Tag: Central Africa

Westerners head to Gabon for drug-fuelled ‘spiritual’ tourism

Some in Gabon believe the bitter iboga root comes from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Others elsewhere have derided it as a dangerous drug.

Today a growing number of Westerners are travelling to the central African country to sample it themselves as part of an ancestral rite called Bwiti, one of Gabon’s official religions.

Among them is Remy Causse, who at 45 made the long journey from France in hopes that the ritual would help him to “see more clearly”.

Bwiti combines worship of ancient forest spirits with elements of Christianity. It is practiced regularly and involves ingesting the powerful psychoactive root, iboga, which has effects similar to LSD, mescaline or amphetamines.

“Iboga cleans the insides,” says Tatayo, a French-Gabonese spiritual guide who receives many of the Western “bandzi”, or candidates for initiation.

“The bandzi empties himself of everything bad that is buried inside before coming face to face with himself.”

European women rest in a temple after taking iboga during an initiation to the Bwiti rite in September 2005, in Libreville. (Pic: AFP)
European women rest in a temple after taking iboga during an initiation to the Bwiti rite in September 2005, in Libreville. (Pic: AFP)

But the deaths, deemed accidental, of two Western initiates saw the practice come under sharp scrutiny, notably in former colonial power France where health officials warned it was “hallucinogenic and highly toxic”.

A report by the Mission of Vigilance against Sectarian Abuses (Miviludes) from 2007 called Bwiti a form of cult ritual that is dangerous “both physically and mentally”.

Tatayo himself concedes that “you must be closely watched when you ingest iboga”.

Benefits and dangers
But Bwiti shamans like Tatayo believe that when they eat iboga, they are granted the power to see the future, heal the sick and speak with the dead.

Users say it helps them to break away from negative habits, and an extract from the root is now being used in Western medicine to treat drug addicts and alcoholics.

Like many foreigners before him, Causse turned to “Tatayo”, who is originally from southwest France, at his beachside concession next to the president’s quarters in Gabon’s capital Libreville.

Under the light of the torches, initiates, their faces painted white, intone traditional chants over the music of the Ngombi, a form of sacred harp, or the Mogongo, an instrument made of a chord strung across an arc that the musician strums with a pulsating rhythm.

Causse starts to eat the iboga, crushed into powder, which Tatayo feeds him by the spoonful until he is overcome by visions amid the deafening noise of singing and dancing by “escorts”. Lying on a mat, he seems to be sleeping as his spirit “roams”.

Ingested in high doses, iboga causes anxiety, extreme apprehension and hallucinations, which are enhanced by the darkness and music. Sometimes Causse rouses and begins to vomit.

The visions last all night, and it’s not until the early hours of the morning that Causse wakes up. Still groggy from the experience, he is unable to walk for several hours.

Despite being “a bit scared”, he said he was happy two days after shaking off the lethargy caused by the iboga root. After this he will bear the name “Moukoukou”, which means “spirits”.

“The ritual has given me an understanding that cannot be explained in words; it has answered many of my questions,” he says.

Few people in Gabon doubt the effectiveness of the iboga root, which is considered an important part of the country’s national heritage. The country’s first president was an initiate.

Outside the country, a dozen or so deaths have been reported in the United States and Europe among people who experimented with iboga, though the exact circumstances have not been clarified. Medical reports said the victims’ nervous systems and hearts appear to have been affected and the deaths generally occurred more than 20 hours after taking the root.

In Gabon, neither the French embassy nor the Gabonese health ministry would comment on the bwiti ritual, given that it involves a recognised religious practice and use of a product authorised in the country.

Yet despite the dangers and the high price that Westerners must pay for their new experiences – Causse paid $3 800 for his three-week journey – more and more are coming.

Tatayo says that he now receives around 20 to 25 new foreign initiates – mainly Europeans – a year.

Tiphaine Saint-Criq for AFP 

Women take a stand against violence in CAR

A thousand women staged a silent rally outside Parliament in the strife-torn Central African Republic on Monday, their mouths bandaged in a mute protest against violence towards women.

Civilians including women and children are bearing the brunt of a surge in violence in the country, aid agencies have warned, with torched villages and abuses including murder, rape and torture.

“Stop violence against women. I am not an object,” or “No to murders, torture, rape” read banners held by women of all ages and religions who planned to cover their mouths with white tape from 6am to 6pm to make their case.

