Gabon - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Gabon: the Bradt Guide

Archaeological research has uncovered a handful of artefacts in the Ogooué Valley, particularly around La Lopé, testifying that human life here dates as far back as 400,000 years. These prehistoric peoples probably came to the area from the Congo or Cameroon. Of the people living in Gabon today, the earliest inhabitants are the ‘Pygmies’, who can be traced back to AD1100. These forest-based communities came from elsewhere in Central Africa, driven by the spread of the Bantu to find alternative areas to support their nomadic forest existence. Unfortunately for them, the Bantu kept on coming. In fact, the Bantu migration into western Africa was to continue for several centuries. As late as the 19th century, Fang migration into southwestern Gabon from the northeast caused massive instability and intertribal fighting.

The Arrival of the Europeans

Little is known with much certainty about Gabon before the Europeans arrived and started making notes, though these sources tell us just as much about European attitudes – invariably exploitative, patronising and prejudiced – as they do about the damage they wreaked. European attempts to replace traditional societies and their practices with European models of civilisation and spiritual fulfilment have since been well documented. Gabon’s European history starts with a Portuguese sailor, Lopes Gonçalves, who trawled Africa’s west coast in 1474 and entered the Gabon Estuary. There is a story that he named the estuary gabão because its shape reminded him of a gabão, or sailor’s cloak, and that later gabão was transformed to become Gabon. It’s not a very popular story, because the estuary’s shape doesn’t, in fact, look much like a cloak. An alternative idea is that the name Gabon was derived from the name of an important local ruler.

Slave traders

What we know of the history of Africa’s west coast, from the arrival of the first Europeans up to the 18th century, is all trade-related. The Portuguese struggled to fend off the Dutch but by the mid 17th century had effectively lost the fight for trading supremacy, leaving the Dutch traders to ply the coast, buying gold, ivory and slaves. A century later much of the Dutch-controlled coast had passed into the hands of the English and French, who took more than one million Africans from the Loango coast between 1700 and 1807 – an enormous figure in an already sparsely populated area. There were known slave depots and embarkation points along the coast, and also at Lopé, Cap Lopez. Slavery was banned in Britain in 1838, in France in 1854 and in the United States in 1865, but trade continued illegally. From the late 1820s French anti-slavery naval patrols were operating – with the underlying agenda of finding suitable areas to establish trading posts – but the coast was too large and the number of vessels too small for their efforts to definitively halt trade.

In 1839 the French naval lieutenant Bouët-Willaumez obtained territory on the Gabon Estuary from the Mpongwé king Antchouwé Kowe Rapontchombo. (The French called him Denis, as Antchouwé Kowe Rapontchombo was too much of an effort.) The French now had a base from which to combat slave traders and spread French control. In return, Rapontchombo was given a few goods, including two sacks of tobacco, ten white hats and 20 guns. This was the first of many such treaties the French were to sign with local chiefs. 

Natural history

Franceville Lékédi Park Suspended Bridge Gabon by Kapuska ShutterstockMore than 80% of Gabon is covered in forests © Kapuska, Shutterstock

Pristine rainforests, an astonishing range of wildlife and an 855km coastline dotted with idyllic beaches make Gabon one of the last remaining unspoilt natural paradises on earth. With more than 11% of the country protected in 13 national parks, Gabon is one of Africa’s best places to access the untouched rainforest. Although tourism is still in its infancy, the country boasts an extraordinary biodiversity, gorillas, chimpanzees and a long list of endemic birds that attract adventurers and nature lovers from all over the world. Though it has a long way to go in terms of services, it’s no exaggeration to say that Gabon has the potential to become one of the world’s premier ecotourism destinations.

What’s more, the forests that cover more than 80% of Gabon are critical spaces in the battle against climate change, and valorising their growth rather than their destruction is a key step in making sure they remain standing.

