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24 September 2014

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The Babongo of Gabon used to be known, derogatively, as pygmies. They're still treated as second-class citizens by their neighbours. But their expertise and knowledge of the forests is unique and their use of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic which lies at the heart of Babongo culture, makes them famous throughout Gabon.

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Life is changing fast for the Babongo and other forest peoples. The former French colony of Gabon, on the west coast of Africa, was one of the most densely forested countries on earth, with 80 per cent covered in virgin forest. But commercial logging is destroying it at an alarming rate - already 30 per cent has been cleared. Groups who used to live deep in impenetrable forests are now just a few hours' walk from the roads slicing through their homeland.

Thanks to government 'resettlement programmes', most of the Babongo have moved from their traditional camps into villages along the major logging roads - though they may still spend time in the forest. Out of the forest, they find themselves at the bottom of Gabonese society, discriminated against by their neighbours and without much access to education, employment or healthcare. There are probably about 12,000 forest people, but without birth certificates or identity cards, it's hard to know for definite.

There are still groups living entirely in the forest, but their numbers are dwindling.

Babongo life

The Gabon forest is hot, humid, and the air is thick with insects. Malaria and dengi fever are endemic. This is the home of some of the world's most endangered species, from gorilla to forest elephant.

Camps are made up of six to eight huts, housing up to 20 people at any one time. The traditional huts are called tudi, and made entirely from material gathered from the forest. The basic structure is a bent sapling, overlaid with flat wide leaves for waterproofing. When the Babongo lived a nomadic life moving through the forest, this is what they would have used - a hut like this takes just half a day to make. These days they also build huts of mud, to a design adopted from their neighbours the Mitsogo tribe.

The men's hut is central to the Babongo's beliefs. Its structure stands for the human body, with a carved pole at the front representing the physical parts of man, the screened area at the back the spiritual. Only initiated men can go here. The entrance is intentionally low, so that you bow your head as you enter.

The Babongo have always been hunter-gatherers, and lived entirely from the forest. Hunting goes on all year round though it's generally easier in the rainy season, when the animals' whereabouts are more predictable. It's generally the men who hunt, and tactics differ across Gabon. In Lastoursville and Lebamba, for example, men and women together hunt communally with nets.

Small game are trapped using wire snares. Bows and arrows are still used for larger prey, the arrows tipped with poison from seed pods gathered in the forest then pounded to a fine paste. But these days the Babongo also hunt with guns, often loaned (with bullets) from Bantu neighbours in return for a portion of the valuable bush meat they catch. That includes gorilla, and elephant if it can be found.

It's the women who grow maize, manioc and potatoes in small patches cleared from the forest. With the children they forage for food including crabs, a real delicacy, and catch armadillos by smoking them out of their burrows.

As for many traditional hunter-gatherers, just three to four hours' work a day can often provide for basic needs. The rest of the time is spent just hanging out, playing with the children, grooming each other, telling stories, smoking and sleeping.

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Babongo beliefs

The Babongo believe they were the first people on earth. They share the forest with the Macoi, ambivalent spirit figures at once malevolent and benign. Drumming calls them from the forest, and they must be appeased at every turn - there's a ritual for every action, and countless forms of ceremony.

When a person dies, for instance, the Babongo believe their spirit will linger in the village and cause harm. The village must be cleansed through drumming, dancing and ritual. The women wash the body indoors and wrap it in a cloth. Then the men carry it to the graveyard in the forest for burial. The women paint their faces white with kaolin to symbolise purification, and dance and sing to put the dead person's spirit to rest. After three days and three nights of mourning, the funeral is declared over.

The Babongo are surrounded by Bantu-speaking people, many of whom regard them as little better than animals. They are generally independent of formal authority: without papers, they keep their own traditions and decision-making structures. They may have the same civil rights as other Gabonese, but have played little part in politics. Not only that; a survey by UNICEF found that some populations in the north-eastern part of the country are tantamount to slaves of the Bantu, with children becoming the 'property' of their masters. The government is currently doing nothing to help.

