of anger, hate, shame, guilt, rage, sorrow, regret, cruelty and fear. I saw people being raped and tossed aside. I saw families in gas chambers, holding each other as their knees buckled. I saw men trapped in submerged ships, choking on seawater as they drowned in darkness. I saw missing children being buried in the desert. I saw people starving to death and freezing to death and dying of dehydration. I saw the beautiful geysers of Yellowstone sputtering with thick, toxic sludge, I saw the oceans covered in plastic. I saw the skin of homeless women ravaged by AIDS, the whites of their eyes yellow and bloody. I saw beheadings, I saw people jumping to their deaths, I saw needles hanging out of arms, I saw mothers screaming at God. I descended into the utter heart of darkness and I was pinned there for eternity, in every direction. There was no plan for this and no way to turn it off.

I started to feel that I might be going crazy.

My attention snapped to the real possibility that I would have to be evacuated. Holy shit. When I tried to focus, I could see nothing but a shattered prism of my hands in front of my face and evil teeth that jumped out at me from beyond. I couldn’t walk, I could not even roll over, except in convulsing spasms. There was no way I could talk and tell somebody what was happening to me, even if I could find somebody that spoke English. I imagined the horror of being in this condition, in the back of Yo’s Land Cruiser, being raced to an African hospital. I was assaulted by visions of the man who had died a few months back. He had gasped for air, choking on his own vomit as Yo pounded on his chest and gave him mouth-to-mouth. He had eaten three spoons. I had eaten eight.

I was in full panic, but there was nothing I could do about it if I tried. I attempted to count my pounding heart beats- 4 or 5 beats per second, at least. This is it, I thought. My heart is going to give out. I started to focus on each racing beat, anticipating the next, expecting each one to be the one that seized my chest, twisted my airways, and squeezed everything off until it all went dark. This nerve-wracking bracing for each beat to be my excruciating last, happened five times per second, for hours.

My mind raced, “I have made a horrible mistake. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I have made a horrible mistake and it is going to cost me my life.” I was fighting for my life, clutching desperately into the abyss.

I felt betrayed by God. I had gone into this with the purest intentions and I was being delivered the exact opposite of what I had prayed for. I wanted to be an open channel for all feelings to flow and I was being hammered by nothing but fear and suffering, I wanted to be the embodiment of trust and faith and I was being condemned to a hell of insanity. I wanted to be authentic and fully self-expressed and I, literally, could not
move or talk. There was no benevolent spirit, I thought, that could twist all of this into anything other than complete, utter betrayal.

The chaos of sound went on and on. Every time I thought it couldn’t get more intense, it did. I was sure that I was going to go deaf because of the loud, clacking wood blocks and violent shakers of animal hooves inches from my head. The cacophony would last for an hour straight, pause for half a breath, and then launch right back in where it left off.

But then, in a sudden and surprising shift, after hours of hell, I received some very clear directions from the medicine. One, was that I need to heal the wounds that exist because of my broken relationships with my full blood brother and my biological father. I was not aware that those were open wounds that were affecting me so deeply and the medicine pointed directly at them. Perhaps, there was ancient technology at work here that wasn’t simply trying to kill me. Perhaps, if it was giving me direction like this, there was a chance I was meant to survive.

The medicine was unrelenting in me but sometime around midnight, the wave of music broke, as Hunter Thompson would say, and started to finally roll back. The wood blocks and the clackers were laid to rest as the music transitioned to just the harp and bow. About 12 hours after we had started the ceremony, I saw Gina beckon to Yo with her hand, and ask if she could retreat to her room. As a test of her coordination, Yo instructed her to stand and bounce on one foot, and then the other. There was no way I could stand, yet, but I took solace in knowing that, eventually, I could flee. I needed shelter. I was thoroughly worn out, put through the ringer, terrified, alone, shaking, scared, and battered. Eventually, when I summoned the courage to raise my hand, I somehow managed to hop on one foot and then the other, feeling like my entire soul was going to explode with impact.

