“Instead of working only on setting up the physical nativity scene, we insisted on building the interior nativity scene, the nativity scene of our hearts”. This is what the parish priest of the Good Shepherd parish of Cotonou, Father Hubert Kèdowidé, writes on the occasion of the Christmas holidays, celebrations which in Benin Republic, West Africa, arouse deep enthusiasm among Christians, but also among many non-Christians. “In addition to evening parish retreats priests are available every day for Confessions after the morning Masses”.
SMA Father Giovanni Benetti, in an interview with FIDES, stated that “almost everywhere, as the holiday approaches, you can hear poems, songs and Christmas stories.” Father Giovanni has been at the International Spiritual Year Centre of the Society of African Missions [SMA] in Calavi, near the capital Cotonou, for almost three years. At the Brésillac Centre [named after the Venerable Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, SMA Founder] the SMA train their future SMA priests. “Several families plant two stakes in front of their house, and hang a papaya on which a candle is placed,” Fr Giovanni explains. “In Godomey, near Calavi, every December evening, groups of children, known as Kaléta, wear masks and go from house to house offering their show. Equipped with small nativity scenes made by themselves, they parade and sing popular songs in chorus that announce the imminence of Christmas”.
The Kaléta tradition was originally imported from Brazil. It is the legacy of the return of former slaves from Brazil to Benin around 1830. Kaléta is one of the five categories of masks present on the coasts of the Gulf of Guinea, but compared to the other four it lacks cult. This is why it is called a ‘children’s thing’.
The SMA missionary describes how Christmas in Benin is also a children’s celebration. “It is children who are offered gifts. At the Brésillac Center a big party is organized for all the children of the neighborhood.
The days fly by and, after much waiting, the night of the Nativity arrives. Midnight Mass draws crowds; it is well prepared and is a moment of enthusiastic faith that can last three hours or more. Fatigue and sleep are not felt: it is the night of joy and liberation from all slavery; it is the night of the birth of Jesus, the liberator, the saviour, the redeemer.
“After Mass, everyone is in solidarity: the doors of the houses are opened wide and everyone is welcome to drink and eat. No one is left alone. No one is surprised to see a homeless person arrive. He will enter at home, he will sit and eat like the others”, concludes Father Benetti.
Benin is a young Church where only a little more than 160 years ago the first missionaries [Italian and French SMA priests] reached the Slave Coast, as the South of the country was then called, with the first real project of the Catholic Church to establish a stable presence of missionaries in those lands. (see Fides, 14/4/2021).
With thanks to FIDES for the use of this article which first appeared in FIDES on 22 December 2023. https://www.fides.org/en/list/africa