Monthly Archives: August 2014

Yacouba masks, Catholic saints and Aztec Gods

Here in rural Ivory Coast, I find that there are “modern” villages and traditional villages. The difference is that modern villages follow the government hierarchy for their affairs, people speak the local language but also French when they want/need to, they have a clinic, and a mill. Traditional villages ground the grains by hand, have a witch that cures everything from a headache to a broken heart, not everybody speaks French, they have the elder who fixes all disputes in his terrace with the two parties sitting next to each other and they still practice their traditional practices such as having a mask house and doing chicken sacrifices every week. Some villages are a combination of both.

senoufo village 1

In the Yacouba traditional villages, the neighbourhoods are by families, for example, there is the Smith neighbourhood where the parents have their house, each of the children and their families their own house, all different houses but all the houses in the same area. Then the Robinson neighbouhood and so on. Then each family has a house of masks: it is a house with a pointy roof, where the family masks are kept. The masks keep the spirits of the family ancestors and in special ceremonies when somebody wears that mask is to invoke that deceased person’s spirit. But mostly the masks are in their house and people in the family go and talk to them. Then there is a guardian to guard the masks house. And that is all he does, his family brings him food there and I guess if he gets bored, he can go in and have a chat with the masks. And if anybody wants to talk with the masks they have to ask access to the guardian. Then every Friday all the family (all the Smiths, all the Robinsons and so) get toghether in their sacrifice rock (each family also has one of them) to sacrifice a chicken in thanksgiving for the blessings received that week (rain, a baby born, harvest, etc).

House of masks

When I learned all that I thought: wow! that is sooooo different!
Then at the Catholic mission, the sister there is giving a stamp of Dominique Savio (the patron saint of difficult pregnancies) to a parishioner and explaining her the process of lightening up a candle in a particular way, and then read the prayer in the back, and then when the baby is born well, to make an donation according to her possibilities to a Salesian mission. The sister is very devote of that, she has a full album of parish girls and their babies who have been part of that saint club of fans. And as I was listening to all that, I was thinking: well, this is not too different from the masks. And then I thought: and also, not too far either from the Aztec or Mayas sacrifices to Tlaloc the god of the rain…

sacrifice aztec

Aztec sacrifices to Tlaloc, the God of the rain Image from:

Maybe we are not that different after all, maybe it is all human nature, period.


More on African village life:

1) Kirikou: A beautiful, wonderful, funny 1-hour cartoon of a West African folk tale “Kirikou” available in Youtube with subtitles in English. Great for all ages.

2) Binta and the Great Idea: A UNICEF-funded documentary of village life and human rights in rural West Africa through the eyes of Binta, a little girl. Subtitled in English, 30 mins.

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Dear post-conflict humanitarian NGOs

Dear UNICEF, NRC, and all others NGOs that work in conflict settings

Thank you for caring for the people in vulnerable situations, especially in conflict. Having worked in peacekeeping, and post-conflict education, I am very sensitive to the horrors of war and their impact on the civilian population.

Now I am working in post-conflict reconstruction and capacity building through the catholic mission in rural Ivory Coast. One of the characteristics of post-conflict communities that is very present in our everyday operations here, is that people look for themselves, and after themselves first and only. The others can figure it out on their own.  That is not difficult to imagine when you come and distribute tents, food and supplies, everybody has to fight for their own. The problem is that people, become used to receiving receiving receiving and even with the right (as victims) to receive for free.

The children touch me especially. At the mission we run handicraft workshops every week for children and youth (together with sports clubs, dancing group, games, etc) in an effort to provide a healthy way of spending free time for children and youth. During the summer we ran them everyday.
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The problem is that the children grew up so accustomed to receiving receiving receiving that they think they deserve to receive everything from everybody when they want. One cannot blame them, but we cannot excuse them either. Life continues and it is them who will be in charge of reconstructing their country now that armed fighting has finished.