I made it back to my room and it felt both good to be in my small cave and scary to be alone. My heart was still racing. What if I had a heart attack and nobody found me? What if I was carried away by evil? My room had concrete walls and a concrete floor and, earlier in the week, I had found a huge, pregnant spider that exploded upon examination, spraying a million tiny baby spiders on every surface. My room wasn’t the comfy nest that I would have hoped for during a night of terror. But, still, I didn’t know where to go. Eventually, able to at least move around on wobbly feet, I staggered out to the courtyard and collapsed on a wicker couch in the warehouse. I lay there, breathlessly. I felt something start to stir in me and, scared that I would be pitched back into darkness, I crawled off the bed, got on my knees on the concrete and started to pray. It was full daylight by then, the next morning, and the crew was going about their day. We weren’t expected to emerge for another couple hours, still, but they were preparing food and some comforts for us when we were ready. I was still thick in the medicine and still on my journey and they silently passed by me as I clasped my hands together, on my knees, and prayed, for what I don’t know. “Please help me. Please show me in a way I can understand. Please help me.”

Out of nowhere, I felt my own, personal vault of suffering start to open. I felt my own shame, my own guilt, my own fear, and my own grief. I saw every time I had hurt myself in self-abuse, every time I had hurt somebody else in anger or fear, every time the scared and wounded child in me had lashed out and denied love, every time I had shut down and fallen apart. I started to weep. And the floodgates opened. Centuries of pain unfolded from within me. I sobbed, deep guttural, choking, heaving, gasping sobs. Cries of pain. I believed it might not ever stop. There was no end to this grief. I accessed a pain that got installed when my mom died, that was so deep, so hidden, so secretly, privately, untouched, that accessing it then touched a nerve that was connected to the pain of the universe, and I allowed it to flow through me, entirely.

I was broken, collapsed in a heap on the concrete floor, a mess of paint and tears and chalk and dirt and ash. I rolled onto my back, staring at the metal ceiling above me. Tears streamed from me eyes as I repeated my prayer, moving my lips, “Please help me. Please help me.”

In that moment, something deep began to move in my chest. It felt as if something had its hand around my heart and was firmly pulling it from its mooring, snapping tendons and veins like piano wires. The hand gripped my heart and pulled it up through my throat and out of my mouth, choking me as it was released from my body. My heart rose high above me and then sat, there, suspended for me to see.

As if in response, the roof of the warehouse cracked in half and my beating heart ascended into the clouds. I was having a full-blown hallucinatory experience. From the same opening in the rafters that were wrenched open like falling timbers, two hands appeared, cradling a brilliant ball of blinding white light. With rays of light piercing through its fingers, the hands descended toward me. The center of my chest opened like the ribs of a cadaver on an operating table, right at the junction of my breastbone. With the gentleness of a mother caressing her sleeping child, the hands deposited the golden egg of light into me. It was pure love. And, as it was installed in my chest, I felt waves of forgiveness and peace beam through me in every direction. I was splayed open, arms out, on my back, helpless to do anything but receive this gift of the purest love I had ever known. I lay there, in the middle of the warehouse, on the concrete floor, as the crew silently went about their work, around me. I was humbled, in awe. My pain had been my greatest gift. Whatever brought me to that place, laying on that floor in Africa.

I was thoroughly exhausted and, still, very deep in the medicine. Gina woke after some sleep and had breakfast. At the 18-hour mark, I searched for refuge in knowing that it usually starts to taper down for most people by that point. But the medicine kept marching on, in me. I had experienced unconditional love and a healing more fundamental and profound than I had ever seen, but the medicine still pitched me back and forth, knocking me around. 24 hours. 36 hours. No sleep. Couldn’t eat.

The ceremony space after initiation

Ultimately, I was deep in the experience for 48 hours. I was more dehydrated than I had ever been. My lips were chapped. I could not chug enough water. I worried about the strain on my heart, still, as my pulse raced. I could no longer tell which hallucinations were motivated by the psychedelic I had ingested days before and which ones were motivated by my absolute sleep deprivation in the days since. There was an exit ceremony planned for us and they had to push it because I couldn’t sleep. The rule was that there had to be a full night’s sleep after the initiation ceremony to demarcate it. I was frustrated and I prayed for it to all to transition, already.

Finally, late in the day on Saturday, I was able to crash for a few hours. There was some discussion about it among Yo and the others and it was decided that I had received enough sleep to be able to proceed with the rest of the ceremonies. We had crossed the threshold, we had graduated from the initiation ceremony, we had survived.

