LOCATION: Gabon (western Central Africa)
POPULATION: About 1.2 million
LANGUAGE: French; 45 local Niger-Congo languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Islam; animism
Gabon's stability keeps it in the shadows. As an African country that is not troubled by wars, drought, or repeated uprisings, it tends to receive little publicity.
Around 1500 BC , Bantu people from the northwest began to migrate into this area. Over the next 2,500 years, they slowly spread out. More than forty separate groups, differing in language and culture, developed. Later migrations during the period of the slave trade, and again in the nineteenth century, have further increased this mixture of cultures.
Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century. First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch, British, and French. Their trade interests were slaves and ivory, and trade increased greatly in the eighteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, France became the colonial power in Gabon. Gabon became an independent nation in 1960, but France has continued to be deeply involved in its political and economic affairs.
Approximately the size of Colorado, Gabon has a population of just over 1 million people. It straddles the equator and meets the Atlantic Ocean. Tropical forest covers four- fifths of the country. The rest consists of grassy savanna (grassland) and high plateaus. The capital, Libreville, is a modern city that overlooks the meeting place of the Komo Estuary and the Atlantic.
Tropical forest covers 80 percent of the country, the rest consisting of grassy savannah and high plateau. There are two dry seasons and two rainy seasons, but the equatorial climate is very hot and humid year-round. The major geographical feature is the Ogooue River, which flows east to west, splitting the country in two. It is the largest river between the great Niger and Congo rivers, and its watershed drains the whole of Gabon.
Gabon is becoming a country of urban-ites, the capital's population having grown 500 percent in the last thirty-five years. The major cities besides Libreville are Port Gentil, with its oil reserves; Oyem, with its vital trade with Cameroon to the north; Franceville, gateway to the Bateke Plateau; and Lambarene, made famous by Albert Schweitzer and his hospital. This riverine port, 125 miles from the capital, accessible by paved road only in 1996, still has one of the best hospitals in Central Africa.
There are forty-five local languages in Gabon. Many of them are shared with neighboring countries. Some of the major languages are Fang, Punu, Nzebi, Myene, and Obambe/Teke. These languages have common features of the Niger-Congo language family, including consonant groupings like the one in the word Ndjole (n-JO-lay).
Because of Gabon's great variety of languages, French has become the true lingua franca (common language) and is the official national language. Unfortunately, as a result, many Gabonese young people cannot speak the language of their grandparents.
Gabonese languages were not written down until the nineteenth century. Thus, children were taught and traditions were handed down through storytelling. Each ethnic group has its own stories. However, a common type is the morality tale involving an animal. One example is the story of the wasp who loses the love of his mate because he is too proud of his slim waist and lovely striped coat.
Seventy-five percent of the Gabonese identify themselves as Roman Catholic, and 20 percent as Protestants. In reality, however, many Gabonese hold animist (spirit) beliefs while also practicing Christianity. Witchcraft is one element of animism that still exists in Gabon. Belief in evil spirits and in sorcerers who can call and use them is common. Death is often explained as the work of an evil spirit, or of a neighbor who is skilled in casting spells.
The most important holiday is August 17, the day commemorating Gabonese independence from France. Towns, large and small, have a central square called "Place de l'Indépendence." Here the Gabonese flag is flown, and speeches and traditional dancing celebrate the holiday. In the capital there is a military parade. While most Gabonese are Christian, New Year's Day is celebrated more than Christmas or Easter.
In Africa, the passage from life to death is considered the most meaningful life change because of the importance of ancestors' spirits. In Gabon, funerals are elaborate affairs. Mourners close to the person who has died stay awake for days, attending to the body. In the past, when a man died, his widow often married one of his close relatives, usually a younger brother. This custom is less common today.
Gabonese greetings between strangers are reserved. A quick handshake is standard for both social and business occasions. Friends greet each other with a series of four kisses, two on each cheek, as people do in parts of France. Sometimes just touching cheeks will do. Men often walk holding hands, a sign of brotherly affection. A guest visiting a private home for the first time will be served a glass of beer. Gabonese often avoid showing too much familiarity with a new acquaintance so that they won't appear disrespectful. Among older Gabonese, men and women stay in separate groups at social gatherings.
Young couples in the city date like couples in the West, enjoying movies, dancing, and other forms of entertainment.
Living conditions in Gabon are generally better than in the rest of Africa. Two reasons for this are the abundance of oil and timber and the low population.
There are no Gabonese people starving from drought or living in squalid refugee camps. However, there are many who live in temporary huts, who lack electricity and plumbing, and who do not have schools or medical facilities nearby.
As in the rest of Africa, there is a drastic difference between rural and city living conditions. Downtown Libreville and Port Gentil have luxury apartments with satellite dishes. However, immigrant workers from other African countries often live in shanties (shacks) that ring these and other cities.
Families in Gabon tend to be large. Women have an average of five children. Because the government wants the population to grow, it is illegal for most Gabonese women to buy birth-control devices.