Women with their mouths covered with pieces of cloth gather on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui to protest against violence against women. (Pic: AFP)
Women with their mouths covered with pieces of cloth gather on the steps of the National Assembly in Bangui as part of an anti-violence demonstration. (Pic: AFP)

Held in Bangui as part of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the rally aimed to raise awareness of the spike in violence between unidentified armed groups and former rebel fighters.

It is the deadliest the country has experienced since March, when a coalition of rebel groups known as Seleka deposed president Francois Bozize, who had ruled since a 2003 coup.

In his place they installed the mostly-Christian country’s first Muslim leader, President Michel Djotodia.

Djotodia received a delegation of women at the presidential palace on Monday, but said he would wait until the protest was over before discussing their concerns.

“Since you are not talking we will wait until the time comes to organise a meeting and discuss the problems women are facing,” he said, before donating two cattle and $6 000  to the movement.

The president said his wife should have been present “but since this morning she has not said a word”.

“I talk to her and she doesn’t reply. I ask myself: Why isn’t my wife speaking? And I am told she is observing the movement of Central Africa’s women.”

CAR’s sectarian violence forces thousands into hiding

The Central African Republic is in danger of becoming the world’s latest failed state, with increasing sectarian violence sparking a humanitarian disaster. Médecins Sans Frontières’ Dutch general director, Arjan Hehenkamp, has recently returned from the country. He sent this harrowing report:

I’m just back from Bossangao, a town of 45 000 people 330km northwest of the capital, Bangui. From the air, you can see tin rooftops and big compounds, and it looks like a prosperous and bustling regional centre. But then you start looking for people and you see that there’s no one there – all the houses are deserted. Most of Bossangao’s inhabitants have gathered in a church compound, an area the size of nine football pitches, where 30 000 people are enclosed by their own fear.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

The country has been gripped by violence since the coup d’etat in March, and religion is becoming a part of the conflict – basically everyone is scared of being targeted by everyone else.

The church compound is like an open-air prison. People don’t even dare to go and fetch the wood they need for cooking. They don’t dare to go out of that protected zone back to their houses – where they would have a roof over their heads and some proper facilities – even though their houses are sometimes only a few hundred metres away.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

When you walk into the compound, you’re faced by a teeming mass of people, and you have to navigate through all the families that have set themselves up there. They’re living, they’re cooking, they’re defecating, all in the same compound, and they’ve been there for three weeks. They’ve recently got some shelter materials, but otherwise they’re living in the open air, surrounded by mud and garbage.

Our medical teams are working in the compound, and we’ve set up water and sanitation facilities. We’re pulling out all the stops to provide them with basic amenities and medical care, but at the end of the day it’s an untenable situation. It’s just not suitable for a 30 000-strong group of people – the risk of disease outbreaks is too great.

There are 1 000 to 1 500 people, also mostly Christians, staying in another protected zone around the hospital – they have slightly more space, but in essence it’s the same thing. And there’s a 500-strong group of mostly Muslims in a school nearby – testament to the religious divisions that have crept into the conflict.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

We are working in the church compound, and also in the hospital, with both international and local staff. The hospital provides inpatient, outpatient and surgical services, and is functioning at a reasonable level, but it needs to be cranked up in order to deal with the numbers of patients we’re seeing and the kinds of injuries they’re arriving with – injuries which are quite horrific and difficult to treat.

One of our patients was a man who had been shot four times in the back, and his head had been partially hacked off by a machete. The surgeon tried to sew it back on and save the patient, but sadly he died.

Another was a child from a village outside Bossangao. His parents had tied him to the house with chains because he had diabetes and was prone to running around and having fits. But they lost the key to the padlock, so when they had to flee into the bush they couldn’t take him with them. When they came back he was still alive, but he had been slashed badly across his arms when he held them up to protect himself.

(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)
(Pic: Médecins Sans Frontières)

This is the level of brutality and violence that is affecting people, and we are probably only seeing a part of it. Outside Bossangoa, we know there are troops and local defence groups going around and seeking people out, engaging in targeted killing or small-scale massacres. Our teams have come across sites of executions, and some have actually witnessed executions.

The villages along the road from Bossangao to Bangui are deserted. For 120km, there’s no one there – 100 000 people have disappeared and fled into the bush. We can’t reach them, and they can’t reach our services. This is a major humanitarian and medical concern.

Compared to last year, when there was already a chronic humanitarian crisis in Central African Republic, the crisis has doubled, the capacity of the state has vanished completely, and the humanitarian capacity has halved.

