Contemplation and Social Commitment: West African Monasteries, Transnational Networks and Alternative Economies

The anthropological research carried out on Christianity in Africa so far has largely neglected monastic life. This project would like to draw attention to the fact that monasticism research not only throws light on little-known aspects of Christianity in Africa, but it can also make an important contribution to the understanding of the processes of social change and to the debates on globalization in African societies.

At the center of the research project lies the following paradox: The contemplative orders aim retreat from society; however, in order to be able to survive materially as a community, they successfully develop alternative economic forms, interact with their environment, and build transnational networks or integrate into them. This interaction is at the core of the research project. Based on the analysis of different religious orders in three West-African countries, it is framed as an anthropological study on monastic networks, the monastic economy, and social change in precise localized areas: Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Senegal. These countries were selected because they have a broad spectrum of religious landscapes: different forms of Islam, different types of evangelization, varied levels of dissemination of Catholicism, and also different forms of social pluralism and state tolerance. This cross-country analysis of religious orders and the socio-political contexts in which they operate, will shed light on social processes, as well as new forms of economic activity, that have seldom been taken into consideration so far.

Contrary to a popular belief that views monasteries as traditional, conservative institutions, this project will investigate their interaction with modern society. Christian institutions in Africa have long been considered as propagators and symbols of modernity, such as with the establishment of schools or health facilities. Until now, monasteries have not been considered as places of a modern, yet not capitalistic, type of economic activity. Contemporary monasteries in West Africa are examined in this project as places where alternative economic systems based on religious values are experimented. Can monasteries be interpreted as pioneers or models for a sustainable development in African societies, or at least in parts of these societies? This question summarizes what this project intends to pursue.

Foto: Carmelite Sisters in Tamale, borehole blessing 2012 ©Langewiesche