I’m really loving this beautiful (and quietly subversive) song for change and liberty by Gabonese artist Latchow – great voice too!
Month: February 2022
A good mix of podcasts from and about Gabon, both in English and French.
WNYC Studios Radiolab: Breaking Bongo (En) – Probably one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a while, because it really got me thinking about a serious ethical grey area in politics and media. New York-based journalists interview democracy activists and political opponents of the Bongo regime in the Gabonese diaspora. The podcast gives a great background to the contested 2016 election, where Bongo almost lost to opponent Jean Ping were it not for one province’s rigged vote, the violence and crackdown following the election, Bongo’s health crisis in 2019 and the New Year’s greeting video, the attempted coup, and how the activists try to oppose the government from afar. However, where it gets very very interesting, is that the activists are increasingly turning to dubious methods – starting unfounded rumours of Bongo’s death, doctoring reports, creating “Fake News” – in order to create further confusion and undermine Bongo’s rule. The journalists ask some of the really hard questions here – this was a movement that started out providing truthful reporting and pushing for openness and democracy; is it not threatening its own reliability and legitimacy by resorting to these methods? But at the same time, when the regime is willing to use the same tools, as well as violence, wrongful detention, and censorship to crush you, do you not do everything in your power to fight them?
Institut Français Gabon: Le podcast du Mardi (Fr) – Short podcasts by the local Institut Français (a French organization that supports French culture and language study around the world) interviewing Gabonese personalities and thinkers. I listened to Toutes les opinions sont-elles tolérables? (Are all opinions tolerable?) about Spinoza, and the limits of opinions, facts, and the truth. I also listened to an interview with Chérine from Chey Libreville, a Gabonese influencer (I shared her post about traditional weddings here). Chey speaks about social media, sharing Gabon with the wider world, developing online shopping in Gabon, and the challenges she’s faced with being a full-time blogger, especially since she is a one-woman operation.
Africa in my Kitchen: Gabon – Odika (En) – I probably should have listened to this podcast before my disastrous attempt at odika chicken. The podcast covers Gabonese cuisine, and gets into cooking with odika. The hosts, Ijeoma and Yemi (who are both of Nigerian origin) are split on cooking with odika/ogbono – it’s apparently a very “acquired taste” and texture, even when fresh.
Le Grand RDV: Gabon: Et de trois pour Ali Bongo? Que peut l’opposition? (Fr) – A recent episode from Africa Radio’s podcast series on current events on the continent. Gabonese civil society leaders from various sides of the political spectrum debate if Ali Bongo could or should run for a third time in the upcoming 2023 presidential election. There’s a mix of supporters and critics, and they touch on his capacity after his stroke, why his ministers are trial ballooning him running right now, who would run instead if he could not, and the (weak) state of Gabonese democracy.
Ckilsenpensent : les réactions à la future adhésion du Gabon au Commonwealth (Fr) – Gabon announced that it plans to join the Commonwealth this year. It wouldn’t be the first country with no connections to the British Empire to join – I looked at why Mozambique joined, and Rwanda and Cameroon have also come on board (former Portuguese, Belgian, and French colonies, respectively). However, there’s been debate on if this is just a way to gain distance from France, and if this is just switching one former-colonial relationship for another. This podcast from Info241 is vox-pops from the Gabonese public, with many people framing this as a language question – does this signal a larger turn to the Anglosphere and will it involve dropping French in favour of English to take advantage of business opportunities?
GABON: Boxing Libreville (2018)
Boxing Libreville is a 2018 documentary film by Gabonese director Amédée Pacôme Nkoulou, following a boxer, Christ, as he trains for a match during the contested 2016 Gabonese election. Christ works as a bouncer at clubs to make ends meet, as well as security at Ali Bongo‘s political rallies. His girlfriend (who quietly supports Jean Ping, Bongo’s opponent) leaves at the same time to work at a hair salon in France, with both of them uncertain how their relationship will work long distance. The film is both a powerful slice of life of normal people during a politically charged time, and a quiet metaphor about political change (or lack thereof) in Gabon. Boxing Libreville is available free online, with subtitles, at ARTE.
GABON: J-Rio – ALOUK / Traditional weddings
Not just a heartwarming and upbeat jam by singer J-Rio, but also a cool intro to wedding traditions from Gabon. There’s a few different styles of weddings in Gabon, some people have a “civil” wedding, which is similar to Western weddings – bride wearing white, the couple exchanging vows, usually officiated by a judge or Christian priest.
The other main style of wedding is “traditional” or “customary” (like in the above music video) – blue is a much more common wedding colour, but there are lots of beautiful colour combinations and patterns, usually coordinated for the whole family. There’s a great rundown on traditional Gabonese wedding outfits at D&D Clothing.
