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The Forgotten History of Psychedelics in Africa

As plant medicines go "mainstream," we must remember their origin stories.

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DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

Since the kidnapping and forced subjugation of Africans in the Western world, an abundance of information about the history and traditions of Africa has been lost and replaced with a Eurocentric viewpoint. For decades, teachers have been advocating for a K-12 curriculum that doesn’t just begin with slavery, and doesn’t exclude that there were free people in the colonies who came from sophisticated civilizations in Africa or any discussion of the African empires that thrived for thousands of years before Europeans landed in the Americas. But as recently as 2020, following the killing of George Floyd, there were still calls from teachers to reexamine how Black history is taught in schools.

When tracing the roots of civilization such as language, education, and religion, history points to Africa as the birthplace of these core facets of human culture. And yet, despite the growing push to legitimize psychedelics, the overall image still primarily evokes white hippie culture, ignoring the Indigenous and storied use of psychedelics in Africa. One person doing the work of correcting this is Darren Springer. Springer, an educator, researcher, and event organizer based in the UK, travels the world, spreading knowledge about the importance of African-based psychedelic traditions in the global diaspora.

DB: Can you point to the exact moment when you shifted from seeing psychedelics as a “white hippie” lifestyle to something that can be used for self-discovery? In essence, what was your ground zero or spiritual psychedelic point of origin?

DS: It was a teacher of mine, Bobby Hammett, who referred me to a book called DMT: The Spirit Molecule. It was after reviewing and hearing testimonies in that book that highlighted the so-called white hippies or primarily Europeans who were having these DMT experiences, but having signature African experiences. They were experiencing things like ancient Egyptian and African goddesses—reading that was a trigger. At that time, I felt that psychedelics weren’t something that Black folks were really into, it wasn’t part of our spiritual systems. I needed to actually try to see for myself. That was the inspiration to start looking into it further. So I did some more Googling, read more books, and hooked up with my teacher Kilindi Iyi. The rest is history.

Read: Why Self-Care is a Paradox for Black People in America

art by Chor Boogie
Art by Chor Boogie

Voodoo traditionally has had an evil connotation in American media. Do you believe that as psychedelics become a more accepted aspect of spiritual journeys that the very way people perceive and understand Voodoo can change?

Yes, if people are honest about their interest in Indigenous cultures and stuff that’s going on around the world as far as the various practices. I’ve come to understand that what we call Voodoo in Africa is pretty much what everybody does around the world. In Asia, the Americas, those Indigenous practices are the same or very similar to what is taking place in Africa. So I just think that there’s still a taboo when it comes to Africa, in general, as a continent and what it offers to the globe, as far as humanity and what science is. There are all these things that we’re very much into today, but we don’t necessarily credit African people or Africa as a continent with being the birthplace of and gatekeepers of these traditions.

I do feel that slowly but surely Africa will return to its rightful place as the birthplace of all of the traditions, religions, sciences, and so forth. We’ve got no choice but to start respecting what all of our ancestors brought to the table. I have yet to see and be sure of when and how that will look, but I’m aware of my own teachings and I’m interested in my own culture, my own tradition, and sharing that with other groups. In my workshops, presentations, and engagements, people want to know more about Africa because they come to realize that we all come from Africa. We all have that ancient Indigenous lineage. It makes them want to check out their own history, their own roots, whether they’re Celtic, Portuguese, Spanish. We look at the connections to see how cultures around the world are very much close to Africa. As more people become aware of that, I can only imagine it will increase consciousness and interest sincerely in what Africa has to offer and has brought to the table since the dawn of time.

The effects of colonialism have closed off a lot of access to African knowledge and history. Due to the inability to access these traditions, how can Black people build new psychedelic traditions in the vein of African psychedelics?

There is still an unbroken link or lineage of African people using psychedelics as well as just continuing their traditions. As an African person, you should, at your discretion, make a conscious effort to reconnect with that as directly as possible. At the same time, I’m aware that the position of being kidnapped from Africa and removed from our direct traditions, culture, and spirituality by force also has permitted us to evolve our traditions. For example, traditions like what we commonly call Voodoo or Santeria, these are all byproducts of the original combination of the religions that were forced on us and what came out of that was an evolution in the practice of our traditions. When we’re in different places and spaces, we may need to work with what we’ve got and adapt to traditions that we’re familiar with within the new environments that we’re in, and then co-create something that hasn’t been done before, because this is a new experience. We were never kidnapped from Africa before and taken to places where we couldn’t find the secret plants or herbs that we worked with.

So therefore, we need to adapt. And I think we’ve done that in history before and I think we continue to do it well. It’s the phase or the part of the story that we’re in and we’re coming to terms with being disconnected from certain traditions and wanting to connect. That’s a challenge because we don’t have many elders of traditions in places where I’m from, like in the UK, and then some of us who are becoming elders obviously don’t have the knowledge that elders of the past would have had. So we’ve got to feel confident in our own right, that we’re in a position where we’ve been forced to have to curate something that may not have ancient validity, but it’s inside of us. It comes from us. So therefore, it is valid.

Read: Wangechi Mutu: Between Palimpsest and Prayer

art by Chor Boogie
Art by Chor Boogie

Often our elders in America through years of anti-drug propaganda, as well as the devastation of Black communities because of the War on Drugs, believe that all drugs are bad. How can we invite our elders to sit, listen, and understand that these powerful medicines may be used to heal a trauma rooted so deeply they may not even know they have it?

I feel that. In general, culturally, psychedelics are not something that Black African people are engaging in in the parts of the world that we’re currently in. This is still considered to be a taboo subject. Because of what’s happened with the psychedelic renaissance in the mainstream, that’s bringing awareness to some of the therapeutic benefits, it’s allowed for mature conversations around the subject now on everything from depression, anxiety, PTSD, drug addiction, disease—all things that impact communities worldwide, but in some areas there are disproportionate levels of these conditions among people of African descent. I think where we’re at now is having to look at bespoke ways of educating and introducing this to communities that it could truly benefit. We can’t have that kind of one-size-fits-all approach and just have conferences or retreats that only engage particular types of people.

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So yes, I’ve had many challenges in engaging our community because this is not something that we’ve been educated on. Before we look at getting people to partake, there’s a large gap of education in communities, but at the same time it needs to be culturally appropriate for the groups that we would like to engage. And it may take, like it took for me or somebody who looks like me, speaks my language, who’s been through what I’ve been through, some time to be able to relate and feel comfortable, to be confident enough in a person’s teachings to share things that allow them to then want to explore psychedelics. A lot of the research into psychedelics is disproportionate, in terms of who is in these trials, who is doing the research, what they’re looking at. There’s not much looking for African people in the diaspora, so they won’t see themselves in that light. And I think that’s where people like me and others educating people about the role psychedelics have played in Africa since the dawn of time come in. To this day, we have this unbroken link of using psychedelics, but there’s a lack of education that really impacts our ability to have mature conversations around this.

How can the psychedelic community around the world honor and give credence to the history of psychedelics in Africa?

It’s education. Outside of psychedelics, there’s a lot about Africa not a lot of people know about to this day. I’m talking to you using a mobile phone, and there’s technology in these phones that comes from Africa that has displaced people and continues to. We take full advantage in ways we’re conscious of and ways we’re not. We’re the mothers and fathers of civilization. We introduced calendars and the concept of time, an understanding of how to eat healthy, what foods to forage, agriculture, all of these elements. Africa doesn’t get a lot of credit for this stuff. This is what I’ve discovered in my years now studying these areas. If we put psychedelics to the side, there’s just a big gap in understanding the role Africa plays and continues to play, and will play in the future, but it takes everybody educating themselves. And you’ve got to want to do that from your own point of reference. And not everybody is inspired to do that. It takes leaders. It takes those who can pick up the baton and run with it to inspire people and educate people. That’s what it takes to have a sincere relationship with Africa and appreciate the fruits that you spared for millennia. There’s a wealth of knowledge and inspiration that you can glean once you’re sincerely approaching it from wanting to know who these people are and that you are really centered around these people. That, in and of itself, can be very empowering.

Read: Stop the Games: Get Out of the Drug-use Closet

art by Chor Boogie
Art by Chor Boogie

My last question would be for the person who reads this interview. If they are inspired and they want to do this right now, they want to start researching and understanding more, what would be the first place that you’d send them to?

I think what’s more powerful than any video that you could watch is to go and engage your family members, speak with your parents, and find out about who your ancestors were. I think that in African traditions and culture, that’s where it all starts—your connections, your spiritual systems by way of your ancestors. So go and find out who they are, where they’re from, what they’ve done in their lives. Engaging with that side of yourself is really important, powerful work. Understand that we have organic technology in ourselves and outside ourselves in nature. We can easily pick up the phone, to phone our homies, our friends and have conversations, but there’s organic technology out there that enables us to communicate.

That’s where our power lies, it’s where true power lies according to all the traditions around the world, whether it’s in the Amazon or Africa. They say that these plants, these technologies enable them to communicate with the dead, with their ancestors. For me, that would be your starting point. By talking to your family members and speaking to the elders in your family about “who am I?” I think that’s really a powerful thing to do and starts opening up those relationships with your family members who are here, the ones who are not here, and keeping their names and spirits alive for communicating with your family. I think that’s where it’s really at.

This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Magazine Issue 6.

If you’re looking for peer support during or after a psychedelic experience, contact Fireside Project by calling or texting 6-2FIRESIDE. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for support.
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