A Journey in West Africa
6th – 29th January, 2018
Sister Christine Conrath, OSB
Secretary to the AIM
In January 2018 I had the privilege of participating in two meetings in West Africa, one in Benin, the other in Guinea.
Session of Superiors of West Africa
The session of the superiors of West Africa which takes place every four years was this time organised at the monastery of the Cistercian
sisters of Parakou. It brought together eighteen participants. Benedictines were the greatest number, then Mother Genevieve Akakpo of Parakou and Dom Marcellin Dhecadjevi of Kokoubou represented the Cistercians. It was a joy also to meet Sister Marie-Joseph, a Bernardine of Bafor.
Benin was well represented with Parakou, Kokoubou and also Mother Marie-Reine Hounsou of Toffo (OSB), Mother Nathalie Courtois of Pèporiyakou (OSB). Burkina Faso was also well represented: Koubri brothers and sisters, Dom Jean-Christophe Yameogo and Mother M.-Henriette Wend-Bala Kalmogo as well as two Redemptorist superiors from Bobo and Diabo in their fine red habits. Senegal was there, with Mother Marie Espérance Sarr of Keur Guilaye and Dom Jean-Marie Rouseaud, Prior of Keur Moussa representing his abbot. We should not forget Guinea, with Mother Raphael Verzaux of Friguiabgé. The Prior of Séguéya was stuck in Canada. Togo was present by Dzogbégan: Dom Theodore Kouassi Coco, President of the Association of the monasteries of West Africa, Brother Michel-Benoît Alafia from Hêkhamé, and Sister Marie-Bernadette Nyadzo of Sadori, a dependent house of Dzogbégan; Mother Benedict Assima of Dzogbégan was unable to come from Yaoundé but she sent her young Prioress Marie-Christine.
The session was led by Father Jean-Claude Lavigne, OP, who kept us breathless throughout the week on the theme of prophetism and the religious life. ‘If the future belongs to God we should know how to lend him our hands, our hearts and our intelligence so that the soil of Africa may be renewed like the rest of the planet. Monastic life can be the mediator of that novelty by being the prophet through its style of life.’
As we know, there is a great gap between the secular way of life and monastic life. The whole art is to retain this fruitful gap, that is, neither to remain clutching outdated forms of life nor following the latest fashions and every wind of change. Father Lavigne explained this through many examples, always alert to the reactions of his audience. If the gap is fruitful, religious life remains significant, prophetic, attractive, dynamic and worthwhile. To succeed in witnessing to our prophetic experience in the spiritual life: how does our vocation to follow Christ in the Benedictine Rule nourish our relationship to Christ, to others and to one another in a new way? Is the way of celebrating the liturgy always a source of life for the community? Do we know how to give ourselves and our time to mutual listening? Do we take enough time at community Chapters to stress this source of life? The place of our relationships in community can also have the taste of prophetism if we take care of it. Do we know how to take up the challenge of mutual love, of pardon before the sun goes down, of spiritual filiation and paternity within the circuit of enclosure which, by definition, leaves no escape-route? How do we exercise hospitality to one another? All these questions arise continually in the heart of the monastic people that we are.
I had noticed in the programme a visit to Songhai under the heading, ‘Prophetic report on the earth’. I was quite perplexed, but anyway I gave it a chance and went. It was a marvellous experience. We went to discover the Centre Songhai of Parakou, one of the eight or nine such centres open in Benin. The most developed is Porto Novo. We discovered how the biological capital and human capital of Africa are joined in working together in the best possible conditions to develop a responsible and renewable agriculture, to form young farmers. The formation is of a high quality, for there is no lack of candidates and the selection is fierce. No huge and crippling investment, no importing of agricultural machinery which soon becomes useless. No, rather modesty and plenty of intelligence on the human level. We visited under the guidance of Roger Agbotoun and discovered that the Centre recycles everything possible. The research never stops and the technicians continue to employ new simple techniques to improve the yield of the land for breeding rabbits, the farmyard, bee-keeping, fish-farming. Agriculture provides seed for fabricating animal-fodder. There is detailed knowledge of treating natural products. Animal-dung fertilises the fields, making a biologically hyper-effective weed-killer. Irrigation without waste of water. Mangoes all come to maturity at the same time, but this is no problem: a machine is invented to cut the fruit into slices and the slices are dried out before being packed. The juice of the fruit is easily sold in sterilised and packed bottles. You will find also soap from papaya and aloes in the little shop. This is the richness of an ‘Africa which holds up its head’, according to the saying of Songhai. The next stage will be the installation of biogas in order to do without the gas now used especially in the drying of fruit. I discovered plenty of fruits and vegetables previously unknown to me, but the most beautiful thing was the interest of the superiors of our monastic communities, putting their pertinent questions and receiving answers carefully transcribed into their note-books in order to be put to use on their return to the monasteries.
Besides the conferences of Fr Lavigne, the exchanges between members were very rich. For me, to put a face to an email-address was an advantage, and future correspondence between the AIM and the communities will be made easier thereby.
I was also able to make a thorough visit of the monastery of Parakou, which has already celebrated its golden jubilee. The community, founded by the Abbey of Les Gardes (France) has more than forty sisters from five or six different nationalities. There are still some of the founding sisters, full of years and experiences, to watch over them – or rather the young African sisters honour them and watch over them with a lively care. To honour the seniors and love the juniors – thank you, my sisters, for showing me how you put this into practice at Parakou.
Some years ago the ‘Electricians of the World’ ran a session, inviting the monks and nuns in charge of electrical questions in their monasteries. It was a question of reviewing the entire electrical installation. With legitimate pride Sister Malia showed me all the work which had been done at that time. I made use of the occasion to thank the ‘Electricians of the World’ (EDM at Toulouse) for their investment at Parakou and elsewhere.