Wildlife

Mammals

Forest Buffalo Herd Gabon by mbrand85 ShutterstockGabon is home to a wide variety of mammals, including forest buffalo © mbrand85, Shutterstock

The vast majority of Gabon’s tourists to date have come to see the wildlife, specifically gorillas, of which there are an estimated 100,000 (according to a 2018 study). Gorillas have been identified as having mainstream appeal and gorilla trekking has therefore been the focus of the few tour operators and travel agencies who have shown any interest in the country. In actual fact, gorillas are just one of many reasons why a wildlife enthusiast should visit. Gabon has very important populations of large mammals, including an estimated 40,000–50,000 forest elephants and a similar number of chimpanzees. There is also a large number and variety of monkeys, including the black colobus monkey, the moustached monkey and the sun-tailed monkey (an endemic species). Other mammals include the Congo sitatunga, mongoose, forest buffalo, civet, hippopotamus, leopard, porcupine, and numerous different species of pangolin and squirrel, including flying squirrel.

Birds

African Grey Parrot Gabon by PicksArt ShutterstockThe African grey parrot is well represented in Gabon's forests © PicksArt, Shutterstock

Rainforest birding in Central Africa can be slow and frustrating. Most species occur at low densities, others are frequently heard and rarely seen, and many of those that show up may do so only once. When species do show themselves, it is often fleetingly and generally in poor light. But for those who are patient, the rewards are endless – when a rockfowl finally leaps into view, the frustration vanishes and it becomes plainly obvious why you do it. The rainforest offers the most exotic and sought-after species in Africa, from blue cuckoo-shrikes to ant-thrushes and alethes. Birding the savannah is easier and more productive in short time spells; the weather and conditions are also more conducive to seeing more birds. In the rainforest many of the larger and more spectacular species Africa is renowned for are absent or exceptionally rare. However, what Central Africa lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality; the region probably holds more desirable bird species than any other part of the continent. Ornithologically speaking, Gabon remains little known, despite holding some of the best forests in Africa for birds. Improvements in infrastructure, and adventures by the more intrepid travellers, combined with improvements in field guides, means that birding here is no longer the near-impossible task it once was.

Conservation

Until 2002, Gabon had no national park system and so-called ‘protected areas’ were in actual fact not well protected at all. Lopé National Park, which had been a reserve since 1946, illustrates this point. Under laws passed in 1960 and 1982, ‘rational exploitation’ was allowed in protected areas. This officially meant controlled hunting and logging, but inevitably logging roads reaching previously inaccessible parts of the forest also opened the forest up to poachers. In 1996 the permissible exploitation was confined to a peripheral area of Lopé, while a core zone of about 2,400km2 was designated out of bounds. Selective logging and mineral exploitation was thus permitted in more than 99% of the country. (The meagre area legally protected from logging was the small Ipassa Reserve and this core part of the Lopé National Park.)

The decision to create the national park network represents the successful culmination of years of hard work by environmental organisations and the Direction de la Faune et de la Chasse (Wildlife and Hunting Department; DFC), the government branch in charge of protected areas. In 1996, WCS biologist and National Geographic explorer Mike Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realised there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries, from the Oubangui River to the Atlantic Ocean. In a high-profile bid to raise awareness and funds for the precious habitats of Central Africa, he trekked through 3,000km of dense forest to the Atlantic coast, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. This Megatransect took 15 months, during which Fay and his team tirelessly made notes and took photographs.

People and culture

People

The estimated population of Gabon is 2.1 million (2018). The yearly growth is 2.73%. With close to 90% of its inhabitants living in cities and towns, Gabon is one of Africa’s most urbanised countries. Just shy of half the population live in the capital, while other areas of dense population include Port-Gentil, Franceville and certain parts of the Woleu-Ntem province. By comparison, the country’s interior boasts some of the lowest population densities on the globe. Gabon’s inhabitants are young: 37% are under the age of 15.

The vast majority of Gabon’s different ethnic groups are of Bantu origin, and include the following major groupings: the Fang, the Eshira (also known as Shira or Échira), the Mbede-Teke, the Myènè and the Okande-Tsogo. The Fang – numerically the largest – are mostly concentrated in Woleu-Ntem, but are also found in Ogooué-Ivindo, Moyen-Ogooué and Estuaire. For the most part, the Eshira are found in the south of Gabon, particularly Ngounié province, the Mbede-Teke in the southeast, the Myènè and Mpongwé in Ogooué-Maritime and Estuaire, and the Okande-Tsogo in the country’s central interior. Each group speaks their own language, with French serving as the lingua franca across the country. The most important of the remaining ethnic groups are the Bandjabi, the Bapounou, and the Batéké (the president’s people). Gabon is becoming an increasingly integrated population, with the exception of forest-based communities who remain socially and economically marginalised and often extremely poor.

