GABON: Crispy baked banana

While desserts aren’t too common in most traditional African cuisines, there’s some really tasty modern creations. I figured I’d give crispy baked banana from this Gabonese recipe at Toi Moi et Cuisine a go (recipe in French, but the video makes the steps clear). It’s a really fast and easy recipe; dredge sliced banana in orange juice and egg, then breadcrumbs. Get it a little gold and crispy in a pan with butter, then give it a quick heat in the oven. Boom.

The banana slices come out sweet and hot and tender with a crispy shell and a little hint of citrus. They’re fantastic. The recipe suggested vanilla ice cream on the side, which would be a beautiful contrast, and you could get really creative with toppings for these.

GABON: La Françafrique

Presidents Omar Bongo and Jacques Chirac – Source

While the period of decolonization in the 60s and 70s held dramatic changes for all European colonial powers, France has remained deeply engaged in its former colonies – militarily, politically, and economically. This gave rise to the term “Françafrique” – where France agreed to the sovereignty of its colonies, while still retaining a level of informal control over the new countries’ politics (including vetting leaders) and continuing to extract resources. France had just been forcefully expelled from Algeria at the start of the 60s and did not wish to repeat the experience, especially as it had lost access to Algeria’s oil. (Check my Algeria month for more on their war for independence.)

The need for a new source of oil brought Gabon squarely to the middle of France’s neo-colonial attention. As with other former colonies, France aimed for a stable and friendly government in Gabon – they supported the first Gabonese president, Léon M’ba, including directly intervening militarily to stop a coup, and then supported Omar Bongo‘s one-party rule after M’ba’s death, as well as ensuring Ali Bongo’s smooth transition to power after his father’s death. France still runs Camp de Gaulle, an active military base in Libreville, which was installed in order to stop the first coup.

There’s a couple great articles in English on this -“Gabon and the Enduring Legacies of France’s Françafrique System in Francophone Africa” and “Françafrique: A brief history of a scandalous word, plus this brief news report in French on Gabon and Françafrique:

If you understand French, I’d strongly strongly recommend the 2010 documentary film, Françafrique, which includes testimonies from many involved in French Africa in the 60s and 70s, including French political chiefs and oil executives. It’s available on Youtube, but embedding is disabled so I can’t post here. It focuses particularly on Gabon, opening with French presidents’ Chirac and Sarkozy (sitting at the time) attending Omar Bongo’s funeral in 2009. Gabon’s oil, timber, and uranium, make it immensely valuable to France, and the documentary really lays bare the amount of influence France has had over the country and how much wealth France continues to extract.

This isn’t just a relic of history from a bygone era – in 2010, details surfaced through Wikileaks of Gabonese officials embezzling funds from the Bank of Central African States and donating to the two main French political parties – led by Chirac and Sarkozy.

GABON: The Ngombi harp

This video is neat “making-of” the recording of ENY‘s Bele Bela – showcasing the ngombi, a harp played in Gabon and other parts of Central Africa. It lets you set down some really complex polyrhythms, and it’s also called the “sacred harp” because it’s often used in Bwiti religious services.

Here’s a clip of renowed harpist Bokaye (who also builds ngombis) with a more classical performance – you can get a sense for just how complex the rhythms can get. It’s really soothing, almost hypnotic, and takes incredible skill to play at this level.

GABON: Streetviews

I’ve been having fun poking through the streetviews of Gabon on Google – there’s hasn’t been comprehensive street-by-street coverage yet, so it’s just what individuals have uploaded themselves. There’s a total mix – some beautiful and scenic views and some very prosaic or random ones. One of the prettiest is this sunrise drone shot of Libreville.

Also on a quiet early morning in front of a fancy hotel in Libreville. It makes me feel like that first jetlagged morning on vacation when you wake up at an unholy hour and go out for a walk just as the day wakes. There’s also an nicely decorated mosque next door and flags of neighbouring countries in front.

A nice shot of the beach in Loango National Park, a large park with rare protected ecosystems and wildlife, including the famed “surfing hippos“.

A view from the top of the Kongou falls, way in the interior.

