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DoubleBlind: Watercolour painting of a blue lotus flower from Africa
DoubleBlind: Watercolour painting of a blue lotus flower from Africa

Beyond Mushrooms: The Mysterious, Magical World of African Plant Medicine

As one of the world's oldest inhabited regions, Africa is home to a variety of plant medicines, so why don't we know more about this kingdom of ceremony?

Mary Carreon // Feb. 28, 2020

Africa is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world, so, why don’t we know more about its indigenous plants? When you think of plant medicine (including fungi, though mushrooms aren’t technically plants), ayahuasca, peyote, San Pedro, and psilocybin cubensis are probably the first that come to mind—and tend to dominate the conversation. The majority of these natural psychedelics are native to the West, with Latin American traditions, in particular, having become increasingly popular thanks to spiritual tourism. 

But there seems to be a void in our understanding of what Africa has to offer. It’s the oldest place in the world, as the first homo sapiens were recorded to have lived in Ethiopia 200,000 years ago. “The cradle of mankind” is home to some of the planet’s first tribes, too, including the San tribe of South Africa, which is estimated to be 30,000 years old, potentially making them the world’s most ancient race. And, yet, compared to the continent’s vast history, there isn’t much literature on the ways different indigenous groups have used plants from the region, including psychoactive ones.

Marc Michael, a sociology and anthropology professor at the American University in Beirut, says this is largely due to the legacy of imperialist narratives, like the “scientific racism of the 19th Century,” which still permeates society, especially in the West. Colonialism also increased the level of secrecy many indigenous tribes adhere to. So, unless you’re initiated into a tradition, you’re not allowed to know what’s used ceremonially and why. War and disease, like malaria, also limit access to Africa, thus reducing the amount of information coming from the continent. 

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All of this amasses to why spiritual tourism isn’t a booming industry in Africa, and why we don’t know more about the history of its plant medicine. “Africa has been shielded from spiritual tourism—and tourism, period,” says Michael, a long time initiate of the west African Bwiti tribe, who’s currently studying under a nima, or master, in the tradition. “If you look at tourism figures over the past 50 to 60 years, you’ll see the massive difference between Africa and Latin America, a region that found its independence nearly a century before Africa.”

That said, Africa is home to some 45,000 plant species. As the literal birthplace of humanity, utilizing the flora was (and still is) a fundamental aspect of the various African cultures. So, here’s what we do know about the region’s plant medicine.

Save Iboga, Use Voacanga

Doubleblind: Watercolour painting of Voacanga from africa
watercolour painting by Georgia Love for DoubleBlind

Iboga is the most popular natural psychedelic, known outside Africa. But, if it weren’t for drug addiction, and the opioid crisis in particular, it probably wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. (Today, the plant’s main alkaloid ibogaine is used in addiction treatment centers around the world, while players in the pharmaceutical industry are looking to develop a synthetic drug based on it.)

The mystical root bark from Gabon, a tiny country in West Africa, gained prominence over the last decade because it’s the only known treatment to interrupt addiction. Quelling the brutality of withdrawal, it rewires peoples’ minds and connects them to spirit over the course of what could be a 36-hour trip.

Given its profound capacity for healing, iboga is one of the most exploited plants in Africa. Little care is given to the fact that overharvesting impacts the Bwiti, an indigenous religious community who use the plant ceremonially as a part of their spiritual practice. “The iboga plant is used to help create an energetic equilibrium within the human body and mind that allows for greater connection to God or the Source, and therefore to learning and healing—from the causes of illness in our bodies or minds, to aspects of our lives that need to change, to the history of this universe and our purpose within it,” says Michael. 

High doses of the root allow Bwiti initiates to tap into the spirit realm and contact their ancestors for guidance and enlightenment. The Bwiti also have weekly ceremonies called ngoze, or “masses,” in which members of the community take much smaller doses of powdered iboga. Then, after retreating inward for prayer, they come together as a group and dance until sunrise. This is referred to as nlem myore, or “one heart only,” a state in which the people understand one another, and they become one.