For example, regular afternoon making bracelets:

Kid (extending his hand to me): attach
Monica: what?
Kid: attach my bracelet
Monica: eh?
Kid: my bracelet, attach!!!
Monica: ah no, like that no. How do you ask nicely?
Kid looks at me in a strange way
Monica: please
Kid: yes
Monica: no, say please attach my bracelet
Kid extends his hand to me
Monica: repeat after me: “madame, please attach my bracelet”
Kid: Madame, please attach my bracelet
Monica: Voila (happily attaches the bracelet)
Now multiply this scene x75 kids that we have. Every afternoon. With the colors is the same: “Give me color red!” “cut my crocodile” “I want stickers now” orders orders orders.

We have told everybody that we are nobody’s servants and that is always nicer to be polite, ask things please and say thank you at the end. It sounds so easy and so simple, but at the end of the day, good personal relationships prevent more wars than knowing how to count 1-10 in English or memorizing the periodic table.

It has been the hardest job I have done in all my time here. Little by little after many weeks of the same, the children started telling each other: “you have to say please” “remember to say thank you”. Now our next step is to have them talk nicely to each other, because they are polite with adults now, but among themselves they yell at each other and are very violent for the most insignificant thing: “GIVE ME COLOR RED NOW!!!!” “DON’T TAKE ALL THE STRING FOR YOU I NEED SOME!!!!” I sometimes get scared of those 6 year olds.

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So, dear UNICEF and NGOs that are generous and kind and support victims of conflict: Please give a thought to the fact that when you leave, it is us, people working in post-conflict, that have to deal with all the dependance that you create in the communities you serve. I am not saying it is your fault because we all know that if you were not here when you intervene, these people would have no roof to sleep under and no food to eat and would starve or die of malaria during war. I am just saying that you play cultural dynamics in a very strong way that good intentions not always see. Armed conflict is finished here, but peace has still a long way to come. It is a process that starts with saying please to your neighbour and not yelling at each other in condescending way. It is noticing and considering the others around. Gotta start with the kids.

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Partying Burkinabe style

On the topic of life and parties, we had a celebration for the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple at the mission. They are Burkinabes (from Burkina Faso) but as many of their countrymen and women, came to work in the Ivory Coast and had their family here.

Now, not too many people make it to 55 years old here. 60 is rare… 72 and 80 as this couple is almost unheard of, therefore the size and significance of the celebration.

At the church service the full family occupied 6 lines of benches. When the priest blessed the couple, the choir (which was Burkinabe too) started singing and all the family took over the main church corridor. Father Cyprien let them dance a bit, he does that often in celebrations like this. I think he knows it is their way of celebrating together with God such a happy day. – Drums playing in the background

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Church main corridor dance

All the children dressed in a pagne (for more info on this clothing, see April post) and all the grandchildren in another one. And the best braids in display! – Drums playing in the background

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The celebration in the house was a truly joyous one. Good food, good conversations, cake (a real treat around here), everybody talking with everybody just happy to be there.  And the drums, this time not in the background but all the party long. Too bad I cannot upload videos, but here is picture of the lovely serenade.

And then I came home to sleep almost the rest of the day because I was exhausted… who knew partying could be so tiring…  he he    🙂


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The world needs Africa

I heard once an interview with Adolfo Nicolas s.j. the superior of the Jesuits, who commented on a moment when Jesus said that he is the “Way, the Truth and the Life.”  Most Asian spiritualities, he notes, are ones of the Way (Buddhism, Hinduism and so) In the West, however, the focus is much more on the Truth. But he believes the most important part of this triad is Life, and he finds this most of all in Africa.I do too! (more on this, see next post on partying Burkinabe style). And not only in the astonishing energy people has here and the tam tams that sound non-stop, but in the values that some parts of the world have forgotten and that bring life to every human being (literally and figuratively).

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Those reflections come at about the 2 minute mark. Worth a listen (the full thing is 3:15 mins)

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