Drawn from the venom of a waxy monkey tree frog, kambo is a traditional alternative medicine that users claim can purge dark energy, bad luck and stuck emotions. It also involves burning your skin, weeping and a lot of vomiting, as Lisette Prendé discovered when she traveled to a Wellington suburb to try it
The streets are nearly empty as I drive to my first ever kambo ceremony. It’s the Monday morning of a long weekend, so while most people are still tucked up in bed, enjoying this extra day off, I’m about to spend the day crying, vomiting and sharting, alongside a bunch of strangers. This better be worth it, I mumble, as I park in the Countdown carpark, tug my blanket – for post-spew napping – out from between the kids’ car seats and head off to the hired yoga studio.
I expect to see a lot of cliche hippies –willowy beards open-toe sandals – but it’s a similar crowd to the people I sit next to on the train into town on the daily commute. They were, I guessed, a bit like me. Spiritually curious. Eager to release some of the emotional burdens of modern life. And willing to allow a nine-to-five IT worker moonlighting as a kambo shaman adorn them with burns, smear frog poison on their skin and watch as they vomit up their feelings.
Kambo, the poisonous venom of the Amazonian tree frog Phyllomedusa bicolor, or the waxy monkey tree frog, has been used for centuries by indigenous tribes of the Amazon in treating depression, anxiety, grief, fear, physical pain and addiction. It’s also used in hunting magic, as it is believed to improve strength and speed and temporarily remove body odour, making the hunters less likely to be detected by animals.
The Kaxinawá, an indigenous Amazonian tribe, believe that kambo helps to purge Panema – dark energy, bad luck and stuck emotions – from the body, leaving them feeling uplifted, physically detoxed and emotionally lighter.
To procure the venom, the tribe shaman is said to sing to the frogs, which answer his call and emerge from the jungle. The frog is then strung up by all fours and tapped on the head, which activates its defence mechanism, the excretion of poison. A reed is then used to scrape the waxy venom from the frog’s back before it is safely returned to the jungle.
The venom is too potent to be taken orally. The kambo, also known as sapo by some tribes, is therefore administered via a “gateway” point, created by burning a series of small holes into the skin. The burnt skin is then scraped away and the kambo is applied after the patient has drunk two litres of water. Once the venom enters the lymphatic system, the patient begins to purge.
I am told before my kambo ceremony that the purging process is different for everyone. The purging stage can last anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes. For most it involves vomiting, others find the need to run to the toilet, and some release stored emotions through crying.
Crying is fine. Vomiting I can handle; I haven’t eaten for over 10 hours so I highly doubt there would be much to bring up. However, I am terrified of action at the other end mid-vomit. Of all the things that might concern someone who is about to apply poisonous frog venom on their scorched skin, it turns out that crapping my pants is top of the list.
Why would anyone willingly choose to spend a rare sunny Wellington day hunched over a bucket, inhaling sage and listening to the beat of a hand drum? None of my friends could fathom it. “Well, it’s not for me,” said my partner. “You wouldn’t catch me doing that!” said my friend Lisa. “I think I’d go mad,” said my friend Mariana. “Dude,” said Kim. “We’ve only just had Norovirus. Come over here and lick the floors. That’ll definitely make you purge.”
I first heard about kambo through a fellow spirit junkie and school mum who runs her own yoga studio. She shared a picture of her gateway burns on Instagram with a caption that read: Wow. Just had my first kambo ceremony and I feel so incredible! #Kambo. Just one of the 11,500 posts, featuring frogs and burns that share the hashtag.
Something about it piqued my interest. I flicked her a message. Oh my gosh! she replied. It’s incredible. All of my emotional blockages are gone. I feel like I can achieve anything right now. I feel so much more energetic and motivated.
I had to try it.
Recently I’d noticed a deep-seated feeling of anger growing inside me. It was a ball of slow burning rage that had taken up residency in my gut. Sure, it was probably just your typical I’m-thirtysomething-and-my-parents-ruined-me anger, but whatever it was, I wanted it gone. Meditation and yoga hadn’t helped. Neither had chanting affirmations into the mirror. What’s more, the anger had started affecting my work. Instead of having words flow from my fingers, I would sit at my desk and glare at the empty screen with a scowl. So I figured if rubbing a little frog venom on my leg and yacking for a few hours could help me feel less bitter and get back to work, it’d be worth it.
