LOCATION: Gabon (western Central Africa)
POPULATION: About 1,485,832
LANGUAGE: French; 45 local Niger-Congo languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Islam; animism
Gabon's stability keeps it in the shadows. An African country that has not been afflicted by wars, drought, or chronic uprisings, it tends to stay out of the press and has long held an un-challenged position in the “French sphere of influence.”
The peopling of what is now Gabon was a slow and steady process. Pygmies and other forest dwellers have been living there for millennia. Around 1500 bc, Bantu people from the northwest began to migrate into the area, slowly spreading out over the next 2,500 years, differentiating into the more than 40 ethno-linguistic groups that exist today. Later migrations during the period of the slave trade, and again in the 19th century, have further enriched the mix. The southern kingdom of Loango grew in the years before European contact, but most people led simple lives of autonomy, living in villages among extended family. For many centuries, people kept small plots where they grew yams, greens, and later, bananas. Horticulture was supplemented, and often overshadowed, by hunting meat and gathering wild plants from the forests or savannas. Archaeological evidence suggests the existence of iron smelting in Gabon since the 4th century bc.
Europeans arrived in the 15th century. First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch, British, and French. Rarely did they venture beyond the coast. Their interests were slaves and ivory, and trade increased dramatically in the 18th century. Loango became a center for a vigorous trade in slaves, who were captured farther inland and sold to Europeans at the coast by members of more powerful tribes. It is estimated that by 1840, 2.5 million slaves had been taken from West Central Africa.
In the late 19th century, France became the colonial power in Gabon and continued to be heavily involved in political and economic affairs after Gabon's independence in 1960. There are more French expatriates living in Gabon now than during the colonial period.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Gabon covers 103,347 square kilometers. It is slightly smaller than the state of Colorado. Gabon is on the West Coast of Africa, centered on the Equator. It borders Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the North, and the Republic of Congo to the East and South. The capital, Libreville, is on the West Coast in the North. Libreville (“Free town”) was the landing place for a ship of freed slaves in the 1800s and later became the capital.
Over 80% of Gabon is tropical rain forest, with a plateau region in the South. There are nine provinces named after the rivers that separate them. There are roughly 1,485,832 Gabonese (2008). There are equal numbers of men and women. The original inhabitants were the Pygmies, but only a few thousand remain. Of the total population, 60% live in the cities while 40% inhabit the villages. There is also a large population of Africans from other countries who have come to Gabon to find work. Gabon retains its colonial frontiers as drawn by the Europeans in 1885.
Tropical forest covers 80% 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 into 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 urbanites. 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.
The national language is French, mandatory in school. It is spoken by the majority of the population under the age of 50. The use of a common language is extremely helpful in the cities, where Gabonese from all of the different ethnic groups come together to live. Most Gabonese speak at least two languages, as each ethnic group has its own language as well. The educated Gabonese speak Parisian French, while the rest of the country speaks a version of French that has absorbed the rhythm and accent of their local language.
There are 45 local languages in Gabon, many of them shared with neighboring countries. Some of the larger ethno-linguistic groups are Fang, Punu, Nzebi, Myene, and Obambe/Teke. These languages are mutually unintelligible—but as with other languages in the Niger-Congo family, deploy consonant groupings, like in Ndjole (n-jolay), as well as open, rounded vowel pairs, as in antsia ama (anchiama). Because of this linguistic diversity, French has become the true lingua franca (common language) and is the official national language. The business of government, education, marketing, publishing, and socializing is conducted in French. Unfortunately, as a result, many young Gabonese cannot speak the language of their grandparents.
Because Gabonese languages were not written down until the 19th century, storytelling has long been the way to teach children and to transmit tradition to people of all ages. Each ethnic group has its own stories, but common are morality tales involving animals like the wasp that loses the affections of a mate due to excessive pride in his slim waist and lovely striped coat.
With nationalization have come national folk heroes. One is Charles Tchorere, a soldier who fought as a captain in the French army against the Germans in World War II. He is remembered for bravery in distant battles and for the honor he bestowed upon his nation.
There are several different belief systems in Gabon. About 75% of Gabonese identify themselves as Roman Catholic, 20% as Protestants, less than 1% as Muslim, and the rest as animist. In reality, however, many Gabonese hold animist beliefs while at the same time practicing Christianity or Islam. Animism, a body of beliefs held by tribal and pre-industrial people the world over for thousands of years, generally does not identify a human-like god that is concerned with activities on Earth. Animist gods are abstract and amorphous, and inanimate objects can hold spiritual power. It is the spirits of ancestors who aid or obstruct human endeavor. These beliefs are simultaneously held with Bwiti, an ancestral worship. There are also several thousand Muslims, most of whom have immigrated from other African countries.
Several rituals and holy places exist. The Bwiti ceremonies, performed to worship the ancestors, are led by ngangas (medicine men). There are special wooden temples for these ceremonies, and participants dress in bright costumes, paint their faces white, remove their shoes, and cover their heads.
Witchcraft is also an element of animism which exists in Gabon; belief in evil spirits and sorcerers who can conjure them is quite common. Among traditionalists, death itself is not a natural phenomenon, but can only be explained as the work of a malevolent spirit or the malfeasance of a neighbor skilled in casting spells.
Wines are made from palm trees and sugarcane. The palm wine, in conjunction with a hallucinogenic root called iboga, is used during ceremonies for death, healing, and initiation. In small doses, iboga acts as a stimulant, making it useful for all-night ceremonies. In larger quantities, it is hallucinogenic, allowing participants to “see their ancestors.” Food and wine are offered to the ancestors during the ceremonies, and both men and women partake in these rituals, which are full of drumming, singing and dancing
Because of the ethnic diversity of such a small population, national holidays take on universal significance. The most important is August 17, commemorating Gabonese independence from France. Towns, large and small, have a central square called “Place de l'Independence” where the Gabonese flag is flown, and speeches and traditional dancing take place. In the capital there is a military parade. While most Gabonese are Christian, New Year's Day sees more celebration than Christmas or Easter.
RITES OF PASSAGE
The passage from life to death is considered the most important rite of passage in Africa due to the importance of spirit ancestors. In Gabon, funerals are elaborate affairs at which mourners close to the deceased stay awake for days, attending to the body. What used to be quite common in the past, though much less so now, is the remarriage of a widow to a close relative of her departed husband, usually a younger brother. This custom is logical when one considers the traditional practice of paying dot (bride-price), wherein a husband or his family pay a woman's family for the privilege of marrying her. After dot is paid, the marriage and resulting children are considered legitimate, and the woman's labor then belongs directly to her husband's family. If the husband dies, it is his family who still has rights to her labor and future fertility, and hence the responsibility for her welfare and that of her children.
There are few universal rituals in multi-ethnic Gabon, but those surrounding Bwiti are remarkable for their adoption from the Fang by other groups. The Bwiti cult grew out of a demographic crisis at the turn of the last century, when sexually transmitted disease caused infertility among women and a declining birth rate throughout the country. Bwiti began as a set of rituals performed by women to ensure fertility. It is now described by Gabonese as a secret society of both men and women who perform these rites in an attempt to purify the body and spirit for many reasons. While the Bwiti rituals combine dancing, singing, and drinking, as in many Gabonese celebrations, the central element is the ingestion of iboga, a wild plant found only in Gabon. Iboga is a hallucinogen, and if enough is taken, subjects will go into a trance, perhaps entering a spirit world were the ancestors reign. Once in this world, questions are asked of the dead about how to arrange matters here in the world of human habitation. After death, bodies are rubbed and embalmed to remove rigor mortis. Because of the tropical climate, the bodies are interred within two days. They are buried in a wooden coffin. The deceased then joins the ancestors who are to be worshipped in Bwiti ceremonies. They can be asked for advice, about remedies to diseases, etc. There is a retraite de deul ceremony one year after death to end the mourning period.
Gabonese greetings among strangers are reserved, and a quick handshake is standard for both social and business occasions. A foreigner visiting a private home for the first time will be offered beer, but conversation may not begin immediately. It is often said by Gabonese that chattering too much with a new guest assumes a familiarity that may be disrespectful. It does not take long, however, to get to know people, and those introduced through family are soon greeted with flourish. Friends meet each other with a series of four kisses, two on each cheek, as in parts of France. Sometimes just a touching of cheeks will do. Men often walk holding hands, a sign of filial affection. Among older Gabonese, separation of the sexes is the norm at social gatherings.
The expression of young love has changed over the years. Young couples in the city go to movies, dance, and visit as in the West. But traditionally, marriages were often arranged, usually between a young girl and older man, so the opportunity for dating within one's age group was limited.
