This interview was published on Daniel Pinchbeck’s Liminal magazine.
What is iboga and how is it used for medicine journeys?
Iboga is a shrub that grows in the basin of the Congo, in the second largest forest in the world. The medicine comes from the root of the tree. Iboga is a sacred plant used for initiating people and healing. It helps to harmonise the vibration of each of the body’s chakras. It expands people’s awareness. Their third eye opens. Their kundalini moves. Their sensitivities grow. Iboga has 22 alkaloids (not just ibogaine) with many properties for healing. The plant helps to heal a huge variety of diseases.
Iboga is used within the Bwiti initiation to enable people to experience deep things in the spiritual world and come back to ordinary reality, changed.
What can people expect during an iboga Bwiti initiation?
People can reconnect with their Higher Self. Reconnect with their guardian angels. Reconnect with the Divine inside them. This can help in all realms of your life: family, work, health, art, life. When you’re reconnecting with the Divine in yourself, you connect with your source of inspiration. This helps you everyday. Contemporary culture conditions us to over consume, exploit the planet, believe we need things that actually are harmful to us. The Bwiti initiation helps us return to a place of respect for ourselves, each other, the planet. We can change the world when we change ourselves. To change the world you must know your Divine essence. Bwiti helps us to know ourselves. It helps us to heal whatever is not working in our lives.
What’s the difference between Bwiti, a Bwiti initiation and iboga?
Bwiti means what is unknowable, what is secret. So, I don’t know what Bwiti is. People may be surprised because I am a Nima in the Bwiti tradition and I don't know what is Bwiti. The word comes from the Popé language which is a special language that initiates would speak.
A Bwiti initiation comes from the Bwiti tradition. A collection of knowledge, we use ritual practices and sometimes the iboga root to help people to know themselves. We help people to go in the spiritual world, receive knowledge from the Spirit and live in the Bwiti during the initiation. They come back transformed.
Iboga is a sacred tool. We can use this tool, but it’s not necessary to use it every time. The main goal of a Bwiti initaition is not to eat iboga. It’s to meet your Higher Self. To know yourself. To know the Mother and Father Divine that’s inside you. To experience the Spiritual world. And there are many ways to do that in the initiation.
There are other sacred tools, like the song and harp.
What is the ‘sacred harp and song’ and why is it central to a Bwiti initiation?
It’s not only the iboga wood used during the medicine journey, but the sacred harp and song. The meanings of the songs are important. They call in spirits and divine energy to help people to travel during the journey. The songs create a special bond between the physical and spiritual worlds. The plant is not the only tool in the initiation.
Is iboga a hallucinogen?
Iboga is not a hallucinogen. The experience is real. The knowledge you receive in these journeys are not visions created by your mind. The knowledge and experience are real.
Your master Atome Ribenga talks about enabling people to have a direct experience with the Divine though the Bwiti tradition. Could you explain what this means?
The Bwiti tradition is a direct way of connecting with the Divine through the tools of iboga, sacred harp and song. People have the opportunity to go inside themselves and communicate directly with the Divine. It’s a mystical path of communicating with the Mother and Father Divine. You can have dream, visions, sensations, aural experiences.
You can ask direct questions and receive direct answers. The communication happens not verbally, but through the heart. It’s impossible to say what your experience will be exactly. Everyone has different experiences. But what I can say is you will have direct communication with the Divine. Sometimes the words of the Divine are subtle. My role is to also help people understand the messages they received.
What was your first encounter with iboga?
My first encounter was in 1999, when I was 24 years old. In France at the time, all men had to serve in the military. I served my time in Gabon and came to watch some sacred ceremonies while I was based there. I became very interested in what they were doing. I had no spiritual education at the time, but I felt deep in my soul there are realities beyond this physical world… I didn’t know what. I had lots of questions. Why am I on this earth? What is the Mother and Father Divine? On my military holidays I participated in an iboga initiation. I experienced many things in the spiritual world. There were big shifts inside me.
I completed my military service and came back to France. I started to have doubts about my experiences during my initiation. Was it just a hallucination? Was it all my imagination? Was it real?
During my initiation, I met the spirit St Michael Archangel. Through him, I learnt many things I didn’t know before (I had no Catholic education). For the first time, I went to church and I spoke with the priest and quizzed him about St Michael Archangel. All the answers the priest gave me were the same as what the Angel had told me. It shocked me. I knew in that moment the knowledge I’d received in my initiation was real and I could trust it.
