Reaching the Nations

Gabon

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area:  267,667 square km.  Located in Central Africa on the equator, Gabon borders Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and the Atlantic Ocean.  Tropical and humid climate continue year round.  Flat terrain covers most of Gabon, with some hills in the southern interior.  Mangroves dominate coastal areas and most of the interior is tropical rainforest or savannah.  High biodiversity and protected natural resources attract tourism.  Gabon is divided into nine administrative provinces.

Population: 1,576,665 (July 2011)

Annual Growth Rate: 1.999% (2011)

Fertility Rate: 4.59 children born per woman (2011)

Life Expectancy: 51.78 male, 53.22 female (2011)

Peoples

Fang: 40%

Punu: 8%

Njebi: 8%

Other native tribes: 34%

Other Africans and Europeans: 10%

The Fang is the largest tribe followed by small tribes, most notably the Punu and Njebi.  Other Africans arrived for employment from neighboring nations.  Europeans remained from colonial times or arrived more recently with many working in the oil industry.

Languages: Fang (37%), Punu (8%), Njebi (8%), other and unknown (47%).  French is the official language and widely spoken as a second language.  42 native languages are spoken.  The most widely spoken languages are Fang (588,000), Punu (123,000), and Njebi (120,000).  No native languages are spoken by over one million speakers.

Literacy: 63.2% (1995)

History

Native peoples populated Gabon for centuries prior to European exploration in the 15th century.  The Portuguese first arrived and named the area from the Portuguese word for cloak, Gabão.  Libreville was founded by liberated slaves in the mid 19th century and later became the capital. The French arrived in the late 19th century and established Franceville in the interior and Port-Gentil along the coast.  Between 1910 and 1959 Gabon belonged to French Equatorial Africa.  Independence from France occurred in 1960.  President Bongo ruled Gabon for 40 years and died in June 2009.  During his presidency political conditions were sometimes unstable and following his death his son took power.  Gabon has transformed itself into one of the most stable and developed nations in Central Africa with high inequality of wealth.   

Culture 

The Fang and several other ethnic groups are known for performing traditional ceremonies with wood carved or metal masks.  Music and oral tradition for folk stories is also important.  Women's rights are limited.  Widows cannot own land and a married man may practice polygamy without the consent of his first wife.[1]  Cigarette and alcohol consumption rates are low compared to world averages.

Economy

GDP per capita: $14,500 (2010) [30.6% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.648

Corruption Index: 2.8

Gabon enjoys a GDP per capita among the highest in Africa, yet wealth is very unequally distributed as the majority of government earnings come from oil exploitation.  Industry accounts for 58% of the GDP and employs 15% of the population.  Most work in agriculture and a fifth of the population is unemployed.  Primary agricultural products include cocoa, coffee and sugar.  Oil is the largest industry (70% of exports) followed by other mineral extraction (manganese and gold) and chemicals.  Timber is also exported.  Primary import/export partners are the United States, China and France.  Debt payment issues continue to impede economic growth.  Recently created national parks hope to draw additional revenue through ecotourism.  Corruption is prevalent in the economy.  Oil extraction contracts with China ignore local peoples' property rights and do not benefit most Gabonese financially. 

Faiths

Christian: 55-75%

Indigenous beliefs: 24-44%

Muslim: less than 1%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic: 600,000

Seventh Day Adventists  3,456  14

Jehovah's Witnesses  3,331  35

Latter-Day Saints  less than 50  1

Religion

The majority of Christians are Catholic.  Protestant groups have more recently arrived and experience slow growth.  Indigenous beliefs are followed by many and influence Christianity.  Muslims are a small yet growing minority.

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution allows religious freedom which is honored by the government.  Religious groups are allowed to assemble, teach, and proselyte without restrictions.[2]

Largest Cities

Urban: 85%

Libreville, Port-Gentil, Masuku, Moanda, Oyem, Makokou, Mouila, Lambarene, Tchibanga, Koulamoutou.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

One of the ten most populous cities has an LDS congregation.  66% of the national population lives in the 10 largest cities.

LDS History

The first members in Gabon arrived in 1980 and consisted of Gabonese baptized abroad and returning to their homeland, mainly from Europe.  The first counselor of the Embassy in Gabon visited Salt Lake and met with Church officials in 1990.[3]  When the Cameroon Yaounde Mission was created in 1992, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea were included in the new mission.  Members have relied on Church magazines in French for instruction and await formal Church establishment.  Permission for the Church to enter Gabon came in 1992.[4]  In 1998 the Africa Area split, resulting in the formation of the Africa West Area which included Gabon.  Gabon and several neighboring nations were transferred to the Africa Southeast Area in 2003.  In 2011, an administrative area branch was organized as Gabon did not pertain to a mission at the time.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: Less than 50 (2008)

Membership growth among Fang speakers has been large enough to merit translations of some Church materials.  In 2010, there appeared to be fewer than 50 members in Gabon.  Some recently arrived members are originally from Cote d'Ivoire.

Congregational Growth

Branches: 0 Groups: 1

A small group of members meets in Libreville as an appendage of the administrative branch. 

