Gabon, a republic in West Africa, is a culturally diverse country that is home to dozens of ethnic groups, each with distinct traditions. Mask making, music and dance are important parts of Gabonese life for these groups, many of whom interact and share cultural practices. The celebration of unique religious beliefs and practices also defines the cultural identity of the Gabonese.

Bwiti

Bwiti is an animistic religion and one of three officially recognized religions in Gabon. Its beliefs focus on ancestor worship and forest spirits. Adherents to Bwiti cultivate a plant known as iboga, a psychoactive drug that causes hallucinations. Iboga is sacred and is used for initiation ceremonies, spiritual growth and rites of passage. The Gabonese people believe that it allows communication with forest spirits and ancestors, cures the sick and allows those who consume it to see the future.

Initiation

An important part of Bwiti is its initiation ceremony, when Gabonese followers of Bwiti take iboga for the first time. Initiation ceremonies vary from group to group, but often take several days. The initiation ceremony of the Babongo forest people lasts for three days and involves eating the root of the iboga, although other groups take it as a tea. The visions that an initiate experiences are secret and deeply sacred. Once the ceremony has ended, the initiate is considered an adult.

Masks

Mask making and ritual face paint are important parts of Gabonese culture, and styles vary dramatically between groups. The Gabonese people use masks to praise the ancestors and to mark important life events by signifying transformation. They are part of funeral and agrarian rites, and Gabonese people use them to promote fertility, provide spiritual protection and express cultural identity. These masks sometimes also express fluid gender concepts, with male dancers wearing masks that depict female faces. Masks vary in style and include geometric shapes, stylized and exaggerated features and realistically detailed faces.

Babongo Funeral Customs

The culture of the forest dwelling Babongo people is centered around a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Their funeral traditions are unique and include a belief that a village must be spiritually cleansed when a person who lives there dies. After a death, the Babongo believe that the body must be washed and wrapped in a burial cloth. After the people of the village prepare the body for burial, the men carry it into the forest for interment, while women begin the purification process. During the funeral ritual, which lasts for three days, women paint their faces white and the members of the village dance, sing and drum.