Independence Day of the Gabonese Republic
Gabon is bordered by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the north, the Republic of the Congo to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west; the islands of Sao Tome and Principe are situated off the coast.
The narrow coastal plain—often no more than 20 miles (32 km) wide in the south—is formed of sandstone and alluvium; northward it broadens to a width of 100 miles (160 km), with outcrops of chalk, limestone, and Cretaceous sandstone. The Atlantic’s northward-flowing Benguela Current softens Gabon’s southern coastline by creating sandbars but loses its effectiveness north of the country’s most westerly point, Cape Lopez, where the contour of the coast becomes more jagged. Inland, the relief is characterized by a series of granite plateaus, extending generally northwest to southeast and rising to elevations of 1,000 to 2,000 feet (300 to 600 metres). Farther to the west and north the Cristal Mountains have been dissected by the river system from the western plateau escarpment into a distinct upland area, and to the south the Ogooué River drains through a sandstone saddleback before descending to the lowlands through the granite formations of the Lambaréné region. Granite also forms Gabon’s central watershed, the Chaillu Massif south of the Ogooué, which rises to more than 3,300 feet (1,000 metres) and is topped by the 3,346-foot (1,020-metre) Mount Milondo. Gabon’s highest point, Mount Bengoué (3,510 feet [1,070 metres]), is in the northeastern part of the country.
Gabon has an equatorial climate, with year-round high temperatures and humidity. Rainfall varies from an annual average of 120 inches (3,050 mm) at Libreville to 150 inches (3,810 mm) on the northwest coast, with almost all of it falling between October and May. In the period from June to September there is little or no rainfall, but humidity remains high. Temperature shows little seasonal variation, the daily average being in the low 80s F (upper 20s C).
About three-fourths of the country is covered by a dense equatorial rainforest containing more than 3,000 species of vegetation, including the okoumé, a hardwood tree that forms the backbone of Gabon’s timber industry. The rainforest is inhabited by antelope, monkeys, gorillas, numerous tropical birds, and several varieties of elephants. Gabon has several national parks, including Lopé National Park (originally Lopé-Okanda Wildlife Reserve, founded in 1946) in the centre of the country. The park and related archaeological sites—referred to as the Ecosystem and Relict Cultural Landscape of Lopé-Okanda—were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.
Except for a few thousand Pygmies, Gabon’s 40 or so peoples speak Bantu languages that are classified into 10 linguistic groups. The Myene group (including the Mpongwe and Orungu), though only a relatively small part of the population today, has played an important role in the history of the country as a result of its location along the northern coasts. The Fang, also found in southern Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, account for more than one-fourth of the population and live north of the Ogooué River. The largest groups south of the Ogooué are the Sira (including the Punu), the Nzebi, and the Mbete, who together form about one-third of the population. Less-numerous peoples include the Benga and Seke in the far northwest, the Kota and Teke in the east, and the Vili along the far southern coast.
Mukudj mask, wood, pigment, and kaolin, Punu culture, Gabon, 19th–20th century; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The white-faced mukudj mask represents an idealized female with stylized hair, and it is worn by a male dancer at the funeral of an honoured elder.
Photograph by Katie Chao. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, purchase, Louis V. Bell Fund, and The Fred and Rita Richman Foundation and James Ross Gifts, 2000 (2000.177)
Many of the Bantu languages do not have written forms. During the 19th century, Christian missionaries transliterated several of them into the Latin alphabet and prepared Bible translations and catechisms for their followers. But the French policy of limiting the use of indigenous languages solely to religious instruction inhibited the growth of other types of literature. Because of the extensive efforts to teach French, nearly all adult Gabonese can speak the language, and almost three-fourths can read it.
A large majority of Gabon’s population is Christian, of which Roman Catholics account for more than two-fifths. Though Gabonese serve as Catholic bishops, they rely heavily on foreign clergy, particularly the French Holy Ghost Fathers. The largest Protestant body, the Evangelical Church of Gabon, has Gabonese pastors in its parishes throughout the north. Other Christian churches include the Christian Alliance church, generally found in the southwest and in coastal cities, and the Evangelical Pentecostal church (Assembly of God) and Adventist church, both found in the estuary and far northern regions. A small segment of the country’s population is Muslim. Adherents of traditional religions also account for a small segment of the population, but that does not include Christians and Muslims who also follow some traditional beliefs and practices. A syncretic religion called Bwiti (based on an earlier secret society of the same name) came into existence in the early 20th century and later played a role in promoting solidarity among the Fang.
Gabon, like its central African neighbours, has a low population density. Since 1970, as a result of increased urbanization, the low rate of natural increase of the previous half century gave way to a relatively high growth rate; by the early 21st century, it was more than twice the world average. The extent to which the heavy immigration of foreign workers and refugees has contributed to this growth is unclear. The population is relatively young: almost three-quarters are younger than age 30. Life expectancy is more than 50 years of age and is about average for the continent.