How did you become a Nima (shaman)? What led you to do this work?
For fourteen years I studied with my Spiritual Mother – Mama Germaine. I spent 11 years with my master Atome Ribenga before he consecrated me as a Nima.
I don’t think of this as ‘work’. It’s my vocation. I’m in service. I became interested in knowledge of the spiritual world. I wanted to learn tools to heal myself, for my own personal development. I began to understand myself more. In my soul, I discovered this sense of becoming a bridge to help people heal themselves. This came to me easily. It wasn’t a ‘decision’ to become a Nima because I was simply just following my soul, following Spirit.
You can’t help people if you haven’t first helped yourself. Of course to learn about the plant and many techniques of the Nima is important, but to wake up the inner Nima spirit, you need to go slowly, work with patience and break the ego. This is the work I did. It was not easy to follow this path — I’ve had to sacrifice many things in my life to become a Nima. But some things woke up in my soul and I decided to follow this. It’s inside of me.
What are your favourite things about doing this work?
Again, I don’t like saying ‘work’. My favourite thing is to serve. When you serve people, you serve the Divine. The Divine is in everybody, everywhere. We are all one. So when I help people, I help myself, help the Divine. This is the best part of this service. I love to help people know themselves, to see their life change during an initiation. I see them shining afterwards. It’s beautiful to see the light emerging in each person. They then take this out into the world.
Who should do a Bwiti initiation and when?
Anyone who receives a calling. When? When the calling comes. It’s impossible to recommend who and when… when the student is ready, the master appears. You’ll feel the calling in your heart, inside you. You may also receive signs and symbols. Dreams, visions, sounds, feelings, sensations, perceptions… there are many ways to receive the calling. Everything comes from the heart.
Do you think the Bwiti initiation and iboga are for everyone?
I’m not sure that iboga is for everyone because human beings’ evolution are at different levels. That’s why we’re here on the earth, to experiment and learn. Everyone has their own karma. Iboga helps people to know themselves, but the high comprehension of self that comes with iboga is not accessible or appropriate for people just starting out on the journey of consciousness. Those first levels of consciousness are there, necessarily. Being very rational, concerned with things just of this physical reality. This is an important stage in a soul’s evolution. For these people, iboga might be difficult. If they are not interested in spirituality, they are likely to not be interested in iboga anyway. For them, iboga is irrelevant.
But people who want to learn more in spirituality, these people are likely to be interested in iboga. And for these people, iboga can be helpful. But I repeat again, it’s not just this sacred plant that we use in the initiation. We use many different rituals and approaches. We also consult with the initiate and Spirits to know exactly what is needed.
What kind of preparation is necessary for a Bwiti initiation?
In the traditional process, we have a period of purification and this helps to put people in the right condition. Day after day, people are doing purifications. Normally before this, we spend one, two weeks, sometimes one month just for purification. The tradition has evolved given the new contexts we’re in. Guided by the Spiriits, my master has condensed the purification into three days.
If you’re doing a retreat, it’s helpful to begin the purification well before you arrive. It’s better if you can stop drugs, alcohol, eating meat, medication ahead of the journey.
Are people prepared enough to safely travel in astral realms?
This why we need to prepare with purification and traditional ritual. The Nima and Guardians are there to take care of people. We ask the helping Spirits to support the process. This is why it’s important for the Nima to be recognised by the Spirit — I ask the Mother and Father Divine, the celestial army to be in the space. I set a perimeter of light. Anything that isn’t of Love cannot enter.
Can iboga initiations go 'wrong'? What are the risks? Has anyone died in one of your ceremonies?
It can go wrong when iboga is not given by people who are Nimas, people who are recognised by Spirit. When a person is aligned, has received a strong foundation from a master, and is recognised by Spirit, nothing can go wrong. A person who’s aligned has their feet on the earth, their head is aware in the heavens, there is harmony in the body, and harmony between thoughts and acts. They are connected to Divine inspiration. They live and create something with their life that is in connection with the Divine.
In 14 years with my masters, no one died. Never in my ceremonies either. I’ve been taught to consult Spirit to understand how much of the sacred wood to give a participant, if at all. I’ve had experiences where Spirit advised me not to give a particular participant the sacred wood and then later discovered that participant had heart a condition they failed to disclose at the time of the intake interview. She came to me afterwards to thank me for listening to Higher advice. That’s why it’s so important to be advised by Spirit, not just having untrained people give the wood with best intentions.