For a traditional wedding, the ceremony involves the groom and his family gathering up symbolic items for a dowry from a list provided by the bride’s family. The bride will then take a “ticket” of the dowry, place it at her father’s feet and ask for his blessing. Once the ticket is accepted and the blessing is given, the bride is seated on her mother-in-law’s knee and the marriage is official.
The bride usually carries a basket for the ticket, traditional fans to obscure her face, and other wedding symbols (especially in Fang traditional weddings, who are about a quarter of Gabon’s population). There’s also fun traditions like setting up “tolls” between the two families, where members of the other family must throw money to pass. Gabonese blogger Chérine has some beautiful pics from her own wedding at her site Chey Libreville, with an article (in French) about cross-cultural weddings and how to blend different traditions.
GABON: (A failed attempt at) odika chicken with fufu
This recipe looked so good, and yet, I totally messed it up – I didn’t check the quality of my ingredients. I was looking to make odika chicken from this great looking recipe at Madd Cooking (in French). Odika, also called wild mango, African mango, or ogbono, is the kernel of a plant that only grows in Central Africa – it’s used in Nigerian, Cameroonian, and Gabonese cuisine. It’s supposed to give a rich, cocoa flavour and thickens stews. However, if it’s been stored too long, it spoils and takes on a strong soapy flavour.
I probably should have looked that up first.
Instead, I bought a package of ground odika that had been shipped to Canada from Nigeria and then placed on the back shelf of a grocery store for enough time to gather dust. When they say spoiled odika smells soapy when cooked, they don’t mean just a little bit soapy. They mean powerful, chemical, “back of a laundromat” scent, almost like lye (it reminded me of lutfisk, and that’s not good). I should have pulled back and saved the remaining ingredients once the smell filled up my kitchen, but I thought that maybe the soapy smell would cook off if I saw the whole recipe through.
It did not. I had all my windows open (even though it was -10C), all fans going, and a heavy hand with the air freshener. Even then, I still gave it a taste test – the soapy flavour is still there, though not as strong as the smell. It’s a shame, because otherwise this recipe would be tasty, everything else seems like it works great.
I did make some instant plantain fufu to accompany it, and that turned out not bad. It’s a good arm workout, making sure it’s well beaten, but it’s a great texture. It’s stickier and stretchier than pap/xima, with a satisfying carb-y taste like whipped potatoes (you use fufu to scoop up some of the main dish with your fingers). So there’s that at least!
I want to take another kick at this, but don’t know if I’d be able to find fresh enough odika. In Gabon they often process and preserve odika into dika bread, which can be grated and has a longer shelf life. I haven’t been able to find any in my local African grocery stores – it may be available in Montreal, where there’s a large French African community, if it’s available in Canada at all.
GABON: A suspicious New Year’s greeting
A really interesting report into the 2019 attempted coup in Gabon, which was set off by secrecy around President Ali Bongo’s health, and rumours around a New Year’s greeting video where something was very off. While not a Deepfake, it sets out a pretty clear example of how a lack of transparency feeds into questions of legitimacy that can then be spun up into instability.
However, the coup was unsuccessful, and Ali Bongo continues to make appearances, though it seems he needs mobility assistance. Just a few months ago, he appeared at the Future Investment Initiative conference to speak about the Gabon’s climate commitments and encourage foreign investment.
GABON: Geography and history
Back on the Geography Now! train this month. It’s a bit silly, but this is one of the best overviews for starting from absolute zero knowledge about Gabon. Gorillas, surfing hippos, oil money (and so a much higher per capita income than most of sub-Saharan Africa), and an oddly close relationship to Trinidad and Tobago?
Here’s a look that covers a few of the same points but in more depth (and in ASMR if you’re looking to get some sleep). They also touch (very gently, even too gently) on a bit more on recent history, including President Omar Bongo Ondima holding onto power until his son, Ali Bongo, took over at his death.
This month: GABON
By funny coincidence, for the second February in a row, I’ve pulled a sub-Saharan African country out of my hat – I think I subconsciously need a break from the Canadian winter. This month I’ll be learning more about Gabon!
So, what do I know about Gabon, off the top of my head? Sadly, almost nothing – as I said when I covered Mozambique and Togo, I have some serious blind spots in my education about Africa. I do know that Gabon was a French colony, but even for that region of Africa, my knowledge about Gabon is particularly blank.
I could name you a basic fact about the surrounding countries – Cameroon has strife between its French majority and English minority, Equatorial Guinea is a particularly authoritarian state and one of the rare Spanish-speaking African countries, and that for a short time both Congos were officially called the Republic of Congo (though they’ve never been one country and were under different colonial powers). But Gabon? I could point to it on a map, that’s about it.
That’s why I have this project – this is going to be a great learning opportunity!