A Visit to the Monastery

Last week, while having dinner with my boss at the University, Mme Ilboudo, I discovered that her son had done a three-month stint at the dairy farm operated by the Benedictine monks of Koubri, outside of town. He has an agriculture degree; this was an internship, not a step into religious life, he hurried to add before I put on my recruiter hat. I had known about the monastery for some time but now I found I knew somebody who had lived there, at least for a while. So I asked young Harold if he could take me out there. This morning, after my English class, off we went.

Most Benedictine establishments are located on hills, in the tradition of St. Benedict’s two establishments at Subiaco and Monte Cassino. My own home base in Oregon, Mt. Angel Abbey, is built atop a dramatic former volcanic outcropping in the middle of the otherwise flat as a pancake Willamette Valley. Hills are somewhat harder to come by in Burkina Faso, though. There is a slight up-slope from the farm to the monastery proper. Nonetheless, the location is spectacularly forested, especially given the essentially open Sahelian steppe just outside the walls. It shows you what this land looked like 100 years ago and what it could look like again with proper management (and a reversal of global warming, which is another story).

The monks of St. Benoit de Koubri number about 20, with one guy in formation right now. They also have a small daughter house in Benin with a half-dozen or so monks living there. So this is a small house, certainly in comparison with Mt. Angel, but they are dynamic folks. We rolled up about 12:45, after noon prayers. The monks were in the refectory, I could hear some beautiful singing, but Brother Daniel sortied forth to offer Benedictine hospitality. He was very happy to hear that somebody had come all the way from Oregon to greet his community here.

Br Daniel

That’s Daniel in the brown habit. It seems that the traditional black is a little bit too uncomfortable in 40+-degree heat, and besides brown doesn’t show the dirt as much. They’re farmers, so they get dirty. I’m the big guy with the bandanna and the cargo pants, and the nice gentleman to my left is Mr. Ilboudo, Harold’s father and the husband of my boss.

Daniel took us around. He took us through the cloister, which looks like this:

Cloister

There are about 30 rooms, so room for more vocations if anybody is interested in the religious life. A strenuous religious life, as you will see… I should point out that in my 17 years at Mt. Angel, I have been inside the cloister exactly twice, once when a colleague was very ill and the Abbot relaxed the rule so we colleagues could come and bid him farewell, and once in the company of Br. Cyril to visit his office while he was working on the Abbey History Project. So apparently there can be different ideas about how cloistering works from one Benedictine establishment to another.

We visited the church, a very pretty one in a modernist style, not at all like our Romanesque Abbey Church in Oregon.

Church

Br. Daniel pointed out that the roof leaks, and indeed it looked like the nice wooden paneling of the ceiling was eroding in several places. Contributions gratefully accepted, they said. There is quite a lot of wood in the construction of the church and the refectory, unlike the much more common cement and tin roof construction usually found here. I bet you can hear the priest in that church when it is raining outside. Unlike at St. Camille, where I go usually in town here.

They are also building an enlarged guest house and hope to be able to offer larger group retreats. Right now, they have 14 rooms for individuals and couples and then they can house overflow, if they are men, in the cloister. They’d like to be able to have 40 or so. It used to be that the monastery was really remote because they are eight km or so from the main road and in the old days, especially in the rainy season, the side road was next to impassable. It would take an hour or more from the nearby town of Koubri. A few years ago, the road was paved, all the way to a new dam nearby (which also gives the monks irrigation water, I understand), and now people can come to the monastery pretty easily. It was a half-hour drive from Ouagadougou.

Then, we went to the farm. It was easy to recognize that this was Br. Daniel’s department. He knew his cows and his cows knew him. (He’s got some sheep too.) There were two bulls, one of them this enormous Holstein.

Holstein bull

I have seen a few bulls before, but this guy really has both the equipment and the attitude. He weighs, literally, a ton, 1000 kg more or less. And Br. Daniel said a couple of the cows were in heat and so the bull was staring fixedly at them with signs of considerable interest. Another cow on the other side of the barn had just given birth, though I couldn’t get a good photo of her and her calf because it was pretty dim in their stall. I guess newborns need calm and darkness to adjust to their new state. Makes sense. Anyway, they have three different breeds of cattle in their farm, here are the other two:

Cows

The black one is a local African breed that handles heat and short provisions easily but doesn’t give much milk, while the other one is a Jersey that gives lots of milk when the weather is cooler but gives much less in the heat of March-June. I wonder if they’re thinking about some sort of cross-breeding.