Upon waking from my brief and restless bout of sleep, Gina and I were summoned to the outdoor ceremony space where the entire tribe circled around us. This was the ceremony where we would tell the elders about our individual journeys and they would convene and come back and give us our Bwiti names. Gina was a bit disappointed by what she felt was an unremarkable experience. She said that she had just felt drunk and not much came up for her. The medicine works differently for everybody, I thought, and trusted that there was a path for her, just as there is for all of us.

I was instructed to shake the shaker in my hand while I told them about my journey. I spoke slowly, fighting back tears, as Yo translated for the other elders. I relayed everything that had happened- the holocaust inside of me, the terror, the suffering and, finally, the golden egg deposited in my chest. They listened and nodded silently, after I finished. They excused themselves to discuss it. When they returned, Tatayo sat down, looked up at me and said, “Your Bwiti name is Dibadi.” (pronounced DEE- bah-Dee). “It means jihad- holy war.”

The members of the tribe each came up to us, one by one, handed us each a small gold coin, gave us a hug and said, “Bien venue”… welcome. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I felt like, finally, I was home. I belonged. I was at peace.

I changed back into my street clothes for the first time since I had been stripped from them, ten days prior, when I had arrived as a different person.

I had texted Annie a couple times in the prior days as I couldn’t sleep, mostly to let her know that I had survived. She had been holding her breath. I hadn’t understood her fear about me going on this trip. I understood it, now.

I walked around in the sun, barefoot, with a peace and a serenity that was more real and authentic and nuanced and rich and mine than I had ever known.

I had been thoroughly humbled and then, empowered. My soul had been dragged into battle and I had fought for my life, my mind, my health, my spirit, my happiness, my love. As a reward, I had been delivered to myself, given a deeper understand of myself, a deeper confidence in my life, a deeper knowing of the divine in me, as me. I had been given direct messages about things in my life that needed to be addressed and healed. I was given access to chambers of grief that I didn’t know existed. In the most surprising way, each of my intentions was granted as if it had been a prayer (and it had been). By shattering my armor with the darkest energy that exists, I was given access to the purest love- I was truly an open channel for all feelings to flow and I was given the understanding that the potential for all of it exists in each of us, in every moment, and there is nothing that is meant to be left outside of the circle. There is a choice to allow myself to align with my true nature, the Christ consciousness in me. By dragging me through a bottomless hell of which I could not see the purpose, only to deliver me to an endless sea of grace and love, I was astonished to recognize in retrospect, a grand plan to it all that strengthened my embodiment of trust and faith. Finally, in collapsing and being completely vulnerable, unguarded and exposed in my grief and suffering, in front of the entire crew, in the broad daylight, on my knees, broken and praying, I was given a golden egg of love, installed in me. By being authentic and fully self-expressed in my pain, I was shown that we are all the same. I was shown boundless compassion. And I was returned to myself.

Another key element to recognize is that I had also spent hours upon hours, believing that I might actually die. I had been made to come to terms with my own death. I sat with it, wrestled with it, turned it over and, eventually, found peace with it. I spent a lot of time over the next few days, sitting with the reverent understanding that I will, someday, cross over. When my mom died, when the nurse declared it, I remember a great severing in me- not only did God die with her, but I remember being almost entirely distracted by the shocking inability of my brain to process that she was gone. It was a psychological phenomenon of utter denial in which my brain shot up walls that refused to allow me to understand it, like a bank teller triggering pneumatic, bullet-proof barriers during a robbery. I remember holding her cold hand and looking around with wide eyes at the others in the room, saying, “I can’t believe she’s gone.” In the absurd, immediate aftermath of that nuclear detonation, I was most shocked by the fact that I simply couldn’t believe it.

I was given the gift in my iboga journey of really settling into my knowing- that I will die, someday. It couldn’t have happened with any other plant medicine. I had to go into hell with the only psychedelic that can kill you and I had to know that. I had to know that it was possible that I might die in that experience- I had to be stripped of the backdoor ability to reassure myself that it was just my mind playing tricks on me and that it would wear off, that I just had to ride it out. Iboga took me to the gates of insanity and death and held me there to look at it, for hours. In addition to giving me such an intimate look at my own mortality, it gave me a kinship with some of what my mom must have experienced as she approached her own death and what every single human who has ever existed has- or will- experience. In the astonishing way that these master plant teachers bring one to a personally-tailored understanding of the meta-themes of spirituality, I had arrived at deep, cellular knowing of- and peace with- what the Buddhists have determined are the 5 remembrances:

1. I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old. 2. I am of the nature to have ill health. I cannot escape having ill health. 3. I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death. 4. All that us dear to me, and everyone I love, are of he nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. 5. I inherit the results of my acts of body, speech, and mind. My actions are my continuation.
I was humbled by the knowledge that we humans have in us both the capacity for the greatest darkness and, consequently (because everything exists in polarity), capacity for the greatest light. Both exist in each of us. What an utterly surprising way to be given a bond with all, a kinship to the great equalizer, an intimacy with the beyond, access to an endless well of love that underpins all, and the knowledge that I have the ability to choose, in every instant. We had been initiated on the exact Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year.

Saturday night, before we headed to the coast to relax for a couple days before returning home, we had a dance party to which the whole village was invited. The men dressed me in full festival regalia, including leopard skins and jewelry. Upon completion of the initiation ceremony, they had given me a brass cuff, and I wore it proudly. As the entire village streamed into the compound, the elders came over to examine my tattoos. They pointed and spoke in French-Bwiti dialects and then declared to me that the lion on my back, the Mother Mary on my forearm, and the skull on my bicep are all “Bwiti” tattoos. Then they stood me before the tribe and introduced me by my Bwiti name. Hearing the men of the tribe yell it back to me was one of the most shiver-inducing moments of my life.

Then we danced. Like all things connected to this great teacher plant iboga, the dancing was a marathon. It started with me being positioned in front of the musicians and told to run in place, as fast as I could, for ten minutes straight. That was just the warm-up. The party lasted for hours and was a dizzying display of wild and explosive energy with shrieks, spasms and fire spinning. There were wiry men in cheetah skins who seemed to share the same fast-twitch muscles as their cat counterparts as they hammered their jingle-belled feet into the ground. At one point, a woman threw herself on the ground next to the fire and convulsed for five minutes. Nobody seemed to even notice until somebody eventually decided to drag her out of the circle. There was another, charismatic man who made his entrance by jumping in front of the group with a mighty howl, beating a drum and showering everybody with whiskey. He was wearing a Santa hat. All throughout, small amounts
of iboga were offered and eaten, like wine at a dinner party, “Would you care for some more iboga?”

Late in the night, in the middle of the wild energy of the dance ceremony, I noticed Mbilu, the quietest and sweetest of the crew, by my side, his hand on my arm. He had something to say. I leaned in close and he enunciated above the clamor of the party, with the best English that he could muster. He said to keep iboga close to my heart, that it would guide me for the rest of my life and keep me safe. He looked at me with sincere eyes and I could tell that it meant a lot to him to tell me. I placed my hand over my heart and said, “Thank you, Mbilu.” He placed his hand over his heart, nodded and said, “Dibadi.” We danced until the sun came up and then kept dancing, as the day got hot. At 10AM, we could no longer stand on our feet and we all slept where we collapsed, hearts full.

We spent the following day traveling deep into the forest by car and by boat and then woke up at dawn, on Christmas morning, watching the sun come up over a herd of elephants in the middle of an endless sea of waving, African grass. We swam in the warm Atlantic and ate fresh fish. I relaxed and wondered what a new life might be like, would be like, was like, for me.

The crew

On our final day at the compound, before heading to the airport, we participated in one last, short ceremony, in which Bokaye played his harp on our heads, shoulders, back and chest. It was meant to solidify the learnings we had received from the medicine. The strings vibrated through my mind, body and spirit, as I turned my face toward home.

We returned to the United States in the following days, making the long trek back to California. Upon landing, I felt the brass bracelet against my wrist as I wrapped my arms around Annie and kissed her, standing with my feet planted on now-uncharted territory. I felt a peace that I had never known. And I felt grateful for every drop of pain that had brought me there, every shattered piece of me that was so stubborn in its suffering that it forced me to face my own death in the birthplace of humanity to shake it loose and heal it- returning me to God and myself in the process.

For a solid two weeks after I landed, as I sat in a meeting or stood in a checkout line at a grocery store, I would accidentally wave my hand in front of my face and catch a wild display of tracers that sparkled like a million small round coins. It was a nod to my warrior’s heart, from grandfather iboga, from a whole world away. And it was a sly wink to me, from a great spirit, who was welcoming me home.


Part 1 of “Holy War” by Jim Dziura can be read here.