Today, the sacred shrub has become so scarce in Gabon that even the Bwiti—who’ve used iboga for centuries—sometimes go without. Or, they have to pay others to procure it. According to Michael, those benefiting the most from Iboga’s exploitation are large Euro-American corporations, military institutions, as well as the wellness industry and its many facilitators.

Read: This Company is Developing a Drug Based on Ibogaine for the Opioid Crisis

“It seems that the military is interested in making programs around the synthesis of ibogaine for the PTSD of their soldiers and veterans,” says Michael in a phone interview from Egypt. “Wild iboga is running out very quickly because of that and the large scale studies happening to make pharmaceuticals. As of last year, Gabon’s Ministry of Agriculture made it illegal to export iboga. But I am pretty sure there are still illegal things happening around it being smuggled out.”

That’s why many ibogaine treatment centers don’t use the naturally-sourced plant. They use Voacanga, a tree closely related to iboga that grows more quickly and in a range of different climates, making it a far more sustainable option. It’s used to make a semi-synthetic form of ibogaine (called ibogaine hydrochloride) via voacangine extracted from the Voacanga africana tree. Using this form of ibogaine is like choosing to shop second hand rather than at a corporate chain clothing store: Your money isn’t feeding a cycle of exploitation.

“Where is it coming from? You have to ask that question,” says Jonathan Dickinson, the executive director of the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance. “In terms of reducing the negative impacts in Gabon, using Voacanga instead of iboga is the best way to do that.”

Lucid Living in South Africa

Doubleblind: watercolour painting of ubulawu which is an african plant.
Watercolour painting by Georgia Love for Herb

The Xhosa-speaking tribes of South Africa—including the Pondo, Southern Nguni, Bomvana, Thembu, and yes, the Xhosa—as well as the Zulu-speaking peoples, have a powerful healing practice called ubulawu. It’s essentially an array of herbs used to improve dream-state and dream-recall, ultimately creating a portal to the realm of ancestral spirits. 

The most powerful ubulawu is Silene Capensis, a.k.a. the African Dream herb, which has been used for hundreds of years. But it isn’t actually an herb. It’s a stringy, leafy green plant found near rivers that produces a fragrant white flower that only blooms at night. According to anthropologist Manton Hirst’s study of South African tribal culture, “Dreams and Medicine: The Perspective of Xhosa Diviners and Novices in the Eastern Cape, South Africa,” Xhosa healers and diviners classify ubulawu species based on the locality in which they grow. Silene Capensis is known as “ubulawu of the river.” But there’s also “ubulawu of the forest” and “ubulawu of the grasslands.” 

Similar to iboga, the power of Silene Capensis is found in its roots. Ground up, the root powder is mixed into cold water and churned to produce a foam, which is then consumed until one feels bloated. Vomiting, or ukugabha, usually follows. This catharsis serves two purposes, Hirst explains: One is to purify the body, while the other is to embed the plant’s psychoactive chemicals into the body. Intensely vivid or lucid dreams characterize the “peak” of this psychoactive froth, though it hardly alters consciousness in the waking state.

Sleeping is the closest we get to dying in the physical realm, while dreams are our closest connection to the unknown.

The purpose of Silene Capensis is to heighten one’s intuitive capacity to extract wisdom from the dream realm and apply it to our waking state. The emphasis on dreams and, thus, sleep, is a unique characteristic of the Xhosa- and Zulu-speaking tribes. In many ways, sleeping is the closest we get to dying in the physical realm, while dreams are our closest connection to the unknown. It’s not surprising, then, that diviners use Silene Capensis ubulawu preparations in death ceremonies to enhance the dreams of the deceased’s oldest child. 

The details of Silene Capensis and ubulawu rituals vary depending on tribe, however. Even the ways the compound is consumed differs: Some chew on the root bark, while others sip it, or scoop the foam and eat it. Some rituals are performed in the morning, while others are done at night. People are often instructed to go to sleep within a few hours after consuming it, although it doesn’t induce sleep or side effects in the waking state; after consuming the plant, however, the Xhosa say the dream state is comparable to going underwater. There are different ceremonies in which Silene Capensis is used: some require a person to be alone in a hut for three days straight sipping on the ubulawu all day, while others may happen at night, specifically when the patriarch of a family passes away and the children consume it to connect with the spirit of the deceased. 