But it's a complicated relationship. The Babongo have a powerful reputation as sorcerers, and inspire awe in the Bantu for their knowledge of the forest. At the heart of this status is their knowledge of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic plant central to the Babongos' beliefs.

The Babongo follow Bwiti, an animistic religion based on a belief in spirits which started in the forests thousands of years ago. More recently Bwiti, influenced in curious ways by Christianity, has become one of Gabon's official religions - there are Bwiti churches, ceremonies and initiations in the capital, Libreville, and the first President was an initiate. In the city, the Bwiti drug Iboga is taken almost as Catholics take the host at Mass, and festivals follow the Christian calendar. But out in the forest, the original form of the religion is still practiced, in all its potency.

The Babongo cultivate the drug Iboga for their ceremonies, and worship it as the source of spiritual knowledge. Some Bwiti scholars believe it is the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. It comes from the bitter root of the Iboga tree, and is a powerful psycho-active drug - something like LSD, mescaline or amphetamines. Taking Iboga brings a sense of anxiety, extreme apprehension and visual hallucinations - effects which can be made stronger by darkness, ambience and suggestion. It makes you violently sick, can lead to a state of lethargy lasting four to five days and, in extreme doses, it can kill.

When Bwiti shamans eat Iboga, they are granted the power to see the future, heal the sick and speak with the dead. The Babongo use it as a stimulant before hunting and during initiation ceremonies. They believe that Iboga frees your soul to leave your body and go on a great journey, to speak with the spirits of animals and plants.

The three-day initiation ceremony is used for spiritual or personal development, and to become a man. First the initiate eats the sliced root of the Iboga tree over a period of hours, monitored by his Bwiti father, and the visions begin. The Iboga allows him to see into his true self and vividly revisit the consequences of his past actions. After 24 hours of this, the initiate is taken to the river by the men. They lift him through a construction of twigs shaped like a vulva suspended over the water, then wash him with water soaked with leaves. The men pull a sapling of the sacred matombi tree from the forest, and plant it outside the Bwiti temple - it represents the initiate as a child. Throughout the day the elders feed him small pieces of Iboga, and the whole village perform, dancing in vivid costumes, in a way designed to bring on further hallucinations.

In the last phase, the initiate is called upon to see the Bwiti visions. Fire dancers sprint the length of the village to entice the Macoi spirits from the darkness of the forest. The initiate must tell the elders what he has seen; this is sacred knowledge, known only to them, and through it he becomes a man. The villagers meanwhile plant a forest around the matombi tree, to represent the problems to be faced in adult life. Together, the men break up the trees branch by branch to symbolise the removal of all his problems.

As well as influencing religious belief across Gabon, Iboga is also of increasing interest to Western medicine. One of its active ingredients, ibogain, has been used to treat heroin addicts, alcoholics and people who have been traumatised in childhood. Advocates say its particular powerful effects allow those who take it to move on from their previous lives and habits.

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The future

Treated as second-class citizens by the state and by the neighbouring Bantu tribes, the Babongo are struggling to retain their identity. When living in the jungle, their hunting skills and knowledge of fauna and flora are unparalleled. Though many want the road to come, it will bring loggers, missionaries, disease and a cash economy. Outside the forest, the Babongo risk losing not only their most valuable skills but also their own sense of history, culture and identity.

In 2002, 26,000 square kilometres of Gabon's rainforest were turned into national parks by the President in an attempt to encourage 'eco-tourism' as an alternative to logging. This could perhaps offer some hope and employment for the Bobongo - particularly as forest guides or wardens. In addition, if they could harness the western marketing of the Iboga plant then they would have a viable economic activity.

It remains to be seen how the Babongo and other forest peoples will be affected by the creation of the national park system. To lose their claim to the land would be to lose their soul, and with that goes their links to the past and the future.

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