I like this one, because it not only gives you a sense of the thick forests around the country, but this one guy seamlessly getting three times in the shot.

There are lots of really random streetviews of offices, stores, and other buildings. I like this upstairs of a homegoods store mainly because I really want that multi-coloured square rug.

This one I like for no other reason that this random office in Gabon has the exact same colour combination as my own living room.

We’re two of a kind.

GABON: An all-natural nuclear reactor

In a mine in Oklo, near Franceville in southeastern Gabon, scientists in the 70s found a rich vein of uranium ore. However, when they tested it, they found it was weirdly missing a certain isotope – it had a makeup more like spent nuclear fuel than natural radioactive material. This was something that shouldn’t happen with untouched natural uranium.

It turns out that two billion years ago, specific conditions underground created a natural nuclear reactor, one that used water to transfer heat and moderate output much the same way that power plants do. That used up the radioactive isotopes, so by the time humans evolved, figured out nuclear power, and went looking for uranium, they were long gone. Here’s a good explanation of how it worked:

GABON: Arielle T ft. Shan’L – L’aveu

A really intense music video with a twist from a few years back by two great Gabonese pop singers – Arielle T and Shan’L. (Warning: music video features sexual assault.)

Shan’L has become one of the hottest pop stars in West / Central Africa, with really smooth jams, great music videos, and a running theme of romantic betrayal and relationship struggles. I really love the polyrhythms and traditional instruments underlying the driving vocals in Okekè:

GABON: Biodiversity and wildlife

Gabon has some of the most richly biodiverse forests and ecosystems, with a stunning variety of wildlife. Most of these forests are in a relatively untouched state, and are home to many endangered species. Here’s what was seen by just one camera trap along a trail in a nature reserve near the town of Nyonié – forest elephants, jaguars, gorillas, chimps, miniature deer, pangolins, and more.

The same photographer who sets these camera traps, Xavier Hubert-Brierre, went viral for setting up a mirror along a trail and watching the wildlife’s reaction to it. There was everything from silverback male gorillas trying to fight their rival in the mirror, elephants and jaguars trying to seduce their reflection, and a team of chimps that had realized it was their own reflection and mourned the loss of the mirror when it was taken down.

Gabon is home to the majority of the critically endangered African forest elephant, the smallest living elephant. Human encroachment, climate change, and conflicts in neighbouring countries have put huge pressure on the species.

There’s a lot of work happening in Gabon to protect the forests. Here’s a great spotlight on Gabonese ecologist Andréa Minkwe and the work she and her team does to protect Gabon’s wildlife and nature.

Gabon is also hoping to build up an ecotourism industry, which would both create jobs and investment, and protect and manage forest – right now logging is the main economic “use” and is putting unsustainable pressure on the forest.

There’s also a really interesting quirk of geography – in the far southeastern corner of Gabon, there is the Batéké Plateau, which is shared with the Republic of Congo. This is a spot where the thick equatorial rainforest that covers most of Gabon runs smack into the northernmost point of the savannah that stretches down over southern Africa. This is the only known place where the habitats of gorillas and lions overlap.

GABON: Iporo

Iporo is a Gabonese dish of cassava leaves cooked with fish. Like many recipes, there’s a million variations, and no one “true” recipe. I’m going to be basing my recipe off Africa Up’s En Cuisine (in French), but I’ll be using some red palm oil when I fry the onion, upping the garlic, and adding a hot pepper, as in this recipe from the town of Port-Gentil (also in French). Other recipes add dried shrimp, use smoked or salted fish, or use sauce graine – a premade sauce from palm nuts.

This is a lovely blend of flavours – the long cooking time softens the cassava leaves, but adding in the the fried fish and onions at the end keeps them crisp and flavourful. The peanut butter melds really well with the red palm oil and adds richness. Most recipes I looked at use either one or the other (I think it’s regional), but they’re pretty tasty together. The cassava leaves are nice and spicy, as I used a ghost pepper, and I’m serving them with another part of the plant – a side of mashed cassava root.

If you’d like another African cassava leaf recipe, check out matapa from Mozambique.