Today is Independence Day in The Gabon, officially République Gabonaise, one of the most prosperous countries of both Central and West Africa due to its small population, abundant natural resources, and foreign private investment. It is also one of the most ethnically diverse and politically troubled, although things appear to be looking up.
Almost all Gabonese are of Bantu origin. Gabon has at least forty ethnic groups with separate languages and cultures. The Fang are generally thought to be the largest, although recent census data seem to favor the Bandjabi (or Nzebi). Others include the Myene, Bakota, Eshira, Bapounou, and Okande. There is also a small population of foragers (hunter/gatherers) who are sometimes called “pygmies” although this is generally considered a pejorative term because it refers to physical stature as opposed to ethnicity. They are better referred to as the Baka. Like similar groups in neighboring regions, such as the Mbuti of Zaire, whose culture was well documented by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the Baka live in a complex relationship with the settled agriculturalists – partly dependent, partly independent.
The earliest inhabitants of the area were foragers who may have been ancestral to modern-day Baka. They were largely displaced and absorbed by Bantu groups that migrated into the region. In the 15th century, the first Europeans arrived. The nation’s present name originates from “Gabão,” Portuguese for “cloak”, which is roughly the shape of the estuary of the Komo River by the current capital, Libreville. By the 18th century, a Myeni speaking kingdom known as Orungu formed in Gabon which traded heavily with Europeans. French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza led his first mission to the Gabon-Congo area in 1875. He founded the town of Franceville, and was later colonial governor. Several Bantu groups lived in the area that is now Gabon when France officially occupied it in 1885.
In 1910, Gabon became one of the four territories of French Equatorial Africa, a federation that survived until 1959. These territories became independent on August 17, 1960. The first president of Gabon, elected in 1961, was Léon M’ba, with Omar Bongo Ondimba as his vice president. French interests were decisive in selecting the future leadership in Gabon after independence; French logging interests poured funds into the successful election campaign of M’ba, an évolué (Europeanized African) from the coastal region.
After M’ba’s accession to power, the press was suppressed, political demonstrations banned, freedom of expression curtailed, other political parties gradually excluded from power and the Constitution changed along French lines to vest power in the Presidency, a post that M’ba assumed himself. However, when M’ba dissolved the National Assembly in January 1964 to institute one-party rule, an army coup sought to oust him from power and restore parliamentary democracy. The extent to which M’ba’s dictatorial regime was synonymous with “French Interests” then became blatantly apparent when French paratroopers flew in within 24 hours to restore M’ba to power.
After a few days of fighting, the coup was over and the opposition imprisoned, despite widespread protests and riots. The French government was unperturbed by international condemnation of the intervention, and paratroops still remain in the Camp de Gaulle on the outskirts of Gabon’s capital. When M’Ba died in 1967, his vice-president, Bongo, replaced him as president. Bongo remained president until his death in 2009. His son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was elected to replace him. The one party de facto dictatorship inaugurated by M’Ba has steadily eroded starting in the late 1990’s, with opposition parties emerging, and occasionally having members elected to key positions.
In October 2009, newly elected President Ali Bongo Ondimba began efforts to streamline the government. In an effort to reduce corruption and government bloat, he eliminated 17 minister-level positions, abolished the vice presidency and reorganized the portfolios of numerous ministries, bureaus and directorates. In November 2009, President Bongo Ondimba announced a new vision for the modernization of Gabon, called “Gabon Emergent”. This program contains three pillars: Green Gabon, Service Gabon, and Industrial Gabon. The goals of Gabon Emergent are to diversify the economy so that Gabon becomes less reliant on petroleum, to eliminate corruption, and to modernize the workforce.
Gabon is located on the Atlantic coast of central Africa. Located on the equator, between latitudes 3°N and 4°S, and longitudes 8° and 15°E. Gabon generally has an equatorial climate with an extensive system of rainforests covering 85% of the country. There are three distinct regions: the coastal plains (ranging between 20 to 300 km from the ocean’s shore), the mountains (the Cristal Mountains to the northeast of Libreville, the Chaillu Massif in the centre, culminating at 1575 m with Mont Iboundji), and the savanna in the east. The coastal plains form a large section of the World Wildlife Fund’s Atlantic Equatorial coastal forests ecoregion and contain patches of Central African mangroves especially on the Muni River estuary on the border with Equatorial Guinea.
Gabon’s largest river is the Ogooué which is 1200 km long. Gabon has three karst areas where there are hundreds of caves located in the dolomite and limestone rocks. Some of the caves include Grotte du Lastoursville, Grotte du Lebamba, Grotte du Bongolo, and Grotte du Kessipougou. Many caves have not been explored yet. A National Geographic Expedition visited the caves in the summer of 2008 to document them.
Gabon is also noted for efforts to preserve the natural environment. In 2002, President Omar Bongo Ondimba put Gabon firmly on the map as an important future ecotourism destination by designating roughly 10% of the nation’s territory to be part of its national park system (with 13 parks in total), one of the largest proportions of nature parkland in the world. But Gabon is not interested in mass tourism, which would destroy the environment and local cultures. It wishes, on the contrary, to develop high quality tourism, which protects nature and people, preserves biodiversity and the culture of local population groups.
Gabon sits at the crossroads between the north, south, and west of the African continent. This, along with the country’s long history of French colonization, makes its cuisine one of the most varied in Africa. I could give a traditional main dish recipe, but many of the ingredients, such as palm oil, bitter greens, and nyembwe (palm nut sauce), are difficult to get outside of west Africa, and in some cases the cooking processes require years of experience (which I don’t have). I used to have a good Nigerian supplier in Brooklyn for a while, but such places come and go, and don’t exactly advertize widely. I found the one I used purely by accident whilst wandering around semi-lost. A year later it was closed. Even with the proper ingredients I never managed to replicate traditional dishes adequately.
Instead I give you a Gabonese dessert which requires no special ingredients or training: baked bananas, served two ways. The simple way, with sour cream and brown sugar, is the customary Gabonese version. The over the top version with a pineapple cream topping is my invention. The topping comes from a different Gabonese dessert. Whichever topping you are using, make sure the ingredients are well refrigerated. This dish gains its glory from the mix of textures and temperatures, especially the contrast of the hot bananas and the cold topping.
Gabonese Baked Bananas
2 tbsps orange juice
½ dry breadcrumbs
4 tbsps butter
8 tbsps sour cream
8 tbsps brown sugar
½ cup vanilla yogurt
½ cup sour cream
½ cup evaporated milk
½ cup crushed pineapple
1 tsp nutmeg plus extra for garnish
½ tsp vanilla extract
If using the second topping, mix all the ingredients together well and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Heat oven to 350°F/175°C
Beat together the egg and orange juice and pour into a shallow bowl. Place breadcrumbs in another shallow bowl.
Cut the bananas in half. Roll each piece in the egg mixture and then in the breadcrumbs to coat them evenly. It’s a good idea to use the chef’s trick of having one wet hand and one dry hand. That is, roll the bananas in the egg with your right hand, and in the breadcrumbs with your left. Place the bananas on a wire rack when coated.
Heat the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Gently sauté the bananas in batches until the coating is slightly browned. Transfer them to a greased baking tray when done.
When all the bananas are finished, place the baking tray in the oven for 10 minutes.
To serve place two banana halves on each plate. Top either with a dollop of sour cream sprinkled with brown sugar, or with the pineapple cream sprinkled with a little nutmeg.
Serves 8 (or 4 greedy people).