Activity and Retention

Some members over the years have kept contact with the Church by receiving Church magazines.  Few members appear to be active as there was no official congregation until 2011 and there is no official church presence.  Approximately twelve Latter-day Saints meet for church services in Libreville in late 2010.[5]  Nationwide active members is estimated at 15, or 30-40% of total church membership.

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: French

All LDS scriptures are translated in French.  Gospel Principles Simplified and the Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith are both available in Fang. 

Meetinghouses

There are no LDS meetinghouses in Gabon.  Church meetings for the group in Libreville appear to occur in members' houses or rented spaces.

Health and Safety

HIV/AIDS infects 5.9% of the population.  Sanitation is poor and tropical diseases are endemic.  Medical infrastructure is limited and access is uneven.

Humanitarian and Development Work

No humanitarian or development projects sponsored by the Church had occurred in Gabon as of early 2010. 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The LDS Church has not taken advantage of opportunities to proselyte in a nation where religious freedom is upheld, proselytism is permitted, little violence and instability occurs, and most adhere to Christianity.  No legislation appears to have deterred the Church from entering Gabon. 

Cultural Issues

The high adherence of Gabonese to indigenous religious may pose challenges to church growth.  Other Christian denominations have experienced limited growth possibly due to the high syncretism with native religions.  Polygamy presents challenges for church growth as those with polygamous spouses must end relations in divorce and be interviewed by a member of the mission or area presidency to be baptized.

National Outreach

Great opportunity exists for the LDS Church once mission outreach is established in Gabon.  At present, small numbers of members live in several locations.  Since 85% of the population is urban and two thirds of the national population live in the 10 largest cities, missionary work can be effectively conducted with limited resources and outreach centers.  A few LDS members live in Libreville, which will become an important city for national outreach as it is the capital and largest city.  Nearly half of the Gabonese population would receive LDS outreach if missionary activity occurred in Libreville.  Franceville (Masuku) will be an important city for outreach in the interior as it is the largest city not along the coast.  If some members do reside in several of the larger cities, this will provide later opportunity for outreach to these locations. 

Gabon has not had a Church presence as the result of its small population, remote location, few active members, limited mission resources, and the tremendous membership growth experienced in other Central African nations.  The Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d'Ivoire quickly drew away limited mission resources in Africa during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  In more recent years, these nations have experienced continued expansion of the Church into unreached areas.  Neighboring Cameroon has received increased mission outreach since 2005 and will likely continue to draw away mission resources from Gabon and other French speaking Central African nations without a Church presence. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Poor member activity among the few members in Gabon may have contributed to the lack of an official Church presence in Gabon.  Reactivation efforts may be challenging when the Church is formally established due to long periods of member inactivity and difficulty locating members.  Few if any converts appear to have been baptized in Gabon.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Despite a small population, Gabon has large ethnic diversity which challenges Church resources in meeting the needs of differing ethnic groups.  These ethnic groups will likely be included in the same congregations as membership will be too small for the creation of native language specific units.  The limited number of speakers of indigenous languages in Gabon challenge Church translation resources and will likely result in only Fang having Church materials translated for many years. 

Language Issues

Gabon benefits from a population which speaks French as a second language.  French will serve as a language to unify members from differing ethnic groups.  A limited number of Church materials in Fang will facilitate formal Church establishment as it is the most commonly spoken native language.  Church material translations in Punu and Njebi appear challenging and unlikely until a strong membership presence is established. 

Missionary Service

Missionaries have been called from Gabon who joined the Church in other nations.  A Gabonese-American missionary was serving in the Idaho Boise Mission in 2009.  No full-time missionaries had been assigned to Gabon as of mid-2011.

Leadership

Very few local members appear capable of staffing and holding leadership as most have only experienced short periods of activity in nations where they were baptized.  Recently arrived Ivorian members may provide the bulk of leadership manpower until greater numbers of Gabonese join the Church. 

Temple

Gabon pertains to the Johannesburg South Africa Temple district.  Members who may attend the temple likely have their temple recommends issued by the area presidency and to go the temple individually or as families.

Comparative Growth

The status of the Church in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea appear very similar.  Both nations have had Church members living in them for decades yet neither has an official Church presence.  This has likely been due to their small populations,  remote locations, and limited mission resource availability.

Other Christian denominations have seen modest to rapid growth.  Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses experience modest growth whereas Pentecostals and evangelicals experience strong growth.  Growth in most denominations had not occurred until the 1990s and outreach has been limited compared to other African nations.  Islam is seen as a threat to Christian denominations' growth and outreach. 

Future Prospects

The organization of an administrative area branch for Gabon in 2011 indicates potential plans for an official LDS Church establishment in the near future.  Gabon may have its first independent congregation and official Church presence established in the near future in Libreville as increased mission outreach continues in neighboring Cameroon.  A prospective LDS mission in Cameroon in the near future would greatly increase the likelihood of the establishment of an official LDS presence.   


[1]  "Gabon," Social Institutions and Gender Index, retrieved 17 June 2011.  http://genderindex.org/country/gabon

[2] http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127233.htm

[3] http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/19616/African-dignitary-visits-Church-headquarters.html

[4] Deseret News 2010 Church Almanac p.487-8 "Gabon"

[5]  "Episode 44," Into All the World - the Mormon Channel, retrieved 20 November 2010.  http://radio.lds.org/eng/programs/into-all-the-world-episode-44