Living conditions in Gabon are generally better than in the rest of Africa. Two reasons for this are the abundance of oil and exportable timber and the low population.
While there are no Gabonese starving from drought or living in squalid refugee camps across borders, there are many who live in impermanent huts, lack electricity and plumbing, don't have access to schools or medical facilities, and have little hope of entering the formal economy.
Health facilities are inadequate. Hospitals are ill-equipped, and patients buy their own medications from pharmacies before treatment can begin. Malaria, tuberculosis, syphilis, AIDS, and other infectious diseases are widespread and virtually untreated. Many villagers also turn to the ngangas for remedies, as modern health care is expensive and far from their residences.
As in the rest of Africa, there is a drastic difference between rural and urban living conditions. Downtown Libreville and Port Gentil boast luxury apartments with satellite dishes, Mercedes, and supermarkets. Cities are then ringed by shanties, filled with immigrant workers from other African countries. Rural areas are decidedly poorer. There are few jobs and little farming beyond what can feed a family. One reason for this is the lack of investment by the Gabonese government, like many African governments, in agriculture-related infrastructure. Although most Gabonese know how to farm, almost all of the nation's food is imported.
As a building material, cement is seen as a sign of wealth. All of the government buildings are constructed in cement. In the capital, it is easy to differentiate between buildings that were styled by Gabonese and those done by outside architects. In the villages, the architecture is different. The structures are impermanent. The most economical houses are made from mud and covered in palm fronds. There are houses built from wood, bark, and brick. The brick houses are often plastered with a thin layer of cement with roofs made from corrugated tin. A wealthy family might build with cinder blocks. In addition to the houses, both men and women have distinctive gathering places. The women each have a cuisine, a kitchen hut filled with pots and pans, wood for fire, and bamboo beds set against the walls for sitting and resting. The men have open structures called corps de guards, or gatherings of men. The walls are waist high and open to the roof. They are lined in benches with a central fire.
Families in Gabon tend to be large, and women have an average of five children. Some ethnic groups are matrilineal; immediate family includes not only parents and siblings, but also the mother's parents and siblings. The government is actively encouraging births due to a belief that the population is simply too small. As a result of this policy, as well as a generally lax cultural attitude toward sex, many young Gabonese women become pregnant with no husband. Families stay together. When a couple is wed, they move to the husband's village which holds his extended family including brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, children, nieces, and nephews. It is common for families to share a home with their parents and extended relatives. Everyone is welcome and there is always room for one more.
Polygyny—the taking of more than one wife—is legal in Gabon, although it is required for couples entering state-sanctioned marriage contracts to register as either “polygamous” or “monogamous.”
Women's property rights are difficult to protect without a legal marriage certificate, but there are many couples that 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 dresses and skirts of a Western cut, with material of a colorful African print and the detailed embroidery work done by tailors all over West and Central Africa. A more traditional item is the boubou, a flowing top that varies in length from knee to floor. Ceremonial occasions call for elaborate boubous with loose-fitting matching pants underneath for men and double-wrapped pagnes for women. A pagne is a colorful strip of African cloth used for everything from casual wraparounds to slings for tying a baby to its mother's back. Earlier, raffia was the most commonly used cloth. It is made out of a kind of grass, woven tightly to form a stiff but malleable material.
The cat is eaten on special occasions among the Fang. It is traditionally eaten by men and is reputed to bestow longevity, as the cat is notoriously hard to kill. The staple of most Gabonese, however, is manioc root. It is ground, soaked, and fermented in a labor-intensive process that can take weeks and appears in the markets resembling a block of cheese wrapped in a banana leaf. Manioc leaves are also eaten and look like spinach when cooked. Another common source of carbohydrates is the banana. These are not small, sweet bananas, which also exist, but larger, harder bananas known in the Americas as plantains.
The staples vary little among the groups in Gabon. The groups share a landscape and climate and thus are able to produce the same kinds of things. Bananas, papayas, pineapples, guavas, mangoes, bushbutter, avocado, and coconuts are the fruits. Eggplants, bitter eggplants, feed corn, sugarcane, peanuts, plantains, and tomatoes are also found. Cassava is the main starch. It is a tuber with little nutritional value, but fills the stomach. Its young leaves are picked and used as a vegetable. Protein comes from the sea and rivers, as well as from bush meat hunted by the men.
