Dr Katrin Langewiesche
Institute for Ethnology and Africa Studies,
University of Mainz (Germany)

Cooperation and Conflict

Contributions of the monastery
of Bafor to local development


A résumé of the dissertation for the degree of Master in Sociology of Nonna Anne Dah at the Catholic University of Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, under the guidance of Professor Amandé Badini and Dr Jacques Thiamobiga: ‘The Integration of the Cistercians of Notre-Dame of Bafor in the surrounding villages’. This dissertation analyses the social and economic changes brought about by the monastery of these sisters at Bafor in Burkina Faso.


The results of the research are surely interesting for the sociology of development, the discipline to which Anne Dah belongs, as much as for the sociology of monasticism. Set up at Bafor in 2005, the Cistercian Sisters of the Bernardines of Esquermes live a contemplative life. Despite their withdrawal from the world, their actions have inevitably had an effect on the society into which they have been grafted, bringing environmental and social changes which the author catalogues. The first part of the study concentrates on the social perception of the monastery and its members by the local population. How do the neighbours view the nuns? The second part analyses the interaction between the monastery and its environment and the contribution of the monastery.

The author envisages the development as a process of change linked to the environmental and social conditions, a sort of change brought about by voluntary work which often brings unexpected results. The village of Bafor is situated in the south-west of Burkina Faso, fifteen kilometres south of Dano, capital of the province of Ioba. Belonging to the diocese of Diébougou, it has welcomed the project of the erection of a monastery since 2000. At the invitation of Mgr Jean-Baptiste Somé the first five sisters of the Cistercian Bernardines of Esquermes came from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo on 19th November, 2005, after the blessing of the new monastery, Notre-Dame of Bafor. Bafor is a Dagara village, most of whose population is attached to the ancestral cults. If the population has welcomed the monastery, this does not mean that it has bought into its religion or into the way of life of the nuns.


‘If you go there you must ring the bell’ - Social conditions surrounding the monastery

BaforfondationIn the Dagara milieu the place of a woman is in the home, and the destiny of a girl is marriage and procreation. She has no right to her earnings. It is difficult for this society to conceive the life of a woman beyond these conventions. Consequently contemplatives seem in the eyes of the population to be radically different. Their way of life is tolerated because they are foreigners, but they are nevertheless suspect because they show the Dagara girls that a life other than marriage and child-care is possible. In the eyes of the population to become an active religious is already a curiosity which has finally come to be tolerated, while nuns are seen as quite marginal: no husbands, no children, no fathers or mothers. Without making any judgment on their way of life, the inhabitants of Bafor accept seeing the nuns evolve according to their vision of the world, accommodating themselves to some of their practices: ‘ring the bell to make contact with them’. They allow the children to go to the monastery and to take part in the Masses and prayers. Sometimes the parents accompany their little children for big feasts such as Christmas and Easter. The sisters are few in number, varying between five and seven members. They seldom come out of the monastery, to the astonishment of the locals. A stall-holder was amazed, ‘I once met one of them who told me that she had been here for twelve years but had never been to the centre of the village. Her limit was the asphalt road.’ The image given to the society is ‘women of prayer’, shut in and self-contained. To this contribute the limitation of entry, the silence of the place and the regular call to prayer: ‘For me, they are women of prayer. When I go there I rarely see them. They do not come out. Just prayer.’ The neighbours of the monastery seem to have latched onto one of the essential principles of feminine monasticism, prayer and enclosure. By contrast the work needed to feed the community and the help given to the poor are not mentioned as essential traits of the life of the sisters of Bafor. Of course the representations of the monastery of Bafor evolve among a few of them, as does their relationship with natural environment. In fact the nuns do not communicate frequently with the local population because of the restrictions imposed by enclosure, ignorance of the Dagara language, the isolation of the site and the wish to limit interaction to avoid being invaded by myriad requests from the population.


