GABON: Bwiti

Most focus on Bwiti seems to be a little superficial – a lot of media characterizes it as a “religion” and there’s a lot of attention from Western lenses on the fact that practices often include the psychedelic iboga root. But Bwiti is really more of a spiritual discipline focused on healing than a standalone religion – it’s flexible and syncretic and incorporates traditional elements of African spirituality, local medicinal plants, plus occasional elements from Christianity. If you speak French, here’s an interesting clip from a larger doc on Bwiti:

And in English, an interview with Moughenda, a Bwiti spiritual leader about the importance of self-knowledge and connection to nature, history, and culture, and why many people turn to Bwiti for healing.

Bwiti isn’t a practice that’s closed off, and there are many videos of initiations and healing ceremonies online. A lot of these vids try to play up the “exotic” lens, but this one below is pretty solid, including comments from practitioners themselves about what’s taking place and why:

Music is a big part of Bwiti ceremonies as well, and often features the ngombi harp and the ngongo mouth bow, plus percussion and singing. Here’s a couple good examples with beautiful complex polyrhythms and use of both male and female voices.

GABON: More podcasts

Boulevard Triomphal, Libreville – Source

Some more podcasts from and about Gabon – language as marked!

The Talking Point: African Perspectives – Gabon (En) – If you’re looking to get your head around just the basics of Gabon, this South African podcast has a good interview with the head of a Gabonese ex-pat organization in the country. The interviewee wants to get more into the meat of the political struggles, but also wants to show Gabon well and promote the lovely things about it.

France Culture: Gabon, comment sortir de l’impasse? (Fr) – French analysis from 2016 during the contested election between Ali Bongo and Jean Ping – it covers the vote rigging, the violence, and the media blackout, but also covers the political history that lead up this, including France’s involvement in Gabon’s politics – all in 7 minutes.

Sky News ClimateCast: How do you put a price on nature? (En) – Gabon is one of the most forested countries and has some of the lowest levels of deforestation, making it not just a home for incredible biodiversity, but as a vital carbon sink. This makes Gabon is one of the few carbon-negative countries, taking in through its forests more carbon than it emits – even with an oil industry. However the podcast looks into Gabon’s economic choice over its forests as its oil reserves begin to run low – it could log the forests, or it could solicit investments from other countries to keep its forests intact. The question is if other countries will pay to stop Gabon from logging, and would this model work elsewhere?

RFI Couleurs tropicales – Sémaine Speciale Gabon Ep 1 (Fr) – The first episode of a multi-part series on RFI’s African music show focusing exclusively on music from Gabon and its diaspora. It’s more of a DJ set with a bit of interview clips and artist details mixed in (all the artist names are listed in the description). Really high energy and fun, with a host with a lot of national pride about Gabon’s music scene.

Urban FM: Mystères Urbains (Fr) – This is so much fun if you like spooky campy stuff, this Gabonese podcast covers urban legends, occult, and monsters from across the country. I listened to one on an urban legend of the “Devil’s Cat” – a lesson in kindness to animals that builds off superstitions around black cats.

GABON: Mami Wata, le mystère d’Iveza

Mami Wata, la mystère d’Iveza is a 8-part Gabonese tv series that debuted just a few months ago on Canal+ Afrique, directed by Franco-Gabonese director Samantha Biffot. It’s a drama-horror series, following Oliwina, a journalist working in Burkina Faso who returns to her hometown in Gabon after her teen brother’s disappearance. While she is there, the bodies of five children surface in a nearby mangrove – somehow connected. But Oliwina’s unhappy family history comes back up on her arrival; the first episode only gives hints into her break with her parents and deeper trauma. There’s also some connection to the spirit Mami Wata, a mermaid-like water diety that, like a rusalka or siren, lures people to their doom.

The whole first episode is available on Canal+ Afrique’s Facebook page (only in French, no subtitles, however), but I can’t seem to find anywhere to watch the rest! Most of it seems both paywalled and region-locked to Africa, which is a shame, because it’s super high quality production value and I was totally hooked from the first episode. I want to figure out what happens!

GABON: Chicken nyembwé with chikwangue

Chicken nyembwé is the classic Gabonese dish – there’s a million variations, but at it’s base it’s smoked chicken in sauce graine, a thick palm nut sauce. I’m building off this recipe from Popo Loves Cooking; she brings together everything I saw in other recipes (and the recipe is bilingual!)

Whole smoked chicken was surprisingly hard to find, but my local African grocery had them – they’re easy to defrost and work with because the smoking means they’re partially cooked already. This recipe also includes garlic and onion, hot pepper, sorrel leaves (similar to spinach), bay leaves, and a couple rondelles chucked in whole. Rondelles are also called olum, bobimbi, or country onions/garlic – they look like a hazelnut but have a pungent garlic and onion aroma that really oomphs up a dish.

I also picked up chikwangue for a side dish – these are batons of grated fermented cassava, wrapped in banana leaves. You can buy them frozen and steam them – they’re a versatile accompaniment to Central African dishes, or you could swap for fufu or rice.

There was a fair bit of splatter as the sauce cooked down, but it turned out really tasty. The smokiness of the chicken comes through the strongest, and goes really well with the earthiness from the palm nuts. It’s got the richness and consistency of a thick curry (and stains like one too – don’t wear a light shirt!). There’s a bit of heat from the pepper, and all the onion, garlic, and rondelles add lots of flavour. The tang from the fermented cassava balances the creaminess of the sauce. Yum!

I’m also totally sold on smoked chicken itself, it’s absolutely delicious. I’m saving the carcass to use for broth – I’m thinking a smoked chicken noodle soup. I’m also glad I had much more success than my other Gabonese chicken dish.

GABON: The CFA franc

Building on the last post about la Françafrique, another element of France’s neo-colonial influence on Africa remains the CFA franc. The franc is actually two interchangeable currencies, one for West Africa (XOF) and one for Central Africa (XAF).

While a single currency does help trade between the 14 countries using it, and it is pegged to the Euro for stability, it is a deeply unfair deal. Each country must put 50-70% of their foreign currency reserves into France’s treasury, and to use their own money, France will loan it back to them at fixed commercial rates. I’d suggest the below video for an excellent look at the CFA franc and how it continues to disadvantage these countries:

There has been movement from West African countries to ditch their side of the CFA franc and start their own monetary union with a currency called the Eco, but the countries of the Central African half of the CFA, including Gabon, have not signed on. An African monetary union is definitely a point of discussion, and definitely seems like the CFA franc it can’t continue on in its current form. There’s differing viewpoints – I read an article by Gabonese economist Mays Mouissi calling to keep the franc, but reform it so France is not controlling access to funds and to un-peg it from the Euro: “Gabon: monnaie unique, non, évolution du CFA, oui“. I’d also suggest the interview with Togolese activist Farida Nabourema about France’s influence and the CFA franc.

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: 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: 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.