Gabon is one of the wealthiest nations in Africa and attributed its success to the former president, Omar Bongo, who held office for 42 years. Bongo was the longest ruling non-monarch leader in the world at the time of his death and maintained a controversial grasp on his consolidated power by bringing opposition leaders into his fold. Last year his son, Ali Ben Bongo, took over as the Gabonese President-elect.
The road from the airport in Libreville sweeps along the coast. Stoplights function at surprising regularity, and 90% of traffic abides by the signals (others speed through unbothered at a cool 45 miles per hour). A row of governmental buildings lines a hillside that seems to have been designed to attest to the wealth of the country. (This is not to say the buildings are pretty. One of these is a ministry, presumably of agriculture, that has made the building take the shape of giant metal tree and incorporates putrid browns, yellows and greens to accentuate the designer’s theme). There are also fewer taxis patrolling the streets; more people own cars, thus private taxis are not the norm as they would be in Congo. Here, the experience of taking a taxi is more aligned with group hitchhiking for payment than anything.
My first experience leaves me politely dropped off to the side of the road once the driver figures out that my destination is further than he wants to go. I ask cab to cab, “Tropicana?” Two people in the back stare at me as the driver looks ahead and refuses with a, “no.” It’s sweltering. It tops 39 degrees Celsius, or about 101 Fahrenheit. My shirt has long since been dry. It takes ten more minutes before I concede and change my destination.
On another occasion, I exited a real estate meeting in which we were discussed appropriate budgets for expatriates exceeding $5600 per month and squeezed into a shared taxi. The two women in the back seat shifted over and made room for me. Everyone in the taxi seemed to get along like they had known one another for years and I felt as if I had just joined a family road trip. Most likely it was out of shared snickering at my expense. I got out and offered a dollar for the lift.
Because of the comparative wealth in Gabon, many neighboring countries have a strong presence in Libreville. Primarily, taxi drivers come from Cameroon and Nigeria. I found my opportunity to continue my discussion of salaries when I met a driver named Timothy. Timothy, a broad-smiling Cameroonian, explained the differences of basic earnings to rent expenditures between his home country and Gabon. In Cameroon, monthly rent is approximately 50,000 XAF (or about $112) compared to 100,000 ($225) for the same standard in Libreville. However, when he takes into consideration his potential monthly pay, he stands to earn 300,000 ($670) per month if he had stayed in Cameroon but between 500,000-600,000 ($1,120 – 1,335) in Libreville.
Timothy stressed that to have a future in Cameroon, it’s necessary to first have a great deal of money. There is no upward mobility, yet in Gabon, opportunities are greater; at least enough to save a portion of an income.