A cohabitation between co-operation and conflict

The living together of the nuns and the host population oscillates between reciprocated non-comprehension, co-operation and conflict around access to the land and exploitation of the natural resources. The two sides have different points of view on these questions. For some the sisters have had good relationships of conviviality and confidence with the local population since they arrived because of their tact and disponibility: ‘the manner of contact with people, knowing how to treat them, friendliness and understanding, all these count for a lot’, explains the bursar. For others it is especially their capacity to transform the area which draws sympathy. The sisters have many activities such as planting trees, gardening and keeping livestock. They export their yogurt throughout the region of the south-west where their skill is much appreciated. More than this, their charitable activity of the monastery (education) and the commodities it is bringing (pasturage, electricity) place the monastery high on the list of institutions with which the locals are keen to maintain relationships: ‘There used to be only two families next to the monastery; now there are three or four more buildings because there is water there which the women can draw.’ A new movement of population is occurring around the monastery, which brings with it new social demands. Having received access to water, the families are now asking for access to electricity. Thus certain improvements worked by the nuns for their own needs have brought advantage to the surrounding population and encouraged the arrival of new inhabitants. Good relationships with the neighbours can change to conflict as soon as the land and their resources become objects of jealousy.

The installation of the monastery at Bafor and its need of cultivable land has brought tensions between the local church and village society. At the time of the installation a good deal of space was needed for the nuns to grow their crops. Part of the present site of the monastery belonged to the Sisters of the Annunciation of Bobo (SAB), who gave it to the Bernardines. Other land was added, giving them a territory of 30 hectares. Some farmers near the site had to give up land to enlarge that of the monastery. This was not free of difficulties. As everywhere, access to land becomes competitive under the joint pressure of intense interregional migration, the insertion of peasant economy in the market, the instability of customary law and the weakening of traditional power, but also the pressure of other interest-groups, as at Bafor, the Catholic Church. When negotiators say, ‘That was not easy’, this alludes to the fact that the social role of the village headman as administrator of the land is still in operation. In fact the basic situation around the monastery has come up against customary law, as is often the case in such deep-seated conflicts, also involving ecclesiastical agents who are aware that possession of land is a means of security and a guarantee of the stability of their enterprise. The nuns are well aware of the stakes and know that certain peasants are afraid of losing the land they farm. Consequently some farmers are radically opposed to giving up their land. It is ‘not at all easy’ to convince them. Here as elsewhere conflicts around the basic question are linked to social position and the interests of different parties: the headman, the farmer, the diocese. The stakes are land and power: the major producer of the locality wants to preserve his land and economic power, the headman wants to retain his position of authority in the community, the diocese wants to retain its private property. These disputes have led to death-threats, and the various protagonists have found themselves summoned before the police.

Nevertheless, recourse to public administration and its institutions has had little success in resolving these conflicts. It is the Dagara customary-law of ‘mock-parentage’ (loluoru) that has played a principal role in resolving the conflict. This is a system of mediation fundamental for Dagara society and many other West African societies, a sort of non-aggression pact which unites patriarchal groups based on paternal lineage.[1] The ‘mock-parent’ is the tapelu-sob, which literally means ‘man of ash’, since ash is seen as an element of reconciliation and pacification. The intervention of this ‘mock-parent’ facilitates peace and harmony, agreement and joy. This system has played an important role in the regulation of conflict around the monastery, thanks to the intervention of the bursar, who at the same time has functioned as ‘mock-parent’. The intervention of this mediator, recognised both by the nuns and by the Dagara land-owners has made possible a lasting reconciliation. After the intervention of justice, mediators and the ‘mock-parent’ a compromise was found between the different protagonists. After this conflicted installation, what has been the impact on Bafor of the presence of the monastery?


The contribution of the monastery to the development of Bafor

Thanks to the Dreyer foundation at Dano, which attracts tourists by its situation overhanging the dam and its architecture, the position of the monastery just a few kilometres from Dano is a place of retreat and an important place in the south-west to visit. The monastery certainly contributes to the architectural and touristic attractions of the area.

Although the local population definitely appreciates its aesthetic contribution to the area – ‘They have humanised the site; it is does one good to walk in the monastery’ – the monastery benefits the populace more directly by several opportunities of employment offered to young people, to workers and women on the area as casual workers or salaried employees. Besides a regular wage the employees and their families benefit from an apprenticeship to new methods of work and saving. The nuns motivate their workers to join in agriculture, to avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to avoid bush-fires and to put money aside. The skills acquired have a clear effect on their families, as one employee explained, ‘We have bought sheep with the nuns to begin breeding them ourselves. At the present moment I may say that I have sixteen sheep, and I can use the manure to put on the fields. That is a real help.’

