The story was told by Pascaline Bongo herself in a documentary released in 2012. When the daughter of Gabon’s former president Omar Bongo, then a 23-year-old student in the US, first met the global superstar Bob Marley, the reggae singer was busy smoking a large joint and said only one thing to her: “You’re ugly.”
This comment was in reference to the young woman’s straightened hair, which Marley considered an unacceptable insult to his Africanness. Despite this embarrassing first introduction, the couple enjoyed a passionate love affair that lasted until the idol’s death on 11 May 1981. Passionate but almost impossible, admits Bongo herself in the book written by French journalist Anne-Sophie Jahn, which was published on 7 April.
Because of the two lovers’ personalities and backgrounds, the affair was never made completely official. “It wasn’t hidden, but it wasn’t public either,” says Jamaican guitarist Junior Marvin, who accompanied Marley in The Wailers.
This romance and the obstacles it encountered say a lot about the mentality of a part of newly decolonised Africa and the realities of life in Gabon at the time. Above all, it reveals the relationship that the black populations of Jamaica, the Caribbean and perhaps even the US had with an idealised continent, which was fantasised about but generally very little known.
Between fascination and misunderstanding
It was within this context, between fascination and misunderstanding, that Marley and Bongo’s love story began. Despite their first abrupt exchange, the daughter of Gabon’s President, who had come to attend the Wailers’ concert in Los Angeles, suggested that the group finish off the evening at the luxurious villa she shared with her sister Albertine in Beverly Hills.
Marley and Bongo spent a quiet evening together, with no flirting or excesses. However, the young woman suggested that the singer perform in Libreville in early 1980, an event that would end up setting so much in motion.
Marley and the Wailers were ecstatic. For years they had been singing about pan-Africanism, declaring their love for their ancestors’ continent, calling for unity – the cover of their album Survival, which was released in October 1979, was a patchwork of the continent’s flags – but paradoxically, none of these Jamaicans from the slums of Kingston had ever set foot in Africa.
This trip to Gabon – which was followed by another to Zimbabwe, to celebrate the new independence of what remained known as Rhodesia until 1980 – is at the heart of Jahn’s book, whose title – Bob Marley and the Dictator’s Daughter – clearly sets the tone of the book.
After being invited to play in Gabon, the Wailers did not stop to ask themselves any questions. Even when they learned that they would be performing during the birthday celebrations of Omar Bongo – who they weren’t sure whether he was the “king” or president, and didn’t care – they still didn’t ask any questions. They received a royal welcome, and their hosts were extremely attentive.
Discovery of a sadly unequal country
The reggaemen were surprised to discover a rather modern capital, thanks to the oil money that had been flowing in over the past few years. President Bongo, who was hardly a fan of reggae, didn’t see the point in giving an audience to these ragged, weed-smoking Rastafarians.
Posing alongside these guys with dirty hair and for whom the height of elegance seemed to be wearing tracksuits? He’d rather pass, thanks. But Pascaline was, and would remain, his favourite daughter. So he sent Ali, his son and chosen successor, to retrieve his guests.
As the days went by, the Wailers also discovered a sadly unequal country, in which a large part of the population lived in extreme poverty. They learned that the President had just been re-elected with 99.96% of the vote.
“We didn’t know that Omar Bongo was a dictator,” said Marvin bitterly. “We were innocent, so happy to be invited to Africa.” Judy Mowatt, a backup singer, added that “they weren’t colonised but they weren’t free. Gabon was a neocolonial country ruled by a black man.”
In the book, Bongo herself explains how, from her point of view, the “revolutionary” Marley – who the US Central Intelligence Agency viewed at the time as a “subversive” figure to be kept in check – was able to resolve this dilemma. “When we met,” she says, “he told me that my father had been the only one to suggest that Haile Selassie move to Gabon after he was dethroned. And that the Rastafarians felt that this was a strong act that deserved their respect and admiration.”
Very much in love with his “African princess”
It was in Libreville that their love story began. From then on, Bongo was often in Marley’s company, travelling by private jet between Libreville and Los Angeles, where she was studying, as well as Kingston. The singer, although not very affectionate in public, appeared to be very much in love with his “African princess” with whom he dreamt of having a child.
The king of reggae, who died at the age of 36, admitted to having 11 offspring from seven different mothers and about 25 others who claim to be of his blood.
Marley married Rita, who often performed as a backup singer for the Wailers, in 1966. However, he continued to have several affairs. For instance, he had a great love affair with Cindy Breakspeare, who was crowned Miss World in 1976 and with whom he had a son, the future singer Damian Marley, in 1978. Bongo, on the other hand, was secretly taking the pill and was well aware of the fact that they would never be able to be together.
“Bob used to say to me: ‘Your father will never let you marry me’, and I said to myself: ‘No chance with all the women in his life… He was a Rasta and his philosophy was to share everything. And it wasn’t his fault that the girls jumped on him. They all knew he was married… but he was a superstar.’”
The young woman eventually stopped straightening her hair and adopted braids. They were “not real locks, her father would never have let her do that,” said Didier Ping, her son with her first husband. They would remain in each other’s lives even after that sad day in December 1980 when his New York-based doctors confirmed that the melanoma, which had been detected in 1977 but hadn’t been properly treated, had turned into a generalised cancer. The doctors confirmed that Marley had only three weeks to live.
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He lasted six months, confined to a clinic in Bavaria where a German doctor tested out one final treatment option. Bongo visited him every weekend during those six months and realised that she wished she had given birth to his child. The star died on 11 May in Miami, where he had been transferred. The funeral took place in Kingston, and of course, the young woman attended. She remained close to Cedella, Marley’s mother, until she died in 2008.
After studying at the École Nationale d’Administration, she served as a government minister during her father’s rule and then her brother’s chief of staff before giving up politics. During all this time, she remained attached to her former love and his music.
She married Jean Ping, and named her first child Nesta, after Marley, whose official name was Robert Nesta Marley. Bongo, who after the Wailers managed to get Michael Jackson and Jay Z to play in Libreville, is also the founder of the Abi Reggae festival, which has been held every year since 2015 in Abidjan.
Marley was Bongo’s first great love. It was not the case for Marley, however, loving an “African princess” had certainly given him a better understanding of a continent he had long sung about but hadn’t really known.
On the cover of his last album, Uprising, released a month after his death, a lion-maned Rastafarian raises his arms in victory, while the last song on the record, Redemption Song, includes excerpts from speeches by the pan-Africanist Rastafarian leader Marcus Garvey and calls for “emancipation”. It certainly seems to be a discreet tribute to a “princess” named Bongo.
Bob Marley et La Fille du Dictateur, by Anne-Sophie Jahn, published by Grasset, 224 pages, €20 ($23.8).
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