Gabon - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Gabonese Republic
Formation 1960 / 1960
Population 1.5 million / 15 people per sq mile (6 people per sq km)
Total area 103,346 sq. miles (267,667 sq. km)
Languages Fang, French*, Punu, Sira, Nzebi, Mpongwe
Religions Christian (mainly Roman Catholic) 55%, Traditional beliefs 40%, Other 4%, Muslim 1%
Ethnic mix Fang 26%, Shira-punu 24%, Other 16%, Foreign residents 15%, Nzabi-duma 11%, Mbédé-Teke 8%
Government Presidential system
Currency CFA franc = 100 centimes
Literacy rate 88%
Calorie consumption 2730 kilocalories
Extensive archaeological research in what is now the Republic of Gabon began during the 1980s and has focused on the Ogooue River Valley because it appears to have served as a major prehistoric trade route and, much later, provided accessible routes for successive waves of Bantu-speaking peoples from Nigeria and Cameroon. The major ridge lines in Gabon are generally oriented in a north-south direction, and numerous elephant trails along the ridge lines were probably used by early humans migrating south. Artifacts found at various sites indicate that the Ogooue was inhabited by Stone Age huntergatherers, a succession of Neolithic peoples, and waves of Iron Age groups. (In central Africa no evidence of a Copper Age has yet been found, so the Iron Age comes right after the Neolithic phase.) During the Stone Age, which ends around 5000–4500 B.C.E., technology apparently developed gradually in a stable population, and the acquisition of better hunting equipment, such as the bow and arrow gave hunters greater mobility and accuracy. Most of the dating for sites and artifacts in the Ogooue Valley must be done by comparison to other sites where there is a clear stratigraphic record, but three layers at one site, which archaeologists named Lope 2, have been dated.
The first, and oldest layer, was used around 10,000 years ago; the second layer evidences use about 9,000 years ago; and the third layer, the youngest, is around 7,000 years old.
Beginning during the Neolithic and progressing through the Iron Age, a variety of successive cultures indicates successive migratory waves coming into the region. The sudden appearance in the Ogooue of polished stone implements and pottery around 2500 may mean that Neolithic peoples moved into the valley from some other place.
The upper Holocene (3,000 B.C.E to the present) shows a series of migrations of iron-working Bantu peoples from the vicinity of the Nigeria-Cameroon border into the Ogooue from 1500 to the start of the Christian era. These groups apparently replaced the inhabitants already living there although it is possible that the Neolithic peoples may have coexisted with the ironworkers. The ceramic arts are well represented by successive, often very different, styles, and the furnaces used by the ironworkers become increasingly technologically sophisticated. Of particular interest from this period are widely distributed petroglyphs (carvings or inscriptions on a rock) found on boulders along the Ogooue River.
A form of open-air rock art was first found in the area in 1987.
Since then an intensive search has found more then 1,000 petroglyphs up and down the Ogooue Valley, mostly on rounded or flat rock outcrops.
Unfortunately local oral traditions and historical accounts both fail to mention these works, and the people who now inhabit the valley ignore them.
Although dating such open-air artwork is virtually impossible, from the patina on the figures and the fact that they were made with iron chisels, the petroglyphs seem to be the work of Iron Age peoples. This makes them roughly contemporaneous with the beginning of the Christian era and attributable to the several waves of Bantu speakers. Additional evidence for this interpretation is provided by an archaeological site less than 700 feet from petroglyphs on Elarmekora Hill, where pottery shards were found adorned with concentric circles identical to the petroglyphs.
The petroglyphs appear to have been carefully thought out because at least some of the figures were first roughly drawn with faint rectangular lines. The actual designs were then pecked out, probably with iron chisels, leaving thousands of tiny round depressions.
A great variety of petroglyphs have been described. They fall into two broad categories: abstract designs such as triangles and the concentric circles already mentioned, and representational figures, many of small four-footed animals, suggestive of a symbolism related to hunting, lizards, insects, and, at one site, what may be fertility symbols used in initiation rituals.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to enter the region, arriving in 1472 C.E. Gabon owes its name to the Portuguese, who named it gabao, after the shape of the Komo River estuary. In Portuguese, a gabao is “a coat with sleeves and hood.” But the Portuguese concentrated their activities on the nearby islands of São Tomé and Bioko instead of Gabon. By the 16th century the region had become a hub for slave trading and had also attracted the Dutch, French, and English, who visited the coastal regions for commercial purposes, trading in ivory and precious tropical woods in addition to slaves.