How can people best integrate what they discover on a Bwiti initiation into their lives?
Normally people meet some Spirits, have some experiences in the spiritual world, receive knowledge. Now they need to act and follow the revelation of the Spirits. People must maintain the communication with the Spirits, Mother and Father Divine. It could be just asking questions to the Spirits and listening for the answer. Being aware. The most important thing is to practice daily, not just when you have a big question or calamity in your life. This means that you’ll get to know the difference between the voice of your heart and the voice of your mind. The problem for most people in the West is the mind is on high volume, disturbing the heart’s voice. The mind confuses, distracts, second-guesses… Practicing daily means you can understand the heart more clearly.
To integrate things, you need to act. It’s great to listen to the Spirit’s advice, but the most important thing is to apply this in your life.
When is iboga the right approach for healing and when is it not?
People with heart conditions should not have iboga. but they can still be initiated — there are other tools, like sacred song and ritual bathing.
Why are Bwiti and iboga becoming popular outside of Gabon?
We live in a special time where people are needing to reconnect with spirituality and their higher self. The time has come for this tradition to spring around the world. Humanity needs to reconnect with the Divine.
I think more people in the West feel they are missing something. Yes, they can work, make, accrue money, build scientific intelligence, but something is missing. The knowledge focuses solely on material things. But we are body and spirit. The Bwiti tradition can help the world find balance with these. Our planet is currently in danger. We exploit and consume. We need this balance.
The shamanic tradition helps people to reconnect with Spirit and also works with the body. Often problems start in the spirit. In the West, they treat the symptom—the body, the material. We must use all tools available to achieve balance. The union of these tools will help create a better world.
How does the experience of iboga compare with other plant medicines?
Each person’s experience is totally different. Even the same person having multiple initiations over their life will have a different experience each time. Each medicine plant has their speciality. I don’t like to compare the medicines, but iboga is very strong and deep. You can interact easily with Spirit. You can receive extremely clear messages and knowledge. Each person has their own experience and they receive what they need.
What’s the difference between iboga and ibogaine? What are your views on the therapeutic use of the plant?
Ibogaine is a single alkaloid extracted from the iboga root bark. There are 22. Scientists found this alkaloid to be anti-addictive and to support the brain’s neurotransmitters and neural connections. This extract has helped to free many people who have addictions. The therapeutic aspect of iboga and ibogaine is amazing. Many diseases can be treated with this medicine, from addiction to Alzheimer’s. Iboga root bark is the full package with all the alkaloids.
There is a problem with clinical use of the plant however. A lot of clinics don’t approach the plant in traditional ways. They use ibogaine to help against addiction, but they don’t replant the trees and so they’re deforesting. Iboga is in danger in Gabon because of this. Clinics should create plantations rather than endangering the plant.
How can shamanic traditions be respectfully and effectively integrated into a Western context?
Bwiti tradition comes from the primordial tradition. It’s the same essence expressed in different ways around the world according to different cultures, languages, climates, environments. The adaptations and changes are normal. The essence of the Bwiti tradition is not so different to other traditions. I travel a lot and see how other shamanic traditions also have this primordial root.
I have spent 20 years in Gabon and I am also French. I have a connection to both worlds. My name is Puente. It means ‘bridge’. To help people to go deep in their experience, I can adapt to support who I’m working with. The essence remains the same, but the shifts are a normal part of the evolving expression of the primordial tradition.
About Grégory Puente
Grégory Puente met the Bwitist Tradition in May 1999 in a small village in the north east of Gabon while doing his military service. Upon returning to France, once his military service was finished, he undertook research and sought to verify the truth of the experiences he had had during his initiation. Following that, the only conclusion he could reach was that he had found in Gabon a true School of Divine Mystery such as are rarely found on the planet, which could help him with his thirst for understanding himself. After several visits, he decided in 2002 to live full-time in Gabon to deepen his training.
The same year he met the Master Atome Ribenga, with whom he stayed 11 years as his apprentice Nima in Mboumba Eyano. Atome Ribenga is the best Bwiti shaman in Gabon, and is featured in this documentary, The Twelve. On 28th December 2013 his master in this tradition consecrated him as Nima. Since 2014, in Libreville, his mission has been to help seekers find themselves through initiations and healing.
As well as serving as a ‘bridge’ between worlds and a ‘bridge’ between continents and cultures, under the instructions of the spiritual plans, he sets up sessions of ‘Discovery of the Bwiti tradition and African plant medicine’.