Intergenerativity in the Republic of Benin: memory and hope

Dr. Brice Ouinsou, Professor of Theological Anthropology, Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute, Cotonou-Benin.

What is the scale of measurement of the intergenerational relationships in Benin? It does not only consist in the memory of hospitality and family challenges, but also in the strength of hope, that assumes the past and prepares the future of generations. Ex Dahomey, a kingdom of French West Africa, independent since 1960, became the Republic of Benin on 1 March 1990. This country was constituted according to the motto: Fraternity--Justice--Work. According to the census of 2013, people aged 65 and over constitute 4.4% of an overall population of 10,008,749 inhabitants. In a context where the average age is relatively low, the experience of the values that the human being generates acquires a specific meaning whether one lives in a rural or in an urban area. Beyond these age issues, categories and individuals, the intergenerational relation in Benin can be summarized in two words: memory and hope. We present it in the horizon of social event and historical event.

Social event.

Even though the same expressions seem to be found in other contexts, the individual from Benin opens himself to the universal based on the principle of historical hospitality that is characteristic of the legislative and legal corpus of the Kings of Dahomey. Article 3 of the 41 laws of the founder of the kingdom of Dahomey, Houégbadja (1645-1685) states, for example: “no subject of my kingdom will deny hospitality to strangers”. This proof of openness, sometimes fierce, justifies the sense of hospitality and the coexistence throughout the centuries not only inside ethnic groups, but also outside from social representations. Generations intertwine in a complex network of openness and resistance, migration and immigration, alliances and multilateral kinships, as testified by the conjuncture of the royal, family and colonial power. The most hurtful degeneration of this wide movement is not only slavery, but also the darkest shades of a history disfigured by hatred, by the bloodshed and by resistance.

The most touching testimony is still the one of the memories of king Béhanzin, who furiously opposed to colonisation and was reported by his own brother who succeeded him to the royal throne at the request of the colonists. In spite of his resistance, Béhanzin was overthrown. Moved by the sacred tradition of negotiation and peace, he went to negotiate with general Dodds. But he was deported to Martinique. Béhanzin died in 1906, without even ever negotiating with the king of France.

This event represents the downfall of generations of royal power. The colonial power fixes the threshold of its administration in the public field. But inside the families and villages it is still in force the pre-established royal organisation. The colonial culture is established at the same pace as the rights of the citizen. There is an intergenerational phase: indigenous and based on citizenship at the same time. In the same colony, there is a conflict between two families of generations: the royal transmission and the “civil” transmission.

On the background of this phenomenon there are the missionary attempts, that start from 18 April 1861. The Catholic Missions, officially founded in 1901, bring a new measure of the relations between natives and citizens. With this generative force, a new civilization is created. A new generation is constituted that chooses to consider the lineage of the indigenous. The missionaries go to the families. The principle of hospitality finds a new ground. A line of friendship creates a new generation. Think about the meetings between the Fathers of the Society of the African Missions, established by the institution of centres of catechesis, of centres for the formation of girls and of churches, among which the seminar of Ouidah, inaugurated on 17 February 1914. The coming of the social element becomes a historical event in a context of tested intergenerational friendship.

Intergenerational event

If the society and policy of Dahomey are constituted under the sign of openness and resistance, the generations are constituted under the sign of hope. The friendships between the royal power and the Fathers of the Missions generate a new vision that unites various levels in only one subject: the family, the royal, the colonial, the sacred ancestral and the sacred of the religions of Islam and of Christianity. All the domains interact in the same cultural subject. In 1960, the phase of independence arrives. Nevertheless, the colonial structure remains in the mentalities. On the one hand, the lay schools and the post-colonial educational centres follow the pace of the centuries of Enlightenment in compliance with the educative project of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. On the other hand, the cloisters and the common initiation centres are in line with the rhythm of the endogenous values with their deeply-rooted traditional foundations. But these two poles of interaction meet a third pole: the one of the Catholic missions.

The missionary generation opens itself to the unity of conscience, to the local activities and organisations: the royal families, the tribes, the clans, the lineages and the castes. The historical reference points of this intergenerativity are complex. The missionary friendship meets the royal power. The vocations arise and are seen both as signs of friendship and gratitude, but also as a sign of sacrifice and of donation of the sons of the Dahomey to the Fathers of the Missions. The educative project of the Fathers of the Society of the African Missions (SMA) has been oriented ever since then to the creation of a local clergy. The celebration of the first ordinations marks a new pace of generations open to the transmission of the Gospel. The human education of the Fathers shaped the young people who also became Fathers like Thomas Moulero, 1st priest of the Dahomey and Bernardin Gantin, 1st Metropolitan Archbishop of West Africa, to whom John Paul II gave the exceptional title of Dean Emeritus of the College of Cardinals in 2002.

The event of the II Vatican Council allowed Mons. Gantin to announce the intergenerational novelty of the continuity of the Mission of the Fathers SMA and in the creativity of new structures of evangelisation such as the restoration of consecrated life, from which derives the particularity of the foundation of the Sisters of Saint Augustine and of the Oblate Catechists Little Servants of the Poor, at the service of the harmonious development of man and women in Benin. The pastoral of cooperation and the professional conscience of the Bishop Gantin extended the measure of the friendship of the Catholic Missions to the political and social threshold. In 1972, the policy of Dahomey switched to Marxism-Leninism. The country went out of it thanks to the National Conference of Active Forces of the Nation in 1990 under the guide of a man of the Church, Isidore de Souza. The intergenerational event was enriched by the visit of the popes John Paul II in 1982 and 1993 and of Benedict XVI in 2002, who confirmed the measure of African friendship in the vision of a generation of relations between faith and culture.

Today, Barthélémy Adoukonou, explorer and systematic interpreter of the event, places the intergenerativity in Benin in the dynamic of the meeting, not only between generations but also and especially between cultural, legal and political identities in the perspective of what is transmissible: culture. According to his analysis, it is a path of dialogue at three levels: God, the original word in the history of families; and the norms that regulate the existence of the individuals. The three levels of the intergenerational event are analysed in the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute based on the Theology of the Body, of the Social Doctrine of the Church and of the correct practice of birth control.

In short, the measure of intergenerativity in Benin manifests itself in the collaboration between generations and social structures. This can be seen in the management of the relation between memory and hope through the events of time and space. The research on the discovery and the co-institutional and qualitative management of such relations from the point of view of the conjugal communities, of the individuals and of the families is the engine of the social-political, economic and religious functioning of the nation. Promiscuity requires a measure of discernment that poses a true challenge: the one of the training of the fair man and woman in responsible fatherhood and motherhood. In fact, it has to do with giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. In this spirit, the challenge of health, today, is becoming inevitable facing the Covid-19 crisis.