Among the European powers France was most interested in establishing a colony in Gabon and in 1839 and 1841 signed treaties with the coastal chiefs and declared the coastal region a French Protectorate.
In 1849 the French founded Libreville, meaning “free city,” as a settlement for freed slaves.
Although the Congress of Vienna had abolished the slave trade in 1815 and although French naval patrols reduced the number enslaved and shipped, slaves continued to be exported from the Gabon coast until the 1880s.
France established its dominance in the whole of Gabon in 1885, but it did not officially administer control over the region until 1903. At the beginning of the 20th century private French companies began exploiting the local people and using them for forced labor. Made to work under inhuman conditions and brutally treated, the Gabonese responded to such treatment with periodic revolts and uprisings that were suppressed by French forces. French exploitation of the region’s natural resources is evident from the fact that, by the end of World War I, most of the forests of Gabon were destroyed, and most of the country’s natural resources exhausted.
Early in the 20th century the Gabonese began to intensify their freedom movement. In 1910 Gabon joined with Chad, Central African Republic, and Republic of the Congo Brazzaville to form French Equatorial Africa, a federation that lasted until 1959. After World War II, as the independence wave washed over colonies throughout the world, Gabon too pressed its demand for self-determination.
The French relented, though reluctantly, and granted independence to Gabon on August 17, 1960.
Léon M’Ba (1902–67) was sworn in as the first president of the Republic of Gabon, remaining in office until his death. In that year the reins of power were entrusted to Albert-Bernard Bongo (b. 1935).
He converted to Islam and assumed a new name El Hadj Omar Bongo. He also declared Gabon a oneparty state and maintained his own power. Until 1990 the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) was the only legalized national political party in the country.
Bongo’s appointment as president coincided with rising oil prices and the discovery of large manganese and uranium deposits in Gabon. The economy boomed. With untold wealth flowing into Gabon and Gabonese confidence at an all-time high, the era came to be known as the “Gabonese Miracle.” The miracle lasted for a decade, after which the slump in international oil prices materially affected the country’s economy.
In 1990 after popular discontent had produced seven days of rioting in Port-Gentil, Bongo submitted to the demands of the Gabonese people and legalized the existence of other political parties. In the elections held since 1990 Bongo has been declared the winner each time and, in the early 21st century, amid charges of election fraud, he still held the office of president of the Republic of Gabon. In the turbulence of African politics where coups are common, Gabon is an exception: Bongo’s presidency spans more than three decades. In 2003 Bongo directed the parliament to alter Gabon’s constitution to allow him to run for president as many times as he desires.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
The Republic of Gabon is located in western Africa and is flanked by Cameroon to the north, Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) to the south and the east, and Equatorial Guinea to the northwest. Libreville is its capital. The Ogooue River is the lifeline of Gabon and geographically divides the country into two as it flows through Franceville and Lambarene into the Atlantic Ocean. The Cristal Mountains, almost 3,000 feet high, are located in the northern part of Gabon. The Chaillu Mountains are located in the central part of the country and are home to the highest peak in Gabon, Mount Iboundji, which stands 3,189 feet high.
More than three-fourths of Gabon is covered by dense equatorial rain forests, which are home to an encyclopedic variety of flora and fauna. From ebony to the climbing palm, rubber vines to purple hearts (hardwood tree), Gabon has a rich variety of flora.
Gabon is also home to snakes, vipers, and pythons along with monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, and even endangered gorillas.
Gabon has an equatorial climate characterized by high temperatures, coupled with humidity throughout the year, and heavy rainfall from June to September. The annual average temperature is 81° F.
Gabon is economically more prosperous than most of its neighbors and enjoys good trade relations with America and Europe. The country has a vast amount of natural resources, both minerals and wood. Oil is the major revenue generator of Gabon’s economy, in addition to timber and manganese. But the lack of proper infrastructure facilities and financing hinders the development of these resources. The country also does not have a large enough workforce and depends on immigrants to meet the labor needs of retailing, transportation, and artisanship.
Gabon has become a leader in the fight against human trafficking on the African sub-continent, and has passed comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in recent years.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Gabon is home to the descendants of the Bantuspeaking tribes as well a small group of Bongon, a people once called pygmies. The Bantu descendants are divided into 10 major ethnic groups. Prominent among them are the Fang, who reside in the north and northeastern parts of Gabon. The Myene people live in the coastal regions, the Eshira are based in southwestern Gabon, and the Mbede live in the southeast.