When I emailed the Wellington based shaman who’d be performing the ceremony he told me that he understood what I was describing. He explained that he had witnessed many other people have great success with using kambo to remove feelings of stored anger, as well as treat depression, ease anxiety and remove feelings of being unlucky or prone to misfortune.
The shaman told me to read an attached document so I could learn more about kambo and what to expect before, during and after the ceremony. He also warned that I check to ensure I did not suffer from any of the conditions on the exclusions list. He would not use kambo treatment on anyone who:
- is pregnant or breastfeeding a child under 12 months
- has a serious heart condition, including having a pacemaker, valve disease, bypass surgery or enlarged heart.
- has very low blood pressure controlled by medication
- has had a stroke, aneurism or bleeding on the brain.
- has a serious mental health condition
- has had organ transplant surgery
- is under 18
So that’s how I found myself, on sunny day in a north Wellington suburb, preparing to ingest a poisonous substance, in the name of art and self-discovery.
My heart hammers in my chest as I take up a position in the circle. In front of my yoga mat is a roll of toilet paper and a green bucket which still has the price sticker on it from The Warehouse. The scruffy haired guy next to me has a purple bucket. “Excited?” he beams.
I nod and smile but I can’t speak. My throat is not working.
A few mats down from me sits a large Indian man wearing snazzy glasses and an Adidas puffer jacket. He catches my gaze and smiles. “First time?” I nod. “Ah, first time’s always the best!” he says. “You don’t know what to expect so you take it as it comes.”
I clear my throat. “What number’s this for you?”
His eyes float to the ceiling for a moment, then he shrugs. “I’ve lost count. I just know when I start to get stressed, start to shout at the kids again, I say to myself, ‘Ramesh, it’s time for another ceremony.’”
To my left sits a lean, pale, bald man in a deep state of meditation. His spine is so straight and well aligned that it forces me to check my posture. A vast collection of small pale dots decorate his upper arms – kambo scars – he’d definitely done this before. He tugs in a deep breath and rouses from his contemplation, adjusting the red banana tied around his head. He looks like Rambo. Kambo-Rambo.
The shaman, seeing that Kambo-Rambo has awoken from his reverie, approaches, wrapping him in a strong bear hug. As they break apart the shaman whispers “You’re doing two?” Kambo-Rambo nods. I don’t know what this means, but from the way the shaman stares back at him in awe, I know it must be serious.
The shaman welcomes us all to the space. He plays the hand drum and sings to us in a foreign tongue, then he performs a karakia.
He tugs the fabric of his linen pants up as he sits down on his cushion in a cross legged position. “I would like to tell you the tale of kambo, and how this medicine was gifted to us by Mother Nature herself.”
According to legend, the people of the Kaxinawá tribe were struck down by a terrible illness. The tribe’s healer had done all he could but the traditional herbal medicines didn’t help. Under the influence of tribal medicine, he entered the jungle to seek a cure. The great goddess appeared before him and in her hands she held a frog. She scraped white secretion from the frog’s back and showed the healer how to use it. He returned to the tribe and treated them all with the frog secretion and every one of them made a quick recovery. When he died many years later, it was said that his spirit merged with that of the frog. The healer’s name was kambo.
Kambo may well be a highly spiritual practice and an alternative treatment but it’s not necessarily all woo-woo and pixie-dust. Chemically, kambo contains a plethora of peptides and nano-peptides. Many of these peptides are used in synthetic forms in the treatment of depression, migraines, cancer, Aids and brain diseases such as Parkinson’s. Kambo also contains high doses of both Dermorphin and Deltorphin, powerful analgesics many times stronger than morphine.
Vittorio Erspamer, an Italian scientist of the University of Rome, was the first person to study kambo in laboratory setting in the 1970s. Erspamer, twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and famous for his discovery of serotonin, was able to isolate over 50 new bio peptides and opioid peptides from his studies on the Phyllomedusa species. His research went on to assist further studies on the use of peptides to treat a range of medical conditions, including cancer.
