AfrikaBurn: An International Incubator for Psychedelic Harm Reduction

This article was written by Ryan Jay Beauregard and appeared in MAPS Bulletin, Summer 2016: Vol. 26, No. 2 Research Edition

AfrikaBurn is an annual regional Burning Man event started in 2006 by a group of South Africans whose lives were forever changed at Burning Man. With the support of a few amazing individuals within the AfrikaBurn organization who recognize the need for a safe space for difficult psychedelic experiences, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has had the opportunity to send Zendo Project staff and volunteers to the event for the past four years to help create AfrikaBurn’s Sanctuary space, facilitate harm reduction trainings, and work alongside rangers, medical, and security to create a safer environment for AfrikaBurn’s approximately 10,000 attendees.

In 2013, AfrikaBurn’s Sanctuary space was a humble three-person tent supported by the efforts of former MAPS Director of Harm Reduction Linnae Ponté. Year two saw the expansion and growth of the fledgling Sanctuary space alongside the Zendo Project. For the last two years that I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer at AfrikaBurn, the Zendo Project has provided one of the most integrated support systems of any of the festivals providing harm reduction services.

In my three years of working with the Zendo Project, I’ve seen a variety of psychedelic crisis scenarios, as well as cooperation and conflicts with the agencies responsible for keeping festival attendees safe. What our team has discovered through these different configurations is that success depends on building relationship. When we take the time to get to know the personality of a festival, and the individuals and teams that make them happen, we gain a better understanding of how to improve psychedelic harm reduction in the growing festival culture.

Making Relationship

In Lakota, there is a phrase, aho! mitakuye oyasin, which translates to “I honor all my relations.” I believe this is a huge part of our work, not only as sitters for guests having challenging experiences, but also for those we work with on the medical, security, ranger, and production teams. We are making relationship with all things, not just the easy or convenient things, but the things that we don’t want to look at within ourselves, the parts of our culture that we’d rather bury away, and the shadows that can consume us if we don’t shine light upon them. These are the same shadows that our guests in the Zendo often find themselves confronting.

As our volunteers know from their more intense shifts, we are learning how to make relationships with whatever arises. Sometimes this happens by sitting for someone who has taken an unfamiliar substance, holding space for someone’s process that is scary or triggering, or witnessing the spectrum of human expression across many states of consciousness: rejoicing in “god-states” as well as enduring suffering.

Immersing ourselves in international festivals, we often get asked about our experience of the culture of that country. When I answer honestly, I admit that most of what I experience is a homogenization of festival crowds: white, alternative, dressed in fur and feathers, covered in dust, and committed to a three- to seven-day bender of drugs, sleep deprivation, sexual pursuits, music, and play. Somehow in that mix, they expect transformation; often it comes, but not always as expected. Sometimes this transformation arrives in the form of a particularly overwhelming or difficult situation, and we end up in the care of our community. AfrikaBurn’s Sanctuary has grown from a small group of volunteers organized by the Zendo Project to a dedicated, locally organized team. It’s a community that does an amazing job taking care of their own. Eventually, as the number of AfrikaBurn attendees who have been through Zendo Project trainings increases, and participants gain experience with peer-support trip-sitting through volunteering at Sanctuary, the festival community itself develops the capacity to provide psychedelic harm reduction services from within. As the Zendo Project gains experience and exposure, we hope that these ways of community care take on a life and momentum of their own so that everyone has a basic understanding of the Four Principles of Harm Reduction.

Creating a Cohesive Safety Team

A key component of the Zendo Project’s philosophy of working with other agencies, including medical and law enforcement, is that we are on the same team: We are all here to keep people safe, and ensure the best outcome for our guests. Additionally, we want to positively impact the reputation of the festival, production team, and safety agencies. This year at AfrikaBurn, we had the pleasure of working, camping, and playing with other American imports-the Black Rock Rangers-a dedicated team of volunteers who provide mediation and safety (within reason), and serve as the eyes and ears of the community.

Working collaboratively in community delivers the connection needed to prevent burn-out. There is an intensity of presence, caretaking, and grounded sobriety that make the festival-going experience for the Zendo Project volunteer’s shift unique: Zendo Project volunteers pull all-nighters, fueled not by LSD or MDMA but by the intensity of the work. Working for days on end can grind away anyone’s positive attitude and energy, yet the family formed through working together constantly refuels our capacity for work and play.

Making relationships with ourselves and others is at the heart of what makes both this work and the psychedelic experience so alchemical: a journey into the unknown, witnessing familiar and unknown aspects of ourselves and the world at large, and ultimately—with care and intention—integrating the experience to improve our quality of life on this planet.

About the Zendo Project

The mission of the Zendo Project is to provide a supportive environment and education to help transform difficult psychedelic and psychological experiences into opportunities for learning and growth. We envision a world where communities provide safety and support for people having psychedelic and psychological challenges, and where harm reduction principles are used foremost to reduce the risks associated with substance use.

So far in 2016, the Zendo has been available to festival-goers at Envision Festival in Costa Rica, AfrikaBurn in South Africa, and Lightning in a Bottle in Bradley, Calif. Coming up, the Zendo Project will provide services at Burning Man 2016 in Black Rock City, Nev., (August 28-September 5), Symbiosis Gathering in Oakdale, Calif. (September 22-25), and Youtopia in San Diego, Calif. (October 13-16).

Ryan Jay Beauregard received his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Claremont McKenna in 1998. He has been assisting with the Zendo Project since 2013 as a volunteer and supervisor. Ryan worked as a wilderness mentor for at-risk youth and is the Founder and CEO of We Share Earth, a non-profit which aims to transform garbage into gardens and grief into growth. He brings his passion for Rites of Passage, ceremony, and grief work to his position with the Zendo, providing a grounded presence to individuals in extreme states.