What link can be made between the commemoration of the faithful departed and the memories of the dead in certain African cultures? Elements of an answer were given to us by Father Brice Ouinsou, a Beninese priest and professor of anthropology, in an interview granted to Vatican News. He illustrated his remarks with examples of cults among the Adja Fon, the Peulh and the Vodous of Benin.
Interview conducted by Stanislas Kambashi, SJ
“November 2 is a memorable date that signifies the hidden enigma of the human condition“. For Christians, those who believe in the Resurrection of Christ, this date has three meanings: it is the expression of the expectation of the resurrection of the dead and of the life to come; it is the testimony of a relationship of faith, hope and charity, a virtuous act. Finally, November 2 signifies the aspiration of eternity in the heart of man.
“In the Catholic Church, it is a theological act: faith, hope and charity, an announcement and an expectation. In African traditions, these are periodic memories“. These are some of the answers that the Beninese priest and anthropologist brought to the subject of the link between the commemoration of the faithful deceased in the Catholic Church and the celebration of the deceased in certain African cultures. To illustrate his point, he gave the examples of cults among the Adja Fon, the Peulh and the Vodou of Benin.
Father Brice Ouinsou, priest of the Archdiocese of Cotonou, Doctor of Theological Anthropology (Lateran University – Rome), Doctor of Law, Specialization in Human Rights and Democracy of the Unesco Chair, Research Professor, Professor at the John Paul II Institute, Africa Section. He is also Chaplain of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin’s Oratory for Spirituality and Synodality.
Father Brice Ouinsou, on November 2 of each year the Church commemorates all the faithful deceased. What is the meaning of this commemoration for Christians?
There is nothing truly human that does not find an echo in the hearts of Christians. November 2 is a memorable date that signifies the hidden enigma of the human condition. For Christians, that is to say for those who believe in the Resurrection of Christ, this date has three meanings: first, it is the expression of an expectation: expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the life to come. Then, it is the testimony of a relationship of faith, hope and charity, a virtuous act. Finally, November 2 signifies the aspiration of eternity in the heart of man. It is the expression of a religion, of a spirituality, which is at the same time an announcement of the victory of life over death: death does not have the last word.
In many African traditions, there is also a way of celebrating or venerating those who have gone before us into the afterlife. Can we make a link between the celebration of the faithful departed in the Church and in the cultures of Africa? Can you give examples of the veneration of the dead in one of the cultures of Benin, the Vodous?
Since death is an inescapable human reality, it is therefore possible to make groupings to find the value of things without making value judgments. The comparison must be properly framed. In the Catholic Church, it is a theological act: faith, hope and charity, an announcement and an expectation. In African traditions, these are periodic memories.
The memories of the deceased among the Adja Fon, the Peulh and the Vodou of Benin
The comparison can be made at three levels: at the level of worship, at the level of destiny and at the level of the deceased. For example, we are located in two cultural areas: among the Adja Fon of southern Benin and among the Peulh – French translation of the word Wolof, from the Sahel. Among the Adja Fon, worship is median, whereas among the Fulani, it is immediate. On one side as on the other it is not a question of veneration but rather of an imploration at the threshold of the gates of hell. At the level of the person in both cultures, the deceased is still a member of the community, he is so human that death has torn away only the body. He is given bodies as a substitute. We exalt the dead, in the movement of scarves among the Peulh, we give him bows in the pantheon, of the Assin, among the Adja with utensils, loincloths, drinks, money, things for life in the afterlife. In a space dominated by Vodous, which is now outdated, we went so far as to bury the deceased with the living who are very dear to him to continue life in the afterlife. At the level of destiny, no tradition says historically the outcome of the deceased. Despite the differences, a cultural convergence resides in the collective imagination of reincarnation.
In search of the Christian faith. There is a convergence at the level of aspiration and joint management. The divergence is at the level of the relationship between the body and the soul and the spirit. Spirituality and the immortality of the soul make the difference. What gives meaning to the Christian experience is the Resurrection of the dead. So a lot of work is needed at the level of the redemption of the body in dialogue with African traditions.
What is the meaning of libations? It is a rite in which one turns to the ancestors. What to understand of this rite and on which side to place it?
Libations are religious rituals with initiatory value. It should be immediately noted that endogenous libations are not neutral. They constitute either votes, panegyrics or incantations addressed to the ancestors through the earth. The leitmotif of libations is double-edged speech. One pours water on the ground or one pours alcohol to avoid an evil as to implore protection or revenge. The rite must be placed at the level of the management of the mediations between the earth and the ancestors, life in the beyond and life here below. The mediation of earth and drinks can constitute a track of ritual comparison. There is a radical divergence with the Christian faith. At the level of the Word, at the level of the gestures and at the level of the deceased.
You are an anthropologist: in anthropology, what can be the conception of man after death, from a religious, cultural and scientific point of view?
In reality, November 2 is a call to rediscover the anthropological situation of life after death. From the religious point of view, (by religion we mean proofreading in reality) man design after death, is that of the destruction of the body which necessitates efforts for reconstruction in the hereafter. The soul is separated into a life that brings together and animates relationships in the memory of the living.
From the cultural point of view (by culture, I mean taking responsibility under various modes of existence), the conception of man after death is perceived in the mode of managing bodies. The design is variable. For others, it is frozen in the past, for others it is ethereal in the air, in things, in the wind, for others it is reincarnated in the breath of birth. For others, there is no question of human life after death. But there is one constant in cultural genius: it remains a fundamental quest, it is a presumed conception in the human imagination.
From a scientific point of view, for the anthropologist, science is synonymous with empirical knowledge. Today we need a revival of anthropology to understand that empirical knowledge is not separated from theoretical, contemplative knowledge. In this overview, empirical and theoretical, the conception of man after death is that of a bond, a relationship of exchange which harmonizes through purification, verification and transmission. The conception of man after death is therefore commutative, exemplary and significant. Human virtues are at the center of this scientific conception which safeguards the collective consciousness and particular history. In this sense, spirituality and the immortality of the soul converge in the sense of the new body. The body transmitted in a new and communal perspective: This is what the theological sciences call Imago trinitatis or the Communio personarum.
Finally, November 2 is the announcement of new life, waiting to be celebrated and shared by all of humanity.