Since Erspamer’s death in 1999, other researchers have continued his work. A team of scientists at the University of Paris recently found the opioid peptide Dermaseptin B2 to be highly effective at killing cancer cells. And in 2011, researchers at the University of Belfast won an award for their work on kambo and Cancer.
So if kambo contains so many active ingredients, doesn’t that mean it could actually help people who are suffering from medical conditions? Would it be safe, even, to try to treat a serious illness like cancer by taking part in a kambo ceremony?
“I would be worried about people in New Zealand undertaking this sort of procedure without proper scientific testing to see whether it works for cancer,” says Sarah Baird, lecturer at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Otago. “We also wouldn’t want people to be given false hope of a cure, especially if they might suffer unpleasant side effects (the brain related effects, in particular) if they did try it.”
However Baird does believe that considering the wide variety of peptides present in kambo, it is not impossible that at least one could potentially lead to a new treatment in the fight against cancer. “Many anti-cancer drugs (and other drugs) have been derived from natural products, including taxol (also called paclitaxel) from the yew tree and doxorubicin, isolated from microbes found in the soil around an Italian castle. So there’s no reason that out of all of these compounds secreted by this frog, at least one couldn’t be useful in cancer therapy. At the very least, one of them could be a starting point to develop a new drug.”
Of course, there’s always the placebo effect to consider. And when a medicine is being used in an environment where so many others openly respect and believe in it, it wouldn’t be hard to fall into the magic of it all. “In terms of using the whole mixture to treat cancer in a spiritual ceremony – well, if the recipient believed in the ceremony, the placebo effect can be strong,” says Baird.
The use of kambo is hardly widespread in New Zealand, but appears to be growing, with “healing circles” having been held across the Wellington and Auckland regions. Both the NZ Drug Foundation and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research told the Spinoff they were neither aware of the product or its usage in New Zealand.
With all this in mind, it’s time for me to receive my kambo gateway points. The shaman burns six small dots onto the skin of my lower leg. It hurts only a little. I watch as he wets a tissue and then rubs it over the burn mark to remove the scorched skin. I study the wound. It looks red and puffy but nothing major. It could easily be a well-coordinated collection of flea bites.
I return to my yoga mat and meditate; mainly because that’s what everyone else is doing so it seems right. We are reminded to keep drinking water during this stage as we need to consume a full two litres before the kambo is applied to the gateway site. “Drinking water helps with the purging process,” the shaman says with a smile. I imagine it’s much easier to vomit when there’s actually something in your belly to work with. “When I return to the Amazon later this year,” the shaman goes on, “I will be taking part in a dry kambo ceremony, where you drink no water at all. It is very painful, but it allows you to go much deeper with the medicine.”
I sip away at my water. My mind starts to race. What am I doing here? I have children. A cat. A mortgage. I can’t take silly risks like this! My heart is already pounding and I again consider running for the door. But I’m here now. I already have my gateway points so I may as well go ahead with the rest of the process. I mean, how bad could it be?
I watch as the other members of the circle have their gateway points applied. Kambo-Rambo doesn’t flinch. Ramesh twitches his nose. I think back to the pain I experienced when I was 16 and my friend tried to pierce my ears with a needle, sterilised by holding it in the flame of her lighter, and smile inwardly.
All too soon my water is gone and it’s time for me to have my kambo dots applied. Kambo-Rambo has just received his and he returns to his yoga mat to sit in meditation again, a single drip of sweat rolling down his face. As I sit in front of my shaman I notice that all the panic has gone. It’s as if my mind and body have accepted their fate and given up trying to force me to flee.
At first the shaman applies only one dot to see how I react. Within seconds I feel my face begin to tingle. I am shocked at how quickly the sensation has traveled through my body; from my leg to my face in an instant. The shaman studies me for a moment, then nods. “You hold it well. I’ll give you six.”
As soon as the other five dots are applied, the tingle in my face progresses to a burn. My face is so hot it’s on fire. It feels like it’s puffing up.