We saw also various workshops, fabrication of soap, liqueurs, phytotherapy, making of jam, confitures, syrups, and especially a splendid yogurt. The sisters could certainly sell more of it, but transport remains a problem; yogurt must travel in refrigerated transport and there is no railway connection.
What guarantee is there that the cold-chain will be retained as far as Cotonou? In the course of the session Dom Jean-Marie of Keur Moussa made a proposal to invite the superiors and bursars to sell the products of monasteries of West Africa in their huge shop at Keur Moussa in Senegal. They have plenty of transport. This suggestion aroused great interest, but the transport of the products remains a difficulty.
Nevertheless, I hope that certain non-perishable and valuable products (for example the innumerable liqueurs and elixirs to combat one illness or another recurrent in Africa) will be able to find a shop-window to help the sale and so the economic growth of monasteries which possess such obvious skills. There is increasing poverty around our monasteries, and thefts of goods during the divine Office. But must we shut off our monasteries? How much better to share and promote life inside monastic property? These are real questions.
The time passed too quickly and we could not visit the nearby Cistercian monastery of Kokoubou. This I regret, but it makes another reason to return one day to Benin with its endearing inhabitants.
Session for formators of West Africa
From Parakoou I returned to Cotonou to take the plane to Conakry in Guinea. There I received a surprise at the airport: the flight offered by the company Air Rwanda never materialised. The sisters of Parakou were equal to the occasion. Their hospitality was perfect to the very end, which consisted in finding me a flight forty-eight hours later on a plane of Air Côte d’Ivoire. I now understand the concept ‘Air Perhaps’ and am grateful for the humour of our African brothers and sisters.
This time it was a session of formators of West Africa which occurs every alternate year. It was a joy to find again several participants
whom I had already met at La Bonne Nouvelle in Bouaké in January 2016. The place booked this time was Friguiagbé, a monastery founded by Maumont (France) twenty-one years ago. This was a real blessing for me, now that I had got to know the superiors, to meet or meet again the masters and mistresses of novices of the same French-language monasteries of West Africa.
In alphabetical order of countries: Benin with Mother Bibiane (Parakou), Sister Marie-Estelle (Pèporiakou) and Sister Laetitia (Toffo); Burkina Faso with Sister Clémentine and Dom Amos (Koubri), Mother Marie and Sister Marie-Christine, Redemptorists from Diabo and Bobo; Guinea with Sister Marie-David Pèporiakou) and Dom Edouard (Séguéya); Ivory Coast with Sister Scholastique (Bouaké); Senegal with Sister Paule-Marie (Keur-Guilaye) and Dom Paul-Marie (Keur Moussa); Togo with Sister Maria-Goretti (Sadori) and Brother Jean-Christophe (Dzogbegan). With two extras, Father Apollinaire and myself, that made sixteen persons, an ideal number.
All the same, there was a change at the last minute, quite enough to test the suppleness of the participants! The Jesuit priest who was to give the conferences during the first week could not come, and Sister Marie-David, novice-mistress of Friguiagbé, took on the job of finding a replacement. Father Apollinaire Kolié, a diocesan priest of Guinea, was excellent, both as speaker and as accompanist of the session. He had a thorough knowledge of the subject selected, namely sorcery and monastic life. He asked us to distinguish ‘everyday sorcery’ – so present today in jealousy, calumny, spite – and ‘nocturnal sorcery’, more rare but unfortunately not yet eradicated. I had never before noticed the extent to which the gospel narratives distinguish between exorcisms and healings. Father Kolié invited us to discern and name the part played by fear, and to re-read certain biblical stories, notably the first chapters of Genesis. This was a tonic rich in instruction.
The following week it was my task to open up the question of community life. To do this I proposed to read the very fine document of the Congregation of Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, dated 1994, on ‘Fraternal life in community’. I had also brought some video clips on jealousy, on welcome to dissimilar persons, on mutual support. The participants entered into the game well, playing scenes elaborated with imagination. In this way they taught one another to unscramble difficulties of relationships between members of a community. They played well because their interpretations were based on experience. We monks and nuns, ‘in the world but not of the world’ are not sheltered from suspicion, deflation, difficult relationships. It is good to have a handful of tools to intervene when this evil presents itself in the bosom of noviciates and of communities.
We were also able to visit the nearby monastery of Séguéya, founded by Keur Moussa in 2003, and the buildings being put up, as well as Friguiagbé. The two sites are magnificent. The sisters have large chicken-houses and workers to fill them. The sale of eggs in Kindia, the neighbouring town, and at Conakry is assured, but transport is difficult, especially by road. Conditions of life in a young foundation are not easy, and it is difficult to acquire economic autonomy.
In Guinea nature is luxuriant and the beauty of the countryside sometimes stunning. On the Sunday we went on an excursion to admire two waterfalls in full bloom. One was called ‘the bride’s veil’; the other was the source of the Kissili. Photography cannot reproduce the majesty of these places – and we were in the dry season! We also met diamond-hunters who were sieving the waters of a river; so far they had found nothing, but they were living in hope. In fact Guinea is a country rich in water, and so hydro-electricity, gold and diamonds, but above all in persons. The exactions of Sékou Touré have unfortunately left the country bloodless. The welcome from the local Church was touching. Friguiagbé and Séguéya, the first two monasteries of Guinea Conakry are clearly the apple of the eye of Mgr Vincent, the successor of Mgr Sarah as Archbishop of Conakry. Father Apollinaire also calls on the monks and nuns for all his prayer-requests.
On the eve of departure we visited the market of Conakry, rich in colours and decibels. On return to Paris after such an experience one misses the broad smiles of the black little children.
I thank you all whom I have had the joy of meeting in January 2018.