Dr Katrin Langewiesche

Institute for Ethnology and African Studies,
Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz (Germany)

Contemplation and the Contribution to Social Problems

made by the Monasteries of West Africa

An account of the Conference at Ouagadougou,

3-5 April, 2017


KLangewiescheParticipants to the Conference included experts in anthropology and the sociology of religions, as well as young research-students who discussed their empirical works in this context. They came from various disciplines of the social sciences (anthropology, history, sociology, economics, religious sciences), so that an interdisciplinary discussion was guaranteed from the start. On the third day of the conference an excursion to the sisters Disciples of the Divine Master at Ouagadougou gave us the opportunity to study their workshops for embroidery of liturgical vestments.

Monasteries in Africa, most of which were founded at the end of the 1950s, are in a period of transition, for on the one hand less and less of the European founders remain in the communities, and on the other the African monasteries or individuals are themselves establishing new communities in Africa. Do we find different economic tendencies between European and African monasteries? To what extent are the African foundations and their economies better accommodated to local conditions? How are the monks and nuns organised in this respect? How do they function? How do they finance themselves and interact with other religious and non-religious organisations? Do the religious groups work in harmony with international humanitarian organisations, or do they hold out for alternative views of society, new ways of exercising charity, different from the western and Nordic models of development? These are some of the questions raised by the delegates. Without here entering into details about the individual presentations, certain trends may be presented as results of the conference, which indeed also provided perspectives for the projected publication of the meeting.

The conference clearly underlined the importance of regional studies, focused in our case on West Africa. This comparative regional approach does not of course reflect the diversity of the countries of West Africa or the monastic landscape of West Africa, but it does make possible a focus of attention on the ideal of relationships between monasteries, the state, religious plurality and development.

Isabelle Jonveaux dwelt on a comparison with Austrian, German and French monasteries to show the importance of external variations and the historical context for a monastic economy. To illustrate the influence of local environments Thierry Yameogo and Muhammad Bâ took the example of the basic experiment around the monastery of Koubri (Burkina Faso) and the agricultural production of the monastery of Keur Moussa (Senegal). Another important aspect of the comparative approach was the contribution of Koudbi Kaboré on the Redemptorist Sisters in Burkina Faso and their conception of enclosure. He stressed that questions of enclosure and the willingness of the nuns to attempt contact with the surrounding population were intimately connected with the differences between the two Orders. If the analysis is limited to Benedictine monasteries, which in fact constitute the majority of African monasteries, these differences are easily missed.

The presentations showed that detailed analysis is needed if we wish to enlarge our knowledge of links between local development and monastic communities. This is due partly to the nature of the sources: the different sources must first be collected and often laboriously compared, and partly to the fact that many monasteries – and particularly those who have strict enclosure, like the Redemptorist nuns, the Poor Clares and the Carmelites – are an ‘invisible’ element in development.[1] It is a question of small, trivial changes in daily life which nevertheless bring a change in norms and values and a slow but permanent change in a society. Anne Dah explained it sensitively in her presentation on the Cistercian nuns of Bafor in Burkina Faso. In speaking of local development one thinks of charitable, humanitarian actions or of rural development. The definition of ‘development’ as a form of social change, conscious or unconscious, includes innovations introduced by monks and nuns. The work of development by monasteries is often ‘invisible’ because such development is not the purpose of the monasteries. This last point was clearly underlined by Brother André Ardouin and Father Honoré Ouedraogo: the purpose of monasteries is not development but the adoration of God in contemplation, work and prayer. Local development is a secondary effect of the monastic way of life, often born of social expectations of the monasteries among the local people. Two contributions of historians, presented by Honoré Ouedraogo and Martial Halpougdou, on the implications of economic co-operation by the local Catholic Church and Catholic missionaries, brought out parallels with the monasteries which had been hitherto largely unknown to research in social sciences.

A certain number of subjects which went beyond monastic studies and concerned the social anthropology of modern Africa were found to be particularly interesting in the course of the conference, particularly the basic questions of the proximity of monasteries, the domestication of the countryside both symbolically and materially, and also links between Africa and Europe through educational systems.


[1] Clarke and Tittensor introduced the concept of ‘invisible development’ with regard to Muslim charitable institutions and their place in the world economy of development (2014).