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.
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.