According to traditional beliefs in Gabon, the natural and the supernatural are inextricably linked and there are special and powerful forces at play in a person’s everyday life. There are a number of different male and female religious societies in the country that share this premise. These initiation societies have traditionally played a crucial social role, determining social order, settling disputes and dispensing knowledge. The most widespread male secret society is Bwiti. Through the philosophy of Bwiti a man acquires the knowledge, discipline and strength necessary for life. He is taught to respect the powers of nature and the spirits, and to value the forest. He is also taught how to communicate with his ancestors.
It is through the cult of ancestors that the cosmic cycle of life and death operates, which is the basis of religion. The skulls of important people, and sometimes also teeth and bone fragments, are kept in baskets and bags by the Kota, and in bark receptacles by the Fang. These receptacles are usually then surmounted by small statues meant to symbolise the ancestors. They are kept under a shelter away from the village. When an event demands it – for example birth, marriage, illness, an initiation, the beginning and end of a period of mourning – the bones are brought out and the ancestors are consulted.
In each village there is a Bwiti temple called a mbandja, or corps de garde by the French. This is an open-sided hut where the ground is consecrated. Special ceremonies take place here, in which initiates seek to enter into contact with the spirits in the other world in order to further their spiritual enlightenment, their understanding of themselves and their understanding of the world. In preparation for a Bwiti ceremony, white kaolin is applied as protection from evil and as a channel to communicate with ancestors. The initiates facilitate their contact with the other world by eating the sacred wood, the root of the iboga shrub. Iboga induces hallucinations when consumed in sufficient quantities (and death when consumed in excessive quantities).
At all ceremonies there is traditional music and dancing. The sacred music includes drums, the ngombi (a harp with eight strings) and a musical bow, the mongongo, that is plucked with the mouth and tapped with a stick. Only the male dancers wear masks, their identity usually a secret. A mask is another tool for establishing contact between the spiritual and earthly worlds. It is a physical manifestation of a mythical concept, namely the spirits of the ancestors or the spirits of the forest. It can be in the form of a human or other animal – man, woman, snake, crocodile, gorilla or elephant – and each mask has a different expression to indicate whether it is good or bad. The style and materials of the mask depend on why and where they were made. For example, in Ogooué-Maritime masks are traditionally carved out of wood in the shape of a helmet, and are often painted white and adorned with mirrors, feathers and horns.
The nganga is a traditional practitioner who has spent years studying the art of healing and the links between this world and the other. It is the nganga who administers the iboga, as well as all other forest remedies. He does not have absolute power. He is a man with the weaknesses of a man. The nganga’s gift lies in his ability to feel a person’s illness, and his intimate knowledge of the forest enables him to prepare a remedy. A nganga will tell you that the human and the forest are one, and that everything in the forest has an important role to play, from termites and bees, to pythons and leopards. Jean-Claude Cheyssial, a French film-maker, has produced a series of fascinating documentary films since the early 1990s focusing on subjects such as the importance of the forest in Gabonese society and the role of the nganga.
Traditional beliefs and practices suffered enormously at the hands of the missionaries, who taught people to be ashamed of their culture and to destroy the instruments of their beliefs, such as the masks. The frequency of rituals has decreased enormously, and naturally there are fears for what is being lost and questions as to whether there is a future for authentic masks (meaning masks created for religious as opposed to artistic purposes). That said, the young Gabonese exhibit a growing recognition of and pride in their traditions, even if they do not all choose to participate. This home-grown interest is paralleled outside Gabon, and there is a steady trickle of foreigners who come to Gabon to be initiated into Bwiti.
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