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Customs of Gabon

Marriage and Family

The family often has great influence in the choice of a marriage partner. Girls are sometimes promised at a very young age, although the wedding does not take place (if at all) until after puberty. A groom must often give gifts, called dot, to the bride’s family when the couple get engaged and when they marry. The Gabonese generally marry within the ethnic group but mostly outside of their village, to avoid marrying relatives. A woman may be encouraged to have a child or two before marriage to prove her fertility; these children are often raised by the woman’s mother. If a marriage fails, the dot must be repaid, and the children born in wedlock remain with the father.

Loyalty and acceptance of obligations are fundamental in the Gabonese family. Hospitality, such as food, lodging, and expenses, is offered to any member of the extended family, even for a prolonged period of time. Traditionally, an extended family lives in a large compound of several houses, usually sharing cooking, child care, and other chores. A man, his wife (or wives), their children, and often cousins or other relatives live in the compound. A man with more than one wife provides each with a separate home and kitchen whenever possible. For economic and religious reasons, most men have only one wife. Having children out of wedlock is common.

A village functions as an extension of the family. Villagers who move to cities make regular visits back home; students might return on weekends or holidays to work and to visit parents and relatives.

Eating

The most widely grown food is manioc (cassava). A typical meal may consist of either plantain bananas (boiled and mashed) or bâton de manioc, a dough-like paste made from manioc. It is usually served with meat or fish in urban areas, and with fresh meat among villagers who have had a successful hunt. Imported sardines or locally caught small fish might be eaten when meat is unavailable. The main course is often prepared as a stew in groundnut or palm oil sauce. Piment (hot peppers) are frequently used. A green-leaf vegetable, cut into strips and boiled, is usually served. Water is the most common drink, but beer is also popular.

Yams, taro, groundnuts, and maize are grown in Gabon. Coffee, cacao, sugarcane, and palm oil are produced for commercial purposes. There are many types of tropical fruit: papayas, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, and atangas. Atangas are a violet, bitter fruit about the size of a golf ball that is often boiled until soft to create what some of the immigrant population, usually from other West African countries, call “bush butter.”

In remote areas, people hunt wild animals, such as gazelles, anteaters, snakes, crocodiles, and boars, and grow food for themselves. Some insects are included in the diet.

In villages, breakfast may consist of leftovers from the day before, but adults might also have bread and coffee or hot chocolate. In urban areas breakfast may consist of some combination of bread, croissants, butter, marmalade, eggs, yogurt, and coffee. Adults are usually working around lunchtime, so many just snack on fruit during the day. Children returning from school eat a light meal or leftovers, but for most the main meal is in the evening (usually after 7 pm) when work is finished. People often eat with the right hand or a spoon. In rural areas, Gabonese men and older boys usually eat in the living quarters, while women and young children eat near the cooking fire. The father often has his own bowl. Small families might eat together in the kitchen, with adults sharing one bowl and children sharing another. Guests are given a separate bowl.

Socializing

The Gabonese shake hands and smile each time they meet, even if it is several times a day. Urban friends might hug and kiss alternate cheeks. Women in rural areas might clasp forearms when greeting. Older men in rural areas often shake another person’s hand with both hands. In small groups, it is usual to greet all those present individually. In larger gatherings, one can raise both hands to the group and say Bonjour tout le monde (“Hello, everyone”). People of the same sex, especially men, often hold hands while talking or walking. It is improper, especially in rural areas, for members of the opposite sex to hold hands.

Urban greetings include the French Bonjour (“Good day”) and Bonsoir (“Good evening”). Common throughout Gabon is the Fang Mbolo (“Hello”). Greetings include inquiries about one’s family and health. Older people may be addressed as Mama or Papa. People of about the same age may call each other by their first name or mon ami, mon frére, or ma soeur (“my friend,” “my brother,” or “my sister”). At work, Monsieur (“Mr.”), Madame (“Ms.” or “Mrs.”), or a title is used with the last name.

Visiting is common after work or on weekends in urban areas, and at almost anytime in rural areas. Most rural socializing takes place on Sundays after morning church services. Even if a guest is not hungry it is important in order to avoid causing offense to at least taste some of the food that is offered. Guests are not usually expected to bring gifts, but friends sometimes bring food or drink. In urban areas, a new acquaintance may make a vague appointment (“I’ll drop by next week”) before visiting, but most visits are unplanned. Rural people may invite passing friends in for a drink or a meal; it is impolite to refuse. Rural women socialize in the kitchen, where they spend much of the day. Kitchens are generally separate from the living quarters; open cooking fires are often used. Open-air structures called corps de garde are places where men work and socialize.

Invited guests are not expected to be punctual, but they are expected to return the hospitality at a later date. If the door to a home is open, visitors imitate the knocking sound by saying kôkôkô (“Knock, knock”); it is considered improper to enter without announcing one’s presence.

Recreation

In urban areas, the cinema, dancing, and swimming are popular forms of recreation. Visiting is the most common leisure activity throughout the country. Soccer is Gabon’s most popular sport, and basketball is also popular. Television is available in much of the country. Dancing to drums and local music is common and is usually a part of weddings, religious ceremonies, and other occasions. A traditional strategy-based game for two players called songo (in Fang) is popular in the north. It is played on a wooden board with pebbles or seeds. Tag and tug-of-war are also enjoyed.

Holidays and Celebrations

Official public holidays include Jour de l'An (New Year's Day, 1 January), Fête du Travail (Labor Day, 1 May), Fête National (Independence Day, 17 August) and major Christian holy days such as Pâques (Easter), Pentecôte (Pentecost), Toussaint (All Saints’ Day, 1 November), and Noël (Christmas Day, 25 December). The Islamic holy days of Fin du Ramadan, a feast that ends the month-long fast of Ramadan, and Fête de Mouton, a feast to honor Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, are observed according to their dates on the lunar calendar.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas