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Missoko Bwiti Tradition

What is the Bwiti Tradition?

The Bwiti tradition is a spiritual tradition that originated in southern Gabon but has now spread in different forms throughout Gabon, Cameroon, Congo, and beyond. Bwiti is not a religion. Instead, it is a traditional spiritual path –  “the study of life itself.” 

Bwiti is the spiritual tradition that goes along with the use of Iboga, the “Godfather of plant medicines.” Iboga was discovered by the Bwiti a very long time ago, and it has been their sacrament ever since. They remain the shepherds and protectors of it to this day. 

medicine

In Gabon, there is a well-known saying: "You can't have Iboga without Bwiti, and you can't have Bwiti without Iboga."

bwiti tree

What is Missoko Bwiti?

The Missoko Bwiti tradition derives directly from the Dissumba tradition, which is the original form of Bwiti. It is often seen as the trunk of the tree that leads to and contains the other branches of Bwiti, and Dissumba being the roots.

Missoko Bwiti specializes in healing and natural medicine, not just using the Iboga root (the Master Teacher), but includes detailed knowledge of how to use thousands of plants and psycho-spiritual techniques for healing purposes. In addition, Missoko Bwiti contains all the other branches of Bwiti, which are:

Ngonde’ na Dipouma—screening or diagnostics

Miobe’—herbs, plants, and their usage

Seguedia—knowledge, and creation

Boussouka—protection

Maboundi—empowering women

Moreover, Missoko Bwiti is true to the original form of Bwiti that was protected from the French colonialists and perfectly preserved. There is zero French, Christian, or any outside influences. Much of what you read online is about the Fang Bwiti, who were heavily influenced by the French missionaries and merged Bwiti with Christianity. As Misssoko Bwiti needed to be hidden from outsiders until it was safe, little can be learned about it on the internet or in books.

What is the history of Bwiti?

Babongo (Discovers, Creators, Messengers)

The original creators of the Bwiti tradition were the Babongo people of southern Gabon, also known as the Pygmies; however, Pygmy is a French term and is considered derogatory.

The Babongo also were the first to discover Iboga. Eventually, the Iboga influenced and inspired everything in Bwiti from that point on.

Sharing and Protecting Bwiti

The Babongo people kept the Iboga sacrament secret amongst themselves for a very long time in order to protect it. They eventually shared it with others and it is now one of the main spiritual traditions of Gabon. 

After sharing it with others, there were periods where they were forced to pull back due to its misuse and/or for their own safety. The most recent example of this being the occupation by the French. 

From the time that the French arrived, many of the Bwiti practitioners did not go into hiding and created new forms of Bwiti that included the use of Christianity. This was not true for the ones who were able to hide and protect it, like the Babonga, Dissumba and Missoko practitioners.

Gabon Jungle
French missionairies in Gabon
Source: https://digitallibrary.usc.edu/asset-management/2A3BF1KLNW56

Bwiti Practices, Rituals, and Ceremonies

Missoko Bwiti rituals and ceremonies are powerfully rich expressions of the human spirit. 

Bwiti Teachings

As a traditional spiritual path that studies life itself, Bwiti offers very practical advice on how to live a healthy life. In addition, many of the teachings were directly given by Iboga’s spirit, making them a perfect complement to Iboga ceremonies. A Bwiti Iboga ceremony begins with a “fire talk” where the teachings are presented before ingesting the Iboga. In order to promote wisdom in the community, the Shaman and elders will also consistently provide counseling rooted in Bwiti teachings.

Bwiti Initiation

The Initiation is another “coming of age” ceremony where Iboga is consumed. The initiation is the way that they are brought into and connected to the Bwiti tradition, and the spirit of Iboga. It is also where they learn the reality of life and meet their soul, learn who they truly are. It is typically done when someone is in their teens, but can also be something they do later in life, or much earlier if they are to be a Shaman. 

