Gabon’s history is similar to that of other former French colonies in Africa. The culture is highly influenced, not only by its ethnic background and proximity to other West African nations, but also by French control. Dance, song, myths, and poetry are important elements of Gabonese life. Art is a strong pillar of the community and can be seen in the traditional creations of masks, sculptures and musical instruments.
The oldest prehistoric artifacts discovered in Gabon are Stone Age tools, such as rock spearheads. This suggests the presence of life from as early as the 7000 BC. However, very little is known about the country’s ancient inhabitants. If you want to see examples of these age-old tools and learn more about Gabon’s culture and history, head to Libreville’s National Museum in the heart of the capital.
The Myene people arrived in Gabon in the 13th century, mainly establishing a fishing community near the coast. They were followed by the Bantu, which is one of the three main ethnic groups in Gabon today. The prevalent Fangs did not arrive until the 16th century (Loango Empire). The groups were separated from each other by dense forests.
The arrival of the Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the English) settlers at the end of the 15th century brought about widespread slavery, which continued for almost 350 years. The slave trade eventually ceased in the mid-19th century, but not soon enough to save the tribal inter-relationships of the indigenous groups.
It was not until 1839 that the French established the first long-term European settlement in the territory and Gabon became part of French Equatorial Africa, together with Cameroon, DRC, Central African Republic, and Chad. Gabon remained a French Overseas Territory until it declared independence in 1960.
The Gabonese are very spiritual people. In fact, their traditions are mostly centered araound worship and the afterlife. Art for the sake of art was a foreign concept to African culture until the arrival of the Westerners. Before colonization, the Gabonese considered music, instruments, masks, sculptures, and tribal dances as rites and acts of worship.
Traditional instruments like the balafon, harp, mouth bow, drums, rattles, and bells are believed to call on different spirits and each corresponds to a certain rite. The mouth bow, or mougongo, is for Bwiti Misoko, the harp is for Bwiti Dissoumba, while the balafon is mostly used by the Fangs to perform religious rituals.
Masks and sculptures were mainly used for therapeutic procedures, consulting, as well as initiation rites. Each of the Gabonese ethnic groups has its own specific traditions involving masks, sculptures, music, songs, and dances, or a combination of these elements.
Culture in Gabon is also expressed through paintings, sculptures and even fashion, all of which are widely available for purchase in craft markets throughout the country. The African Craft Market in Libreville has some exceptional M’bigou stone statuettes. Gabonese masks are very popular collectors’ items, especially n’goltang or Fang masks, and Kota figures. In addition to being used in traditional rites, these masks are also used in ceremonies for weddings, funerals and births. They are often made with precious materials and rare local woods.
Original dresses made by Gabon designers are well recognized in the world of African fashion. Some great examples are Beitch Faro’s The Queen of Scales dress, and Angéle Epouta’s internationally reputed designs, which have graced the runways of both Gabon and Paris.
A majority of Gabonese people adhere to Christian beliefs (Protestantism and Roman Catholicism), but other indigenous religions are also practiced along with Islam. Many people combine Christianity with some form of traditional beliefs. The Babongo, the forest people of Gabon who dominate the west coast, are the originators of the indigenous Bwiti religion, based on the use of the iboga plant, an intoxicating hallucinogenic. Followers live highly ritualized lives after an initiation ceremony, filled with dancing, music and gatherings associated with natural forces and jungle animals.
Up to 40 indigenous languages are spoken in Gabon, but French, being the official language, is used by all and taught in schools, in addition to the mother tongue, Fang. A majority of Gabon’s indigenous languages come from Bantu origins, and are estimated to have arrived more than 2,000 years ago. These are mostly only spoken, although transcriptions for some of the languages have been developed using the Latin alphabet. The three largest are Mbere, Sira and Fang.