Polygyny—the taking of more than one wife—is legal in Gabon. However, couples are required to enter legal marriage contracts and register as either "polygamous" (with more than one spouse) or "monogamous" (with only one spouse).
Women's property rights are difficult to protect without a legal marriage certificate, but there are many couples who don't have this. Interestingly, the French word for "woman" is also used to signify "wife." Ma femme is how many women in couples are identified. This may or may not imply legal marriage, but her betrothal to a man is understood—she will often already have his children and will consider his family her in-laws.
Today, most Gabonese wear Western-style clothing. Men wear suits and ties to the office, and blue jeans and T-shirts during the weekend. Women wear modern dresses and skirts made of cloth in colorful African prints with detailed embroidery.
A more traditional item is the boubou , a flowing top that may be knee-length or floor-length. Ceremonial occasions call for elaborate boubous. Men wear them with loose-fitting matching pants underneath; women wear them with double-wrapped pagnes. (A pagne is a colorful strip of African cloth used for many purposes. It can be wrapped as a skirt; it can also be used for tying a baby to its mother's back.)
The staple of most Gabonese people is manioc root. When ground, soaked, and fermented, it is sold in a form that resembles a block of cheese, wrapped in a banana leaf. Another common source of starches and sugars that the body uses for energy is the large, hard banana known in the Americas as a plantain.
Favorite meats include wild monkey, bushpig, pangolin (a small armored mammal resembling an armadillo), and gazelle. Shrimp, crab, and a variety of fish are harvested from the ocean. Most rural households keep chickens.
The Gabonese eat their largest meal in the middle of the day. Schools, offices, and businesses shut down between noon and 3:00 PM so that people can go home for lunch. Leftovers are usually served in the evening. On special occasions, the main meal is eaten later, accompanied by beer, palm wine, and Coca-Cola.
Although Gabon officially offers free education for everyone, in reality many villages do not have schools. Some children must travel long distances or move in order to attend. Schools use the French system, which allows for thirteen years of formal education. At the end, a final state exam called the Baccalauréat is administered. There are two major universities, located in Libreville and Franceville.
There are over forty distinct cultures in Gabon. While it is probably true that Gabon has changed more rapidly than any other African country, there is a strong sense of an ancestral "Africanness" that ties all ethnic groups together. The first stanza of the Gabonese national anthem embodies this idea:
United in concord and brotherhood,
Wake up, Gabon, dawn is upon us.
Stir up the spirit that thrills and inspires us!
At last we rise up to attain happiness.
About a third of the Gabonese population works directly for the government. One salaried worker may support a large number of relatives on his or her pay. Many Gabonese work in "informal" (non-taxpaying) jobs, selling produce, driving unregistered taxis, or tailoring. Income is supplemented by family plantations, often kept by members living in rural areas. People also keep small garden plots around the cities.
Work in Gabon stops between the hours of noon and 3:00 PM because of the heat. Most buildings outside downtown Libreville are not air-conditioned.
As in most of Africa, soccer is the national sport. Martial arts are very popular, as is basketball, for both men and women.
Gabon borrows heavily from Western popular culture. Traditional pastimes must compete with American and French television and music, and with news about the antics of sports heroes. Shows on the two television stations include The Bold and the Beautiful , Santa Barbara , Dallas , French movies, and documentaries. Central African music is also very popular. Zairian Zouk (a type of music) is still more common on the street than the music of pop star Michael Jackson (1958–) or rap music.
The most common form of entertainment, for old and young alike, is visiting with neighbors, friends, and relatives.
The most common game played by all ages is checkers. Every bar and cafe has a board and pieces made from pop or beer bottle caps.
Gabon is known for some of the world's most outstanding masks and statues, particularly those produced by the Fang people in the north. Particular to southern Gabon are soapstone carvings of female heads, called Pierre de M'bigou. These heads are now something of a national symbol. They can be seen on stamps and on business signs.
In 1990, Gabon made the transition from a one-party state to a multiparty democracy. In recent years, opposition parties have complained of election fraud aimed at keeping President Omar Bongo (1935–) in power. Gabonese like politics, and spirited debates often ensue. Labor, student, and women's groups request permits to hold rallies and protest marches, and usually receive them.
Family law recognizes only women's unfaithfulness in marriage as grounds for divorce, but not the unfaithfulness of men. Domestic violence and fatherless families are common. As elsewhere in the world, these are problems that often remain behind closed doors. With a bar on nearly every corner and a taste for homemade beer and wine, Gabonese people are copious drinkers. In addition, many Gabonese believe that drugs are a serious problem in their country.
Despite these problems most Gabonese are proud of their country, with its abundant natural resources, relative wealth, and incredible natural beauty.
Alexander, Caroline . One Dry Season. London: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Perriman, Andrew. Gabon. New York: Chelsea House, 1988
Vansina, Jan. Paths in the Rainforest. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
World Travel Guide, Gabon. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ga/gen.html , 1998.