Benin: The faces of Hope

A community of 40 nuns from different nationalities. A melting pot of faith and prayers, where priests, religious and lay people can find the Benedictine monastic spirituality embodied in the African culture.

In 1960, seven French nuns of Notre-Dame des Gardes arrived at the then Apostolic Prefecture of Parakou, founded in 1948, in the central-northern part of Benin. Two years later they founded the monastery of Étoile Notre-Dame.
Six years after their arrival the monastery became an abbey, since the number of perpetual professed sisters had significantly increased. Today the abbey is home to an international community of women religious from Togo, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, New Caledonia, Spain and of course France and Benin: forty of whom have professed perpetual vows, three temporary vows and three are novices.
We meet Sister Bibiane Igbaro, who, in July 1999, became the first native Abbess. She left office last January. She welcomes us with a smile and is willing to talk about her experience. “We are a thriving community – she says – but what is most important to us, especially as Cistercians, is the daily encounter with  God, which is the cornerstone of our  community life and what  keeps us together despite the diversity of our backgrounds. Many young women knock on the door of our monastery to join us, since they see that we have nothing, we are not rich at all, but we are happy. Such a testimony of joy is a powerful attraction to religious life.”
“When the first nuns arrived – Mother Bibiane continues – there were just a few priests and religious people at the Apostolic Prefecture of Parakou. This was a land of first evangelization. The first missionaries, us that is, operated in the field of the apostolate. But we chose, from the very beginning, to remain faithful to our contemplative vocation.”
In 1964, the prefecture became a diocese and in 1997 an archdiocese. Today the archdiocese consists of more than 50 local priests, 72 men religious, 121 women religious. Catholics are more than 200,000 out of a population of 420,000. The current Archbishop is Monsignor Pascal N’Koué. The Abbey of Étoile Notre-Dame is increasingly a place of spirituality, of search for God and a place for listening to His Word, as well as a reference point for priests and religious men and women, but also for many lay people of Benin.
The monastery is  economically self-sufficient. The nuns do some crafts activities, and produce fruit juices, honey and herbal medicines. They also raise livestock. The majority of fresh milk produced by the cattle is used to  make yogurt. “Each nun who arrives here – says Mother Bibiane – brings her cultural legacy and work skills to the community.”

The African genius

In Parakou, the nuns  experience the embodiment of monastic spirituality in the local culture. The Abbess says: “Our cultures characterize each one of us and are represented in our daily life: in liturgy, fraternal relationships, work and hospitality.” The French language, which is spoken by all nuns of the community, is used for the Liturgy of the Hours. But in the moment of the  Eucharistic celebration, nuns lift up songs to the Lord, each of them in her own language. We pray according to the  African custom, which includes gestures that better express words: we lift hands, we dance. The songs are accompanied by local musical instruments such as the kora, tam-tam, balafon … On holidays,  we bring the offerings to the altar with dance steps. We have not adapted the Gospel to Africa, but  Africa has been transfigured, thanks also to the African genius, by the desirable and powerful seed of the Gospel of Christ.”
Hospitality is extremely important in the Benedictine Rule, as it is in African cultures. Mother Bibiane recalls that  the dear departed Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the then Archbishop of Cotonou and supporter of the establishment of the monastery, used to tell religious women and men that before being asked to teach catechism, to heal the sick or to open a school, they would be asked  to welcome all those  people who would come to pray. “But, soon, the nuns found themselves facing a problem. The poor of the area asked  us to  provide them with medical services – says the Abbess – the bishop therefore allowed us to open a dispensary, not far from where we lived. We put some lay people in charge of the facility, which soon  became a hospital and not only for the poor. Some time ago we donated the facility to the diocese.”

Mother Bibiane continues: “I must say that we receive a strong sense of the sacred from local cultures, we particularly  perceive this on the occasion of important stages of our religious life. The moment when parents bless their daughters on the day of their  perpetual  profession of vows  is a  sacred experience; it is  a strong feeling even for those who receive such blessing. There are so many non-baptized mothers who offer their daughters to God with joy!”
The Abbess hopes that the Gospel of Christ may play an important role in the life of monks and nuns in Benin and in Africa. “We live – she says – in a continent that is facing many problems which affect us as well. But if we  live according to the Gospel, we will be able to be witnesses to hope for today’s and tomorrow’s  generations. I hope to be able to show how to live following the example of Christ. I always pray God to liberate our people from fears, such as witchcraft, which prevent people from living joyfully. I also ask God to  give us a strong faith in order to be poor people, but rich in hope”.

(Jean-Baptiste Sourou)