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, carp from the Ogouee River, and tilapia from rural fish farms. Most rural households keep chickens, and while there are a few pig and cattle enterprises in Gabon, most domesticated meat is imported from countries with less humid environments more conducive to stockraising. With a year-round growing season, trees produce a vast array of fruit and nuts. The palm nut is used to make palm oil, a necessity in every kitchen. Coconuts, pineapples, mangos, and lemons are sold on practically every street corner.
The Gabonese habit is to eat the largest meal in the middle of the day. Schools, offices, and businesses shut down between noon and 3:00 pm, and people can go home for lunch. Leftovers are usually served in the evening, unless there is a special occasion, when the main meal is eaten later, accompanied by lots of beer, palm wine, and Coca-Cola.
In theory, Gabon offers free universal education. In reality, many villages don't have schools, and some children have to travel long distances or relocate to attend. The adult literacy rate is 63%. Schools use the French system, which allows for 13 years of formal education, and a final state exam called the Baccalaureate. Public schools tend to be crowded, with 30–100 students to a classroom. In rural areas, schools often lack essential materials like books and chalkboards. The children begin school at age five or six. When there is no money for books and supplies the children will not attend school. Sometimes a wealthy relative will be called upon to provide these essentials. Both boys and girls attend school until they are 16 by law. Girls may drop out of school due to pregnancy and the boys continue with school or begin to work.
The Omar Bongo University in Libreville offers two to three year programs in many subjects, as well as advanced studies in select fields. The University of Science and Technology in the south is relatively new and diversifies the options. These schools are dominated by upper-class men. Women have a difficult time excelling in academics, as the subjects and standards are structured for men. Some Gabonese study abroad in other African countries or in France, at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
With over 40 distinct cultures in Gabon, national heritage becomes important. While Gabon has changed more rapidly than perhaps any other African country, there is an acute sense of an ancestral “Africanness” that spans ethnicities. The first stanza from the Gabonese national anthem is suggestive:
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.
The International Center for Bantu Civilizations was created in Libreville in 1983, and there is a Gabonese Museum featuring Gabon's history and artistic relics. There is also a French Cultural Center in the capital that displays artistic creations and features dance groups and chorales. There is an annual cultural celebration as well, with performances by musicians and dancers from many different groups in celebration of Gabon's diversity.
Much of Gabon's literature is strongly influenced by France, as many authors received their schooling there. Writers use French, newspapers are in French, and television is broadcast in French. Radio programs use both French and local languages, however, and there is mounting interest in the history of Gabon's peoples.
The Fang make masks, baskets, carvings, and sculptures. Organized clarity and distinct lines and shapes characterize Fang art. Bieri, boxes to hold the remains of ancestors, are carved with protective figures. Masks are worn in ceremonies and during hunting sessions. The faces are painted with white and black features. Myene art centers around Myene rituals for death. The female ancestors are represented by white painted masks, which are worn by their male relatives. The Bexota on the other hand use brass and copper to cover their carvings. They use baskets to hold ancestral remains.
A relatively large percentage of the Gabonese population works directly for the state, living in a provincial capital or a large town. One salaried worker will support several to dozens of other people on his or her salary. Many more work in the informal sector selling produce, driving unregistered taxis, or tailoring. Income is supplemented by family plantations, often kept by members living in rural areas, but also kept in small plots around the cities.
Work in Gabon stops between the hours of noon and 3:00 pm because of the heat. Most buildings outside of downtown Libreville are not air conditioned.
As in most of Africa, soccer is the national sport. Basketball, for both men and women, and martial arts are very popular. The most common game played by all ages is checkers—every bar and café has a board and pieces fashioned out of soda pop or beer bottle tops.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Gabon borrows heavily from Western popular culture. Traditional pastimes fight an uphill battle with American and French television, music, and the antics of sports heroes. Central African music is also very popular.
The most common form of entertainment, for old and young alike, is visiting. Neighbors, friends, and relatives from the same village stroll in the evening, make unannounced social calls, and gossip. While television and radio have made inroads into even the most remote villages, oral culture and face-to-face interaction is an integral part of Gabonese life to a much greater extent than in the West.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Gabon is known for some of the world's most outstanding masks and statuary, particularly those produced by the Fang in the north, where a high level of artistic abstraction of the human face and figure influenced artists such as Pablo Picasso. Particular to southern Gabon are soapstone carvings of female heads called Pierre de M'bigou. These heads are now considered somewhat of a national symbol and can be seen on stamps and business logos. However, with the drastic changes brought by modernity, most of Gabon's craft traditions have been lost.