In ancient times the Fang were warriors who practiced cannibalism. This practice had stopped by the early 17th century. By the 19th century some Fang were engaged in hunting to take advantage of the growing demand for ivory, while others became farmers, practicing slashand-burn forest-clearing techniques. Farming is still the primary occupation of the Fang in modern-day Gabon.
Between 50 and 75 percent of the Gabonese are Christians. French is the official language, although most Gabonese converse in the native African Fang language.
While Bapunu is widely spoken in the southern region, Bandgabi is spoken around Franceville.
Music and dance are integral to Gabonese culture. Specially crafted drums, the balafone (xylophone), and the sanza (a stringed instrument, also called mbira) are some of the popular musical instruments in Gabon. The shape of these instruments and their style of playing have remained unchanged for centuries. They are played in accordance with the traditions of each tribe and produce rhythms expressing happiness or sorrow according to the occasion. Gabonese folklore enjoys a distinct place in its culture and involves recitation of ancient tales (half-spoken and half-sung), accompanied by traditional musical instruments.
Guardian figures (wooden figurines) made by the Fang are placed on wooden boxes that contain the bones of their ancestors. These figures are intended to scare away intruders and protect the ancestral bones. It is believed that the bones contain the power of the dead and are carefully preserved.
The traditional art of carving wooden masks is a specialty of the Gabonese ethnic groups; masks play an important role in many rituals and ceremonies.
The Fang believe that these masks help them keep in touch with the world of the dead. In ancient times, these wooden masks were prepared under the watchful eye of a priest, who ensured that the best wood was used. The entire process of crafting masks required great attention to detail since any sloppiness might anger the spirits, causing disease and death. It was believed that, after a mask was made, it assumed supernatural powers and acted as a window to the world of the spirits. Fang masks have inspired such Western artists as Picasso and Matisse.
Although the cooking of Gabon has been influenced by Arab, Portuguese, French, and British styles of cuisine, it remains essentially true to its indigenous roots and its recipes are typical of much West African cooking. Among the Fang and other Gabonese tribes, the traditional diet includes rice, yams, and cassava (a perennial woody shrub).
Chicken is extremely popular and is a featured ingredient in many Gabonese dishes. Besides chicken, grasscutter (a large rodent), porcupine, antelope, and big forest snails are also common on the menu in many Gabonese restaurants. Porridge made of gari (grated fresh cassava), accompanied by a spicy sauce, is also served. Nyembwe (a chicken dish made with palm nuts) and stuffed crab are classic dishes of Gabon. Palm nut is also used to make cooking oil. Favorite beverages include wine made from bananas and a light beer made from millet.
The birth of a child is greeted with great delight in Gabon. A lavish feast is prepared, and friends and family members from far and near take part in the celebrations.
COMING OF AGE
Among the Bwiti, initiation rites are a weeklong event. The key element in the ritual is the hallucinogenic iboga, which is used by the various Bwiti sects in Gabon. The Bwiti religion is a fusion of indigenous and Christian beliefs.
Bwiti initiation rites may only be administered by people who themselves have undergone the rituals.
However, all the villagers participate in the ceremonies, and each one is assigned a specific task of singing, drumming, or dancing during the festivities.
The rites are composed of three phases of symbolic acts: The first phase begins the process of symbolic death, which is completed in the second phase. The third phase represents rebirth. The ceremonies guide the initiate through these three phases and bring him back into the world (rebirth) as an adult member of the community.
This symbolic rite is performed by administering the hallucinogenic iboga. It is given to the initiates, and the Bwiti believe that they experience spiritual revelations after consuming this sacred plant. They achieve clarity of thought as well as peace of mind. The initiates are assumed to be in the state of “sacred knowing.” The deeper the stillness of mind, the greater the insight of the initiates. Their experiences during this period will lay the foundation for fundamental changes in their adult lives.
Polygamy is part of the Gabonese social order and is a common feature of both traditional and civil marriages.
However in a civil marriage the law requires the couple to declare whether they want to have a monogamous or polygamous relationship. A common-property law governs monogamous married couples, while in polygamous relationship the property rights of wives are severely reduced in the event of a divorce or separation.
The Gabonese believe in the powers of their ancestral spirits. In ancient times people preserved the bones of their ancestors in a closed wooden box and kept a guardian figure to protect it. They believed that the bones of the ancestors held supernatural powers and hence needed to be preserved and protected.
Traditional rituals also involve removing certain body parts and cleansing the corpse before burial.