The Chosen People of Iboga: A Conversation with Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis
By the time Dimitiri Mobenga Mugianis reached 40 years of age, he was ready to die. After cultivating an ever-worsening cocaine and heroin habit, the Detroit born and raised artist, poet and activist had just lost his wife, who died of an heroin overdose while pregnant.
Mugianis had been active in Manhattan’s Lower East Side artistic and political scene during the eighties and nineties, while keeping a habit, and had by that time lost all sense of purpose in his life. He had gone back to Detroit and was living in his parents’ basement, spending his days shooting drugs.
“There was no more fun. I was just really wasted and defeated. I was ready to die” says Mugianis, “and I really wanted to. My only goal when I was turning 40 was to go to Greece and then come home and die.”
Dimitri’s first journey to his ancestors’ homeland was already set, however following a lead he got from a fellow junkie friend, he decided to stop in Amsterdam on the way, and make a last attempt to kick his habit. There he would visit a Dutch woman by the name of Sarah, who was known to treat junkies using a then little-known, highly powerful hallucinogenic African root called Iboga.
“I had first heard about Iboga years earlier, in 1989, through my friend Adam Nodelman who came to New York with his wife at the time” tells Dimitri. “Adam was a musician and politically active in anarchist circles. His wife, who was a Dutch woman, was involved in the junkie movement, and they were telling me about their experiences with the Junkie Union in Holland. We were shooting together and they told me that they had gone through with the Iboga thing and that it was amazing. Clearly, they had relapsed, but they had gone through it and it was amazing. They told me stories about it, and this kind of stuck with me in the years ahead.”
Cut to NYC, August 2011. I am visiting Dimitri in the New York Harm Reduction Experts center in Harlem, where he invited me to join one of the weekly shamanic Bwiti (Gabonese Iboga religion) influenced ceremonies he has been organizing in Harlem for the neighborhood’s junkies and vagabonds during the past months.
Things were supposed to turn out differently for Dimitri. He was supposed to be in Costa Rica at the moment, starting the “most amazing Iboga clinic in the world,” but a few days before he was ready to leave the country, he was arrested for possession of Ibogaine, a schedule I drug in the US, and spent 24 hours in jail, his first time there in the decade since he had stopped being a junkie and started treating people with Iboga. His passport had been taken from him and he was forbidden to leave the US until further notice, waiting for authorities to make a decision in his case.
Dimitri prefers to look at the bright side, though. The predicament gave him a chance to do much needed spiritual work in one of Manhattan’s roughest parts. “Bwiti took away my Iboga so I can become a better shaman. Bwiti took away my passport so I have to stay in one place. Bwiti put me in a jail cell and made me claustrophobic so I have to meditate. I’m grateful to Bwiti for putting me there, because I got to see again what they fucking do to people. It is a sin, a crime, to take away the sunshine from somebody. These people haven’t seen the sunshine for two years. That is really unjust.”
“What happened was a great opportunity for transformation, and I’m incredibly grateful” he says, and even though it sounds absurd, coming form his mouth I can almost believe it.
A few days before, in the NYHRE, about 20 junkies are gathered together in the middle of the day to perform a shamanic ceremony in a small candle-lit room. After 15 minutes of silent meditation, Dimitri and his close friend and coworker Bovenga are now singing Bwiti songs and consecrating the space using burning ritual herbs. Dimitri is dressed in ceremonial clothing. A majestic feather is attached to his forehead. He and Bovenga paint the faces of those in the room glowing colors, moving from one person to the other, and blessing them, while the junkies play the maracas and other musical instruments which were laid on the table at the center of the room.
Reminiscent of indigenous power plants ceremonies, but grounded in Harlem’s harsh reality, the whole scene seems highly surreal at first, like straight out of an particularly bizarre Burroughs novel. The people here are homeless. Many are drug users, many of them fresh out of jail. Many of them are HIV positive. However, after a few minutes, the initial peculiarity of the scene recedes to the background, and another thing becomes clear: in the harsh reality of Harlem, Dimitri is bringing hope, love and compassion to people whose lives had been strewn with alienation and pain.
This is a struggle of mythical proportions between the heaven and the earth, between the good and bad in everyone’s soul, and Dimitri is the urban shaman, toiling at the extraction of all demons and the healing of all souls. He prances around the room addressing the gods and the hearts vehemently, making passionate speeches about the importance of pleas, intentions and prayers. He calls to the spirits of the Bwiti to come and cure the people in the room. His charisma and big heart wipe away all differences. “Many shamans that suffered from a particular disease know it better than anybody else. So this is my malady that I work with,” he says. People here respect Dimitri because they know that he knows the demons of drug addiction from first hand experience.
This doesn’t mean that everything is nice and easy, of course. Tensions erupt at one point of the session, and one of the participants decides to leave the room, something which Dimitri says hasn’t occurred before. However, by the end of the session, after singing and praying together, this small and seemingly highly improbable community of people led to God in the quest of inner strength looks united and in peace.
Before closing the session, Dimitri has a sad message. One of the group members had died the previous week of a heroin overdose. Death is ever-present, here, as it is around the world of Iboga drug treatment in general. A few days later, when I meet Dimitri near the Yippie Museum Café on the Lower East Side, he tells me that a friend of his, an Iboga provider (the term for Iboga therapists in the community) who has spent the last couple of years repeatedly going back and forth between Iboga and the needle, has finally died of an heroin OD.
These kinds of events make some of Iboga’s opponents dubious about the Iboga treatment, but for Dimitri a relapse doesn’t mean that treatment hadn’t succeeded or that an Iboga experience was any less valid than in the case of former users who were permanently healed of their addiction.
“If success means stop using for ever, well then I don’t care about that. I think everyone who comes to contact with Iboga is profoundly changed. One of those changes is more satisfaction for them and the outside society.”
“I stopped using heroin and that’s great, but there are plenty of folks who continue to use and still have amazing changes happen in their lives. I’m still working on my first experience 9 years ago.”
Dimitri’s line of argument runs even deeper though. His idea of healing is fundamentally different than that of the mainstream medical establishment, and based in an entirely different weltanschauung. “The psychiatrist and the scientist want to measure everything, but they cannot measure love. That is not quantifiable.” He goes on to tell me the story of Marcus, a homeless addict who was one of his first Iboga patients.
Marcus had a horrendous, extremely difficult experience and disappeared completely during the second day of treatment, while Dimitri was resting and to his utter devastation.
“Two weeks later I was sitting in the park and Marcus comes to me. He was wearing the same t-shirt. He did things for money he wasn’t proud of. He also had a bunch of CD’s under his arm that he obviously had stolen. He was limping through the park, just looking terrible. I was running to him. I was almost crying when I saw him. He threw his arms around me and said: “Thank you Dimitri. You changed my life.”
“So who are we to say that it didn’t change Marcus’s life? Who are we to call him a failure? When we tell people what is successful and what is not successful we set people up against failure. Emma Goldman said that everyone has a right to beautiful and radiant things. So did Marcus, and so does every street junkie out there.”