Gabon Today

After the death of his father, Ali Ben Bongo won the 2009 presidential election with just 42% of the vote. With what was reported as a huge turnout, he won again in 2016 by a reported 6000 votes more than his opposition rival, Jean Ping. Ping challenged the result in the Constitutional Court, only to find that a recount confirmed Bongo's win and pushed up the margin by 11,000 votes, or 51% of the votes as against Ping's 47%. Riots broke out across the country, injuries and deaths were reported and buildings damaged, but the situation soon returned to a relative calm.

While Bongo has a better record than his father for introducing government reforms (including dedicating vast swathes of land and sea to national parks), he is still reported to own expensive cars, luxury villas across the world and huge stakes in Gabon's major industries. Perhaps this is not the best way to endear himself to the population of Gabon, who, while well off by African standards, still largely struggle to get by.

The boulevards of Libreville are lined with life-size posters of the president – and populist pledges such as doubling the minimum wage, building new social housing and backing changes to the justice system have all kept Ali Bongo's popularity high. It remains to be seen whether Gabon's immense oil wealth will start to trickle down to the man or woman on the street before the wells run dry.

In terms of the oil economy, the recent drop in the oil price has resulted in what's known locally as the 'crise' (crisis). Fewer expats living and working in Gabon has forced some of the more upmarket hotels and restaurants to shut up shop. To counteract this, the government is now giving more attention to promoting tourism.

Arts & Crafts

Traditional masks, carvings and bieri (ancestral sculpture) using natural materials such as wood, raffia and feathers are found throughout Gabon. However, they're rarely sold in the markets as they are still used in religious ceremonies and activities, though you will find these kinds of items from neighbouring countries in the markets. Fang masks are prized throughout the world and sold for big bucks at art auctions.

Dancing is a national pastime, and recent dance crazes include the Ivorian coupé-decalé, and the oriengo, which originated as a dance for people handicapped by polio. Traditional tribal dance is still widely practiced and can be seen at cultural villages.

Hip-hop is big in Gabon, and there are plenty of home-grown groups playing on the radio. You'll also find recordings of the sacred music of the Bwiti, which uses, among other extraordinary instruments, harps played with the mouth, as well as brilliant, inspiring Pygmy group recordings.

Feature: Bach in Gabon

What does Johann Sebastian Bach circa 1724 have in common with Gabon's Bantu drummers? Until the 1990s, not a lot. But that was before Pierre Akendengué, one of Africa's most celebrated composers, holed up for 100 days in a Paris studio and recorded 'Lambarena', a fabulously energetic track that sets traditional Gabonese drumming and singing to the pure notes of Bach's 'St John Passion'. Akendengué – who has been both 1970s protest singer and cultural advisor to the late Omar Bongo since his first foray into music in the 1940s – recorded the track as a tribute to Dr Albert Schweitzer, founder of the eponymous, world-renowned hospital at Lambaréné. The result is a beautiful, unlikely marriage, like coming across a violin concerto in the middle of the Lopé National Park.

Culture

In the early oil days, Gabon's new rich knocked back the champagne like it was going out of fashion. Though there's still a hefty gap between the country's rich and poor, even in remote villages you won't find the kind of poverty seen in parts of Congo and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon's poorer neighbours. In the clubs of Libreville, you'll see Gabonese hot shots splashing the cash and acting like the oil is endless.

Oil wealth has brought a fairly good education system to Gabon; the World Bank estimates that 95% of young women can read and write, a rarity in Central Africa. Still, infant disease and human trafficking are issues, especially in rural areas.

People

Of the people living in Gabon today, the original forest-dwelling tribes (known as Pygmies) survive only in the remote north of the country, barely keeping their culture intact. Most other people are descendants of the Bantu peoples, and the Fang are still the most numerous. There is also a sizable French expat community in Libreville and Port-Gentil.

Religion

Missionary influence is palpable; over 50% of the country counts itself as Christian, though traditional animist beliefs are still strong and beliefs in superstition and witchcraft hold great power over much of the Gabonese population. Interestingly, both Presidents Bongo converted to Islam in the 1970s, when African nationalism was all the rage and friendship with Gaddafi was seen as desirable. As a result there are several mosques prominently located in Libreville, despite the Muslim segment of society as a whole being very small.

Sacred Rites of Bwiti

One of three official religions in Gabon (the others being Christianity and Islam), Bwiti is widely practised by both the forest-dwelling tribes and the Fang, and most towns and villages have a temple. It centres on animism and ancestor worship, often including aspects of Christianity. At its heart lies the trance-inducing ingestion of the root bark of the sacred ibonga tree which is used in initiation rites and all other ceremonies, including healing. Practitioners paint their bodies and faces with red and white powder, dress in red, white and black and wear raffia skirts, animal fur, shells and feathers. Ceremonies are led by the N'ganga (spiritual leader) and are accompanied by dancing and music from drums and ngombi (arched harp). They can last several days while the effects of the ibonga wear off. Some Westerners have also been initiated.

Environment

Gabon is a country of astonishing landscapes and biodiversity, much of which is still undiscovered and unexploited. Though almost 75% of the country is covered in dense tropical rainforest, this equatorial country is also full of endless white-sand beaches, savannah, rushing rivers, hidden lagoons, rocky plateaus and canyons, cloud-tipped mountains and inselbergs (isolated rock domes overlooking the surrounding forest canopy), all of which are home to an amazing array of flora and fauna.

You're likely to come across gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills, forest elephants, forest buffaloes, crocodiles, antelopes, hippos, humpback and killer whales, monkeys of all shapes and sizes, leopards, red river hogs, sea turtles and a rainbow of rare birds – to name just a few.

The 'Conservation Coup'

In the late 1990s Mike Fay, of National Geographic and the Wildlife Conservation Society, walked more than 3200km through Central Africa, documenting the stunning natural environment he passed through. The late President Omar Bongo, after seeing the photos of what became known as the 'Megatransect', did the unthinkable: in 2002 he created a 13-park network of protected lands that covered over 11% of the country. Overnight Gabon leapt from having almost no land conserved to having the most in the world. Hailed as a 'conservation coup', it was a wise move for Bongo, who was looking for new sources of revenue. Wildlife organisations and ecotourist outfits subsequently rushed in to set up camps in the parks to support the fledgling conservation economy. It's just one of the measures lined up by the late president to ease the impact of rapidly decreasing oil supplies. However, there's still a long way to go before Gabon is recognised as the next Kenya: several foreign investors in ecotourism in Gabon have subsequently cut their losses and withdrawn from the country, citing terrible infrastructure, corruption and bureaucracy as reasons it's difficult to run profitable operations here.