I return to my yoga mat as my heart starts to hammer in my chest. Just as I sit down, Kambo-Rambo calls for assistance. “I need the bathroom!” he yells, but he is currently unable to walk. The shaman helps him up. Kambo-Rambo staggers and falls to the floor in the lobby. He reaches for a nearby bucket and begins to heave. Oh Fuck, I think. What the hell have I done?
But it’s too late to back out now. The thump of my heart has moved up to my ears. I look down and realise my whole body has turned red and blotchy, my hands too. My fingers feel tingly and begin to cramp. I stretch them out in front of me on my yoga mat, which forces me into a leap frog position. I’m turning into a frog.
The shaman’s assistant appears at the end of my mat. “You OK?” she asks. I explain my symptoms but don’t tell her that I am now a frog. She nods. “Yep, you’re in the first stage. This is all completely normal.” This makes me feel better but then I remember there is still vomiting to come. And potential pooping.
The shaggy haired guy next to me and Ramesh have already started purging but I have not. The shaman scrapes off two dots and replaces them with two fresh ones. “This will help you begin the purge.”
It does. There’s a hot taste in the back of my throat, acrid and burning. There’s also a fire in my belly, climbing higher in my chest. The feeling that consumes me is not nausea as I know it, but a total understanding that something must come out. I lean over my bucket in my frog pose and release a torrent of water. As I do the shaman shouts “Viva kambo!” Again and again I purge, bringing up all the water I just recently drank. “Breathe!” the shaman calls. With each purge the contents of the bucket changes. It goes from clear, to green, to yellow, to pink.
Everyone around me is heading to the toilet in shifts. I am still afraid of crapping myself so I too head to the bathroom. Kambo-Rambo has left the floor of the lobby and has taken up residency in one of the bathroom stalls. I can hear him purging through the wall. My trip to the bathroom proves fruitless. I guess I’m a spewer, not a pooer.
Those across the circle from me are just starting to purge. “Viva kambo!” the shaman calls as another person heaves into their bucket for the first time. I am quietly glad that I didn’t have to watch too many people purge before I did.
Kambo-Rambo stumbles out of the bathroom and lays down on his yoga mat, pulling his blanket over him. He falls into a deep relaxation.
The urge to purge has passed so I lay down on my yoga mat and try to rest. I hear a voice in my head: “there is nothing wrong with you.” And perhaps that’s right. I am safe and sound here on this mat. Whatever anger I was feeling now seems the least of my concerns. Much like after a terrible stomach bug, I feel a strange sense of calm, a blissful gratitude that I am no longer vomiting.
I’m roused from my dosing by the shaman, who is whispering to Kambo-Rambo. “Are you ready for your next round?” My eyes snap open in disbelief and I watch as the shaman administers a second dose. Kambo-Rambo is about to go through the whole process for a second time, like the true spiritual gangster he is.
The ceremony is coming to a close. We are fed a light snack of fruit and nuts and told to keep sipping water as the shaman applies an antibacterial Peruvian tree sap to our gateway burns. I glance at my phone. I have been here, in this ceremony, for over five hours. It’s as if in this circle, time works differently.
Did kambo make me a completely new person? Well, the next morning was like most mornings. I struggled to get out of bed and rushed around the place getting the kids ready for school, finally being driven to yell, “put on your bloody shoes!”
However, once I returned home I felt a sense of motivation and energy. I cleaned my house from top to bottom; I got rid of old toys, I Marie Kondo’d my drawers, I decluttered the pantry, I wrote 1000 words and I even upcycled an old coffee table. I couldn’t stop. I had energy to burn. For the next few days I was peppy and motivated, but then I hit a wall. I tried to stay active, but I was exhausted.
So did kambo help me shift my feelings of anger? Maybe. For a day or two. But soon enough I was back battling road rage and cursing my family members. Am I so angry, I wondered, that not even ancient Amazonian frog medicine can help me? I emailed my shaman to ask his opinion. “Sometimes it does take more than one ceremony to see long-term results,” he replied. “You could also consider trying a double dose in one ceremony?”
I am yet to respond.
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