They also have a business of breeding bulls for other farms, and sell promising young bull calves for 500,000 CFA, about US$ 800. They had four or five in stalls at the back of the barn. He said one was probably going to replace the big guy in a year or two, since he is getting old, and then the others will help pay for the new roof.

We had a discussion about the price of antibiotics and Br. Daniel said he had gone over to a more traditional silage – pasturage – stall arrangement because of the increased prices. He said you could get cheap antibiotics from Nigeria but you never knew what you were getting and the real stuff from Europe or America costs a ton. So he’s gone over to organic farming from economic motives. A lot less stinky than many a dairy farm I’ve been downwind of, too – the silos don’t smell like much of anything, just dirt mostly. I got the idea that he was pretty happy about being a (mostly) organic farmer, though. They have a lot of space and they grow hay and other fodder crops on a lot of it. Since this is the land of endless summer, the cows (though not the bulls – they’d fight) can go out to pasture every day. He also said he was against drugs that you give the cows to bulk them up or make them give more milk. They turn the milk after a couple of days and so he’d rather have less product that he can get people to come back for. And besides, he says, to get the vet to come and administer all those drugs also costs the earth now.

I bought two liters of his milk so we’ll see. Tomorrow at breakfast I will have milk that doesn’t taste like dust. Yay! They also have yoghurt, though I didn’t buy any – next time. They apparently had a monk who was interested in making cheese but he has left for greener pastures. He was also their vet.

All this agriculture got me thinking. The principal business of monasteries is praying. However, the motto of the Benedictine order is “ora et labora”, pray and work. Monks have been farmers for more than 1,500 years. When I was talking to Br. Daniel, though, I could see that he is right in the main stream of modern ideas about agriculture in the developing world. He is trying to find a way that you can sustainably raise cattle and produce dairy products in Africa. He could have been channeling Jethro Tull (the agrarian reformer, not the rock group) or any other of the “improving sort” of farmer in pre-industrial revolution Europe.

The precursor to the industrial revolution in Europe was an agricultural revolution that allowed ultimately about 80% of the population to leave the land and move to the cities to become proletarians while still leaving the country as well-fed (or better, in some cases) than it had been before. Africa already has huge urban populations and plenty of food problems. This region, the Sahel, had a devastating drought the last time we went into a long cycle of El Nino events. It crippled food production here for a generation. Meanwhile, and in part in reaction to a weak agricultural sector, almost two million people moved to Ouagadougou, with similar rapid growth in other regional cities. In the old days, the surplus population would have starved, but today a combination of foreign food aid, government subsidies for food imports, and the enormous productivity of foreign farms, especially in the US, has allowed this ultimately unsustainable situation to continue. However, over the long term, Africa needs to be able to feed its own people in order to make sustainable development possible.

Br. Daniel and his confreres are making steps to break out of the trap of depending on foreign food production. Right now, if I want to buy milk, I can go to the little “alimentation” shop across the street and buy UHT milk from France (which tastes somewhat like dust but can be stocked without air conditioning). If I want cheese or regular butter, I have to go downtown to Marina Market, a sort of supermarket run by Lebanese people that stocks French cheeses and butter, but at eye-popping prices. A little container of butter, 250 grams (8 ounces or so) cost 2500 CFA, or about US$ 4. A nice Camembert that I bought a while ago, also about 250 grams if I remember correctly, was almost 4000 CFA, US$ 6.50. Almost nobody in this country can afford to pay those sorts of prices. Cheese is probably always going to be a niche market here, but milk and butter could have a much larger market than they do. Right now, people often cook with corn oil, which of course is grown in America, or palm oil, which used to be sustainably harvested in the coastal forest regions of West Africa but more and more comes from environmentally devastated areas in Indonesia. And besides the environmental problems, as Julia Child would tell you, anything tastes better with butter. And one thing they have plenty of here is cows. So presumably, butter is the natural cooking oil of Burkina Faso. There is a sort of clarified butter, like Indian ghee, which you find in the marketplace, but I haven’t seen it used in cooking much. Again, getting people back to locally sourced, sustainable products is key to sustainable development here.

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