Even though most people say that Gabon is lost between Europe (France) and Africa and that it has little to do with real African life, it does not cease to surprise us. Usually it works like this: you see something, you ask yourself: what on earth...?, and then you start looking for an explanation. Sometimes there are more experienced expatriates to help you, sometimes you must figure it out on your own. Here are some of the Gabonese mysteries that we managed to solve.
Problem 1 - Why do most Gabonese people have two mobile phones?
Description: I don't just mean the rich. The majority of Libreville boasts two mobiles! The European solution is simple: one mobile for professional and the other for private contacts. But then you look around and a very relevant question comes to mind: why would a waitress or a coconut vendor need two mobiles?
Solution: There are two main mobile phone networks in Gabon: Zain and Libertis. It is very expensive to make phone calls from one network to another. For this reason, most Gabonese people use two numbers and two mobiles: they call their Zain friends from their Zain card, while they have another card for their Libertis contacts. Note: if you have some money and you find the idea of two mobiles uncomfortable, you can invest in a phone which allows two SIM cards simultaneously and has two sets of "call" buttons, so that you can use both cards at the same time. Most likely, these phones only exist in Africa.
Problem 2 - Why do Gabonese women hit themselves on their heads with their palms?
Description: At the restaurant, waiting for a taxi or chatting with a friend, many women suddenly start hitting themselves on the head with an open palm. This act of self-directed violence had us puzzled for a very long time. At first, we thought that it might have been some kind of ethnic social behaviour; in the end, some Gabonese men greet each other by banging their temples together several times. However, women kept acting in this bizzare way even when they were alone. Worse still, it seemed they were applying a lot of force. Were they thinking hard? Were they punishing themselves? For all we knew, they could've been praying!
Solution: When I was told the actual reason for all this, I couldn't stop laughing at its simplicity. There is nothing mystical about it, either. As you probably know, African women wear elaborate hairdos, consisting of dozens of plaits and the like. The plaits are very tight and so the skin on the head might itch or ache. To ease the itching without ruining their plaits, they hit themselves on the head rather than scratch it. Mind you, this only proves that we are equally vain about our looks all over the world!
Problem 3 - Why does every person seem to have a different wrist action for stopping a taxi?
Description: All right, so maybe this is not the most interesting anthropological investigation topic but for some a long time we were really puzzled. In order to stop a passing taxi, some people keep their fists close to their heads and, pointing their thumb left or right, energetically move their wrists. Others will extend their arms and with the index fingers pointing down, move the whole arm. Others still will perform a completely different action. Consequently, we kept wondering if there was a secret code behind all this. And guess what...?, there is.
Solution: Again, the explanation (which I discovered on my own, experimenting) is surprisingly simple. With their thumbs and index fingers people show the taxi driver the direction in which they are going. For example, if I'm standing in front of my house, and want to go to Jandro's office, I should point down with my index finger, which means "straight". In this way, only the taxis that are going my way will stop (saves my time and theirs). If, however, I want to take the first right and go to the gym, I should raise my arm and point right with my thumb, which sends the relevant message to the taximen. Can you believe it took me eight months to figure it out?
Problem 4 - Why are there shoes hanging from cables all over the city?
Description: In many parts of Libreville (especially the quartiers populaires), as well as in villages, we've seen shoes hanging from electric or telephone cables. Sometimes more than just one pair. It instantly made me think of Big Fish; in this film there was a villgage, where the inhabitants' shoes were hanging from cables in the exact same way, preventing them from leaving the place.
Solution: None. I've asked several people and nobody knows. Can you help?
Discovering these little things about Gabon is both fascinating and exhausting. With every new solution new questions appear, a great labyrinth of questions, really. Living in a different culture lets you enter the labyrinth and wonder around it, always knowing, however, that you will never find the exit. You might make a little map and understand parts of it, but you will never see it as a whole. You will keep trying, though, it's the only right thing to do.
Picture downloaded here.