Author Annelies Hickendorff explores the unique features and religious background of Gabon’s famous mask and statue art.Read more...
Gabon - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Gabon: the Bradt Travel 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 from 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 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, massive instability and intertribal fighting were caused when the Fang invaded southwestern Gabon from the northeast.
The arrival of the Europeans
Little is known about Gabon before the Europeans arrived and started making notes. 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, Lopez Gonzalvez, who trawled Africa’s west coast in 1474 and entered the Gabon Estuary. There is a story that he named the estuary gabâo because its shape reminded him of a gabâo, or sailor’s cloak, and that later gabâo 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.
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 happily plying 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. The slave trade was to make a serious dent in the population of Gabon.
There were known slave depots and embarkation points at Lopé, Cape Lopez and along the Loango Coast. 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 local king Rapontchombo. (The French called him Denis, as 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 over the years with local chiefs.
Pristine rainforests, an astonishing range of wildlife and an 855km coastline of idyllic sandy beaches make Gabon one of the last remaining unspoilt natural paradises on earth. The country boasts an extraordinary biodiversity. With more than 11% of the country turned into 13 national parks, Gabon is one of Africa’s best places to access the untouched rainforest.
Most of Gabon is covered in dense rainforest © Annelies Hickendorff
Although tourism is still in its infancy, gorillas, chimpanzees and a long list of endemic birds attract adventurers and nature-lovers from all over the world. The country has the potential to become one of the world’s finest ecotourism destinations. Additionally, forests like these are also of critical importance for the world as a whole. Crucial for diminishing the negative effects of global warming, they function as the lungs of the planet.
Habitats and vegetation
Most of Gabon – nearly 22 million hectares – is covered in dense, tropical rainforest. Gabon forms part of the Congo Basin, the most heavily forested area in Africa, an area that also includes Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo and the Central African Republic. Parts of these Central African rainforests are among the oldest in the world, possibly between 60 and 100 million years old. The country is a patchwork of different forest formations. About 18,000 years ago, with the onslaught of the last ice age, only patches of rainforest survived in Equatorial Guinea, northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Gabon.
It is generally recognised that rainforests need upwards of 2,000mm of rain a year to survive. The forest zones that managed to survive amidst the savannah – and it is thought that there were three in Gabon – were regions at altitude or alongside rivers, where the levels of rainfall had been less affected. The most likely zones in Gabon have been identified as the Crystal Mountains, the du Chaillu Mountains and the Doudou Mountains. Areas such as Lopé National Park, where patches of savannah still survive, give us an idea of what most of the Central African landscape must have looked like between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago.
Effectively serving as safe houses for the plants and animals of the rainforest, these forest strongholds were to become the key in the relentless process of recolonising the savannah of Central Africa, a process that began with the return of the warmth and the rain about 12,000 years ago. It’s thanks to the survival of this ancient rainforest that Gabon boasts such rich and varied vegetation. There are over 10,000 species of plants in the Congo Basin, 3,000 of which can be found nowhere else in the world.
Rainforest is characterised by very tall, very straight hardwood trees, whose branches and trunks are often entwined with vines and covered with epiphytes that take root in crevices in the bark. The average height of the trees varies between 30m and 45m. The emergents rising above this canopy can reach heights of up to 60m.
The vast majority of Gabon’s tourists to date have come to see Gabon’s wildlife, and specifically the gorillas, of which there are an estimated 35,000. 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 Gabon. 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 40,000–45,000 forest elephants and 64,000 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 squirrels.
People and culture
The estimated population of Gabon is 1.7 million (2013). The yearly growth is under 2%. With almost 86% of its inhabitants living in cities and towns, Gabon is one of Africa’s most urbanised countries. Half of the population resides in the capital. Other areas of dense population are Port Gentil, Franceville and Woleu-Ntem. By comparison, the country’s interior is little populated. Gabon’s inhabitants are young: 38% is 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, the Mbede, the Myéné and the Okandé. The Fang – numerically the largest – are mostly concentrated in Woleu-Ntem, but are also found in Ogooué-Ivindo, Middle Ogooué and the estuary. For the most part, the Eshira are found in the south of Gabon, the Mbede in the southeast, the Myéné in the Ogooué Maritime, and the Okandé Maritime in the country’s interior. 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, but set apart by their appearance and their customs are the forest-based communities or so-called Pygmies. They are socially and economically marginalised and often extremely poor.
A man transporting his goats in Lopé National Park © Annelies Hickendorff
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. Up to 23% 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 (any more), let alone for so many foreign workers. Often forced to accept menial jobs, many of them struggle to make ends meet. 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, 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 Africa. There are also some 15,000 French foreign workers living in Gabon, usually referred to as expats.
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 (1974).
Each specific sound of each specific instrument calls a particular spirit, and each instrument corresponds to a specific rite.
His second album, Africa Obota (Africa my mother) 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. The popular singer Annie Flore Batchiellilys from Tchibanga (Nyanga) was discovered by Akendengué 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 the golden era of Zairo-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, dominated by the group Mauvaizhaleine. The rapping of Lord Ekomy Ndong and Yvon-Martial Moussodou-Mam often contains a political message.