Despite these distinctions in how it’s used, the reason for its use remains consistent: gaining wisdom by connecting with our ancestors.

Blue Lotus Vitality

DoubleBlind: Watercolour painting of a blue lotus flower from Africa
Watercolour painting by Georgia Love for Doubleblind

Ancient Egyptians are renowned for their intimate relationship with the dead. From funerary rites to the Scroll of Ani (the Book of the Dead) to their belief in immortality, Egyptians had a rich culture surrounding gods, goddesses, other deities, and the afterlife. Based on numerous frescoes, glyphs, and artifacts, blue lotus flowers were among the psychoactive plants used to connect man to the divine. Known as the “Sacred Lily of the Nile,” Blue Lotus was often used among the elite priesthood to heighten psychic capacities to commune with the gods.

The ancient Egyptians revered the flower for the way it responded to the daily cycles of the sun and moon. At sunset, the petals of the lotus folded into itself and sunk below the surface of the Nile. The next morning at dawn, the flower rose to the surface and opened its petals to greet the day. It was associated with the sun-god, Ra, as the bringer of light and the embodiment of “perfect wisdom.”

According to an academic review, the blooming pattern of the lily “represented creation and rebirth.” But, creation and rebirth only exist if death unites them. And, although the lotus does not directly symbolize the end of life, it is implicit. Hence why its representation of creation, death, and rebirth signifies the notion of immortality, which was central to Egyptian culture. In fact, remnants of the blue lotus were even found in Pharaoh Tutankhamon’s tomb.

Mounting evidence also shows that it was used as a means of celebration. In a lot of ways, we can even consider it ancient Egypt’s “party drug.” The mild-sedative induces tingly feelings of euphoria allegedly comparable to a less intense MDMA with effects lasting up to three hours. Furthermore, in an analysis published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, studies from different laboratories identified that the bulbs and roots of the lotus contain apomorphine and aporphine, two compounds used today to treat erectile dysfunction. That’s why it’s believed blue lotus was used as a sex aid in Egypt.  

Personal reports on internet forums say the blue lotus has disappeared from the Nile delta, where it was once found in abundance, causing some to say it’s endangered in Egypt. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) doesn’t classify the flower as a threatened species, however, because it is assessed in terms of its global availability, and it is “widespread throughout temperate and tropical Asia, and much of tropical Africa,” says an expert from the IUCN organization via email. “Although the population trend of [Egyptian blue lotus]…is known to be declining in parts of its range, including Egypt.”

Interestingly, the expert also sent an assessment of the blue lotus in the Medeterranian region, which also includes Egypt. It classifies blue lotus in the “endangered category,” and says that “In Egypt, there is no natural habitat remaining for this species, so restoration of such habitat and reintroduction of the species would be beneficial.”

So Much More Than “Plant Medicine”

There are a ton of other African plants that alter consciousness, like the DMT-containing acacia nilotica; the highly caffeinated cola nuts; and the stimulant reed Khat. But there isn’t a lot of information about how these plants were used historically. Moreover, there are thousands of other plants from the region used to treat everything from colicky babies to indigestion to mental health issues to the flu. Particularly with Africa, the concept of “plant medicine” extends so much further than psychoactivity. 

Africa has “all the plants,” says Marc Michael, including ones we’ve never heard of. There are others, he says, that will remain undiscovered to the world-at-large. Is it possible that some of these could be natural hallucinogens? Yes, definitely. And it’s possible that they could be as old as humankind. 

Mary Carreon is an award winning journalist from southern California and the associate editor at MERRY JANE. When she’s not working, you can find her doing yoga to Ravi Shankar or figuring out how to get to the nearest beach. Follow her on social media @maryyystardust.

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