There’s an acute need for aid organisations to deploy themselves with an international presence outside the capital, and in particular for the UN to lead the way in doing so. An international presence has a protective effect – I’m pretty sure that if MSF had not been present in Bossangoa, the level of violence and killings would have been much higher than it was.

Since the armed takeover in March, the violence hasn’t really abated. There have been violent reprisals and counter-reprisals. The violence continues, but now it is just more targeted and out of sight.

Rwanda rail project on track to bridge Africa’s economic divide

Hundreds of lorries trundle through the Rwanda-Tanzania border every hour, damaging Rwanda’s narrow hilly roads. A $13.5-billion (R136-billion) railway project linking the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, cannot come soon enough for Silas Lwakabamba, Rwanda’s minister of infrastructure.
“The trucks carry too much load, they end up spoiling the road,” he said. “Rail will be faster and can carry more. Maintenance of rail will be much easier.”

A woman walks on a main street of Rwanda's capital Kigali. (Pic: Reuters)
A woman walks on a main street of Rwanda’s capital Kigali. (Pic: Reuters)

The 2 935km line is one of several big infrastructure projects on the continent, reflecting renewed global interest among policymakers after years of focusing on health and education. Besides the Mombasa-Kigali rail link, a seven-year initiative to connect Niger and Ivory Coast is to begin next year as part of efforts to improve rail infrastructure in west Africa.

The railway would link Niamey, the capital of landlocked Niger, with the Ivorian commercial hub of Abidjan, via the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, after the extension of mining activities in west Africa.

Dams are also back in fashion. Ethiopia is pressing ahead with its Grand Renaissance dam to the consternation of Egypt, which fears that the project will curb its water supply. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, work is scheduled to start on Inga III, a $20-billion project.

“Infrastructure is critical for development,” said Lwakabamba. “For the transport sector, we need roads, rail and air, they are all very critical for economic development. And we can’t do anything without energy.”

Rwanda is also involved in the Rusumo falls hydroelectric project to increase power supply of electricity to the national grids of Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania, a project backed by the International Development Association, the World Bank’s soft loan arm, and the African Development Bank.

Africa accounts for just 3% of global trade and African countries trade 10% of their goods with each other, compared with 65% between European countries. Landlocked countries are hit particularly hard by poor infrastructure, paying up to 84% more to export their goods than a coastal country. Improving regional markets in Africa would have a significant impact on economic development and poverty reduction.

Huge infrastructure needs
The continent’s infrastructure needs are huge, but financing levels are only half the estimated $93-billion needed annually between now and 2015 to sustain 7% growth rates. Infrastructure is the key issue around plans for a development bank by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – known as the Brics.

The Mombasa-Kigali link is getting attention at the highest level. Leaders from Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have been meeting regularly on the project and plan to discuss financing next month in Kigali. Funding has been secured from China for the $3.7-billion Mombasa-Nairobi section, a distance of 500km, and construction is due to begin in November.

The 200km Rwanda section will cost $1.5-billion and Rwanda is still lining up financing. The line will be used to carry coffee, tea and other agricultural products and minerals out of Rwanda and machinery into the country. The railway will be designed for freight speeds of 80kph but will be open for other passenger travel too.

The Mombasa-Kampala-Kigali railway project entails a 1 184km rail from Mombasa through Nairobi to Malaba and branching to Kisumu (Kenya); a 1 400km rail from Malaba to Kampala, Uganda and linking to four Ugandan towns before connecting to the main line to Rwanda at Mirima Hills; a 201km rail from Mirima Hills to Kigali and an extra 150km rail to other towns in Rwanda.

The existing railway between Mombasa and Kampala dates to the colonial era, and has a small gauge. The new line will have a standard gauge, which is wider, and therefore faster and capable of carrying heavier loads. Rwanda will build its section from scratch as there is no existing line.

The project is unlikely to receive support from UK taxpayers as the Department for International Development has withdrawn £21-million (R343-million) in general budget support – direct aid to the Rwandan government – shifting it to sector support, focusing on health and education. The decision was taken after allegations that Rwanda was supporting M23 rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“We do respect decision of the UK government,” said Lwakabamba. “We obviously prefer budget support as it allows us a degree of flexibility on priorities. The UK concentrates more on education and social areas.”