Within Africa, Gabon enjoys its image as a country of peace, economic growth and low population, which explains why it attracts so many West African immigrants, particularly from Mali, the Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Benin, Cameroon, Senegal and Mauritania. Around 20% of Gabon’s population consists of immigrants, which plays right into the hands of those lamenting that the Gabonese do not need to work, but prefer to leave their jobs to immigrants instead.

However, there are not enough well-paid jobs for Gabonese (anymore), let alone for so many foreign workers. Often forced to accept menial jobs, many struggle to make ends meet, and the Gabonese police are known for their harsh treatment of illegal African immigrants.

In general, each group of foreign workers keeps to a particular field of activity, depending on their country of origin. People from Benin, Togo and Cameroon are generally in the transport business and work as taxi drivers, for example, while the Senegalese have restaurants and Nigerians dominate in hairdressing, the selling of used clothes and spare motor parts. Mauritanians and Malians are often businessmen and own local supermarkets. Particularly in rural Gabon, ‘un Malien’ has become synonymous with a shop. Bigger businesses are often owned by Lebanese, who have built up thriving businesses all over West and Central Africa. There are also some 15,000 French foreign workers living in the country, often employed in the petroleum industry.

Culture

Unidentified Gabonese People in White Paste Traditional Dance by Anton Ivanov ShutterstockTraditional music and dance are important parts of daily life © Anton Ivanov, Shutterstock

Music

Traditional music is of great importance in daily life, with variations of style and subject among the 40 ethnic groups. Typical instruments are the mongongo (mouth bow), harp and balafon (wooden xylophone). Each specific sound of each specific instrument calls a particular spirit, and each instrument corresponds to a specific rite. Particularly famous for their music are the forest people, who use it to entice forest animals before the hunt, to cure illnesses and to overcome disputes. The characteristic complex vocal polyphony is a kind of non-linguistic code for communicating with the unseen world of spirits and departed relatives.

The heyday for Gabon’s contemporary music industry was halfway through the 1980s. The formation of the popular radio station Africa No. 1 and the opening of the first Gabonese recording studio, Studion Mademba, turned Libreville into a hotspot for musicians from all over Africa.

The ‘father of Gabonese music’, Pierre-Claver Akendengué, played an important role in the diffusion of African culture and music in the world. Born on the island of Awuta (Fernan Vaz Lagoon), Akendengué studied Psychology at the University of Caen in France, where he recorded his first album Nandipo, sung in French and Nkomi, a dialect of Myènè (1974). His second album, Africa my mother (Africa Obota), won him the Prix de la Jeune Chanson Francophone in Cannes in 1976. His album Lambarena (1993, with Hugues de Courson) is an example of the perfect symbiosis between French and Nkomi musical cultures. In 2013, he celebrated his 40 years of fame and success with two ‘best of’ concerts at Libreville’s Institut Français du Gabon. His most recent album, La Couleur de l’Afrique, came out at the end of 2018. Akendengué also discovered another now-popular singer, Annie Flore Batchiellilys, when she took part in the TV competition Africa Star.

Well known as both the ex-wife of former president Omar Bongo and the mother of the current president, Patience Dabany (affectionately called ‘La mama’) is a successful singer and musician. Born as Josephine Kama Dabany in Brazzaville in 1944, she started her musical career as Patience Dabany after her divorce from Omar Bongo in 1988. Her most popular songs are C’est pour la vie, a throwback to independence-era Congolese music, and On Vous Connait. Her 2004 world music album Obomiyia allowed her to tour with James Brown in Europe.

Gabon has a lively hip-hop scene, once dominated by the group Mauvaizhaleine, but today is populated with dozens of up-and-coming rappers and groups – Ekivo’k Family and Zayox are two names to look out for.

Back to the top

Gabon articles

View all

The best wildlife opportunities in Gabon

The vast majority of Gabon's tourists to date have come to see the country's magnificent wildlife. Who can blame them when all of this is on offer?

Read more...

Gabon: beyond the wildlife

Although Gabon is renowned for its incredible wildlife, the country has so much more to offer its visitors. From colourful canyons to ancient rock engravings – here's our pick of the best.

Read more...

Five reasons to visit Gabon

Fancy a trip to paradise? Here are five reasons why little-visited Gabon should be next on your travel list.

Read more...

Related books

View all