In 1990 Gabon made the transition from a one-party state to multi-party democracy. People on the street, in bars, and in the classroom feel freer now to criticize their government and the president. 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.
Women's rights are of particular interest in Africa, where traditional gender roles are quite strong. In Gabon women can own property, sue for divorce, and hold public office, but family law recognizes only female—not male—infidelity as grounds for divorce. Domestic violence and absentee father-hood is prevalent, and, as in America, they are problems that often remain behind closed doors.
A problem that doesn't remain behind closed doors is alcoholism. With a bar on nearly every corner, no regulation of consumption, and a traditional taste for homemade beer and wine, Gabonese are copious drinkers. While many Gabonese believe that drugs are a serious problem in their country, it is nothing compared to the alcoholism.
Despite these problems most Gabonese are proud of their country, with its abundant natural resources, relative wealth, and incredible natural beauty. The PNLS (National Program to Fight Against AIDS) has an office in every major city. It sells condoms and educates women on family planning and pregnancy. There is also a Forests and Waters office in every city, working to protect the environment and wildlife from exploitation, though its effectiveness is questioned. The World Wild-life Fund has ecological and sociological research and wildlife preservation projects in the north and on the coast, and the United Nations supports agricultural advancements in the north by sponsoring extensionists and providing training and mopeds. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is also present, working against child prostitution and infant mortality. A German organization, GTZ, funds the organization of the Gabonese National Forestry School. The Peace Corps is active in Gabon as well, with programs in construction, health, agriculture, fisheries, women in development, and environmental education.
In general Gabonese men assume a dominant role over Gabonese women. Men make the financial decisions and control the activities of the family; however, Gabonese women are known to be outspoken and frequently influence family decisions. In the government, the military, and the schools, men hold the vast majority of positions of responsibility and power. Alternatively, women do the majority of the manual labor for the family. Gabonese women typically assume a role of homemaker; few work or engage in activities outside the home.
Gabonese families are generally large. Women are responsible for raising their many children, farming, preparing food, and carrying out various household chores.
Men assume responsibility for housing. Most men build a house for the family and construct a separate area for each wife to use for food preparation. Men also handle the business transactions related to any cash crops the family may produce. In addition, men may fish, work in construction, or take menial office jobs in the cities. Women may also work in the cities, typically in the service sector. A few exceptional women have risen to positions of responsibility, but most positions of power in the workplace are held by men. Children may help with such chores as laundry, kitchen clean-up, and housecleaning.
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Balandier, Georges, and Jacques Maquet. The Dictionary of Black African Civilization. New York: L. Amiel, 1974.
Barnes, James Franklin. Gabon: Beyond the Colonial Legacy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.
Decalo, Samuel. The Stable Minority: Civilian Rule in Africa, 1960–1990. Gainesville, FL: FAP Books, 1998.
Gardinier, David E. Gabon. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Press, 1992.
——. Historical Dictionary of Gabon. Boulder, CO: NetLibrary, Inc., 2000.
Gray, Christopher J. Colonial Rule and Crisis in Equatorial Africa: Southern Gabon, c. 1850–1940. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2002.
Griffiths, Ieuan L. L., ed. The Atlas of African Affairs. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1994.
McElrath, Karen (ed.). HIV and AIDS: A Global View. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
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Vansina, Jan. Paths in the Rainforest. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
—revised by M. Njoroge
LOCATION: Gabon (western Central Africa)
POPULATION: About 1.2 million
LANGUAGE: French; 45 local Niger-Congo languages
1 • INTRODUCTION
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.
2 • LOCATION
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.
3 • LANGUAGE
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.
4 • FOLKLORE
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.
5 • RELIGION
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.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
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.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
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.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
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.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
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.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
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.
11 • CLOTHING
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.)
12 • FOOD
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.
13 • EDUCATION
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.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
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.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
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.
16 • SPORTS
As in most of Africa, soccer is the national sport. Martial arts are very popular, as is basketball, for both men and women.
17 • RECREATION
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.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
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.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
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.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
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.