BaforCourChapThe change of customs is also linked to the example the sisters give of protecting the environment. At first hesitant and even opposed, in the course of time their Dagara neighbours take up the initiatives of the sisters. Notably the use of fire-breaks to avoid bush-fires has been gradually taken up by the local population. ‘I even believe that some neighbours are beginning to regret burning their land. The sisters plant a lot and look after the natural vegetation which is already there.’ The Bernardines have an educative attitude which translates itself into the construction of schools and welcoming centres wherever they go. The monastery of Bafor makes an exception at the heart of the Order which is linked to the request of the bishop to create uniquely a place of prayer and reflection. At Bafor, even though the monastery has not yet constructed a school, the Bernardines contribute actively to the education of children. Their presence influences the children, who come running to the monastery and to whom the sisters give catechism courses. At the present time the sisters are reflecting how they can translate their charism of teaching at Bafor by finding an adaptation in the local context in the framework of rural teaching.

Implanted not long ago in a rather hesitant environment and after initial conflict, the tasks which the Bernardines fulfil daily show their longer-lasting influence on the environment and society. Their hidden life has in fact been a seed of social change. The construction of monasteries goes hand in hand with conflicts, ruptures, resistance and negotiations with authorities. Monastic research is full of such conflicts, and often produces more clashes than solutions. The dissertation of Anne Dah has the merit of opening the theme of the contribution of the monastery of Bafor to the local development in positive terms, as well as the limits of change and interaction.



[1] This ‘mock-parent’ arrangement allows and indeed sometimes obliges members of the same family or tribe or inhabitants of the same region of territory to mock each other without consequences. These verbal insults are interpreted by anthropologists as a means of unwinding or social reconciliation, more or less a sacred practice. It is a unique practice which allows any language without annoyance, and certainly not bloodshed. It resolves social crises because you don’t get angry with a ‘mock-parent’ when a family or clan is in conflict. The ‘mock-parent’ is a catalyst of conciliation, who often achieves a change of mind.





The path of the Kora
from Africa to Europe


The monks who founded th monastery of Keur Moussa in Senegal in 1963 had come from the French monastery of Solesmes, characterised by the tradition of Gregorian chant. In the spirit of Vatican II the Benedictine monks tried to adapt the music to African culture and introduced the kora as a liturgical instrument. After many years of experimentation the West African instrument of the ballad-singer, played only by men of certain families of musicians, has become, thanks to the monks of Keur Moussa, an international instrument used by both men and women. Today it is used right across Africa for music both profane and liturgical. The Malinke instrument has become a chromatic instrument crafted at Keur Moussa and sold all over the world. The aim of this research project is to discover to what extent the search for inculturation in the African context has allowed women to make this instrument, previously played only by men, their own. Another aim is to examine how the instrument became known outside the monastic world. In addition questions can be raised about the nature of the co-operation between male and female monasteries so far as concerns the commercialisation of the CDs and DVDs of their chants. These two questions have been raised in the first phase of the research.

In the course of the second phase we would like to press these questions further and go into more detail about the development of feminine expression in the liturgy: to what extent has the use of the kora for women contributed to making the instrument more accessible to lay people, and – in the opposite direction – has the recent spread of players to include women in the northern hemisphere influenced female religious in Africa? Since the creation of a work-shop at Keur Moussa for making the kora more than two thousand instruments have been sold across the world, most in Europe, followed by Africa and the rest of the world. At present the sale of koras, the diffusion of CDs through the association MaKeM (Music of the abbey of Keur Moussa) and courses in playing the kora are arranged by Lisette Biron. She has taught also a number of Dominican sisters of the monastery of Beaufort in Brittany (France), who play the complete liturgy of Keur Moussa, and Benedictine sisters of Jouques (France) who sing Gregorian chant accompanied at Lauds alone by the kora. The playing of the kora is thus widespread beyond the Benedictine world among Carmelites, Poor Clares, new communities such as the Fraternity of Tiberiade in Belgium and Protestant religious such as the Deaconesses of Reuilly at Versailles (France). Certain communities compose their own music, others use some tones of Keur Moussa for the psalms and hymns.

The reasons for adopting the West African instrument in European monasteries and elsewhere are multiple: sometimes the use of the kora has been introduced by generous donors who thereby passed on their own passion. The adoption of the kora makes it possible to move to a chant with accompaniment to sustain the voices discretely and firmly. The integration of the kora into the liturgy underlines the real spiritual links with Africa for certain European communities who have foundations in Africa, or simply to renew the liturgy and bring a stimulating novelty. The music of the kora creates a link with the world for enclosed religious. Like all music, it links the present with the past, the local with the global, overcoming geographical and confessional boundaries. It has a transnational character at the same time as making use of a particular gospel culture.