Mark Tran for the Guardian

Kinshasa’s best-kept music secret

Nathalie is a single mum who struggles to clothe her little boy and pay the rent. She plays the flute and the sax. Josephine gets up at 4.30am every day to sell omelettes at the market. She is in the chorus. Papy is a part-time mechanic who also runs his own pharmacy. He plays the tuba. Josef is a freelance electrician, a kind of African version of the Robert De Niro character in the film Brazil. He also runs his own hair salon and plays the viola.

Nathalie, Josephine, Papy and Josef are adepts of the Congolese art of débrouillardise, a French word that means “making ends meet” or “surviving”. For most of the day, they do whatever they must to hustle their daily bread in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, one of the biggest, noisiest and most dysfunctional cities on earth. In the early evening, they set out on a journey that often takes several hours to rehearse with the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste de Kinshasa (OSK), the only all-black symphony orchestra in the world. There they find release from their daily cares. “When I sing Beethoven’s ninth Symphony, it takes me far away,” says one of the other singers in the choir.

“They come because they’re passionate about music,” says Armand Diangienda, the man who founded the OSK almost 20 years ago. “It gives them something more in terms of confidence, of feeling capable and of being able to contribute to a collective endeavour.”

If the musicians in the OSK are masters of individual survival, the orchestra itself is an epic example of débrouillardise, of thinking the impossible and then just doing it. Diangienda lost his job as a pilot when the Fokker F-27 he used to fly across the Congo crashed into the hills above the town of Goma in 1992, killing all those on board. Luckily – for him – he was on holiday at the time. Finding himself unemployed, he rallied followers of his father’s church, the hugely popular Kimbanguiste church, and created a symphony orchestra, a strange endeavour for a confirmed reggae fan who had only a passing interest in European classical music at the time.

“We told ourselves that creating a symphony orchestra would be great because the church already had a brass band, a flute orchestra, a guitar ensemble and a number of different choirs,” Armand tells me over the phone from Kinshasa. “I couldn’t read music, but driven by my passion, and with help from my friends, I gradually learned.”

In the early days, instruments had to be borrowed or made from scratch by reverse engineering. Violin strings were concocted from bicycle brake wire. Hundreds of scores were copied out by hand, individual parts had to be deciphered by listening to the works on CD, over and over again. Music stands were cobbled together from old pieces of wood.

Despite attracting huge interest locally, the orchestra remained the city’s secret until two German film-makers, Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer, made the 2010 documentary Kinshasa Symphony, one of the most beautiful and honest portrayals of the power of music and the human spirit that I have seen in ages.

Last year, the orchestra travelled outside Africa for the first time, performing at the TED conference in California, and later in Monaco. CBS devoted an hour’s coverage to them and Peter Gabriel joined them for a gala soiree to raise funds for a music school in Kinshasa.

The Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste de Kinshasa (Pic: oskimbangu.org)

But that’s not all. Diangienda is now on his way to London to become an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, an accolade previously granted to the likes of Mendelssohn, Rossini, Wagner, Brahms and Stravinsky. “The day I was told, I had tears in my eyes,” he says.

The fact that many Congolese regard Diangienda as something of a living god has no doubt helped him to achieve the seemingly impossible. His grandfather, Simon Kimbangu, was a healer and preacher whose sermons instilled pride and self-belief in ordinary Congolese people and fear in their Belgian colonial masters. He died in 1951 after spending 30 years in prison. One of his most incendiary statements was: “The black man will become white and the white man will become black.

For Diangienda, however, performing western classical music on the banks of the Congo river has nothing to do with turning his back on his own African culture. “Everything we’re learning by playing classical music will allow us to enrich our own music as well and immortalise it by writing it down,” he says. Diangienda, and the orchestra’s first violinist Heritier Malumbi and bassoonist Balongi, have already composed several symphonic works full of rich Congolese flavours.

“My grandfather claimed that to sing was to pray twice,” Diangienda says. “Music is already a form of spiritual wealth to us, the Kimbanguistes. But what inspires me even more is that my grandfather’s message was a universal one; a message of peace, of love, of reaching out for others and bringing people together.”

It was also a message about work, perseverance and self-respect. The stirring finale of Kinshasa Symphony sees the orchestra performing Orff’s Carmina Burana on a large piece of wasteground in front of an ecstatic local crowd. The beauty, pride and common purpose that oozes from the performance make mincemeat of the cliches of chaos and hopelessness that burden the Congo. A small but growing group of cognoscenti already know that Kinshasa is one of the most culturally dynamic and creative cities on earth. The OSK only reinforces that conviction. – Guardian News and Media 2013