In Missoko Bwiti, there are 5 different initiations corresponding to the different branches of practice. They are: Ngonde’ na Dipouma (screening, or diagnostics), Miobe’ (herbs, plants, and their usage), Seguedia (knowledge and creation), Boussouka (protection), Maboundi (empowering women)

Bwiti Rite of Passage

The Rite of Passage, a “coming of age” ritual for women and men of all ages, lasting varying amounts of time, delivering changed people on the other side – true adults in the community. This works as a way to promote integrity, strength, and connection, which is something lost upon us in the west. In Bwiti, we keep the details of the Rites of Passage private in order to protect its potency for those involved. 

 

Bwiti Dancing

There are several different types of dancing found in Bwiti ceremonies and practices. Both the men and women have their own unique dances, while the room is left open to be creative, as well. Having usually started from a young age, they are incredibly skilled. 

Dancers are often decorated with a special red paste (Mongoli), white chalk, feathers, skirts, headbands, hats, jewelry, and leaves. They also sometimes wear bells and shells to bring beautiful sounds to accompany their dance. One of the most captivating dances is when they use the torch.

Bwiti Music

Bwiti Music is truly original in its sound and is a seriously important aspect of Bwiti ceremonies.

Throughout the ceremonies, you will have singing from both men and women, each with their own set of songs where they lead with the others responding. 

The polyrhythmic instrumental music enhances the effectiveness of Iboga and also brings the ceremonies to life. It has also been shown to have both somatic and psychological effects, like generating theta frequencies

There are 3 main instruments in Bwiti ceremonies: The Ngombi (Harp), Muogoungo (Mouthbow), and Drums (sticks on the ground and stand-up). There are also varying forms of rattles, and bells worn by dancers.  

To the left, you can listen to Papa Boussengue play the Nombi (Harp). He is one of the best players in Gabon and more music by him can be found on youtube and soundcloud. 

Bwiti Shamans

Shamans (Nimas) are the spiritual leaders of the community and go through rigorous training for decades. The new Shaman is usually someone within the bloodline of the previous shaman but is not necessarily their son or daughter. The Shaman is the main healer and spiritual guide of the community. When someone is sick or having spiritual difficulties, they turn to the Shaman who has the whole toolbox of the jungle and spirits to assist them in their healing. A good Shaman is a master of the plant medicines found in the jungle, knowing hundreds of plants inside and out.

The Misrepresentation of Bwiti

Most of the information about Bwiti found in books and on the internet is about the branch of Bwiti practiced by the Fang. The Fang are not the only sect out there and differ quite a bit from the original forms, like Missoko and Dissumba. Fang are Bwiti, but they were influenced by Christianity brought to Gabon by French missionaries, and include it in their practices. This is why there are many incorrect definitions of Bwiti that say it is a religious cult that mixes animism, shamanism, and Christianity.

Missoko Bwiti has no Christian influence and is less known today due to its purposeful hiding and secrecy in order to protect it from Christians and French colonizers. Historically, Missoko Bwiti was only passed from mouth to mouth or through oral tradition, so much of the information available is restricted to the Fang, who have had more contact with western cultures.

Bwiti and Nature

The Bwiti believe that everything they need will be provided for them by nature. If you have ever walked in the jungles of Gabon, you can quickly understand how this gratitude and trust came to be. Nutritious food and fruit can be collected from almost anywhere, and traps for what they call “bush meat” can be set and simply collected, rather than spending days on the hunt. Water also flows abundantly with plenty of rain to keep the jungle alive. 

As mentioned above, the earliest Bwiti were constantly studying life itself and examining who it could be that gave them life and abundance. What came out of that search was a powerful message, that nature will always give them what they need, but if they abused it or became attached to it, they would suffer misery. This concept is such a powerful distillation of wisdom when examined. With this teaching in mind, one can quickly understand why people existing in the “modern world” are so unhappy. 

Outside of Gabon, much of the world revolves around the accumulation of material goods and living within structures that abuse nature and are deeply detached from the items they have acquired. The Bwiti still live with the integrity that follows their respect for this proverb. They live simpler lives, that are deeply connected to nature and the community and are incredibly happy as a result.