The Central chapel with adjacent bell tower

The Central chapel with adjacent bell tower

‘Life is a school where the monks learn to dwell in listening to the word of God, in silence and recollection and in praise of his name and intercession for the world.’

-St. Benedict

Up, up and up she went, gliding across the silky road. There were moments when I thought we must have ascended so high as to pass the gates of heaven. The trees, the crops and bush that connected each tiny village seemed to fall beneath the wheels. The plain the motorbike had left at the town of Adeta felt so far away as to be abroad, foreign, and unlike the landscape, we sailed upon now. The route twisted and spiralled like a helter-skelter, leaving behind languid locals at their kerb-side stalls and livestock that traipsed across the road, oblivious to the purring traffic. After twenty kilometres the driver moved through the settlement of Dzogbegan where the way divided at its northern perimetre. Heading right alongside towering fields of millet, we arrived at the quiet, reclusive Ascension Abbey of Danyi-Dzogbegan, the only Monastery in Togo.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from an African Monastery. Would she fulfil the old-fashioned idea of silent men in brown robes, hoods shielding their faces as they floated past, heads bowed and perhaps thumbing over a loop of rosary beads? Medieval European monasteries in cold and high places, locked away by self-doubt with religious minds and practices struggling with the modern world beyond. Perhaps a little bit was apt; they say a form of truth resides in stereotype and rumour. But on first appearances, there was something very inspirational and meditative about the place. Perched on a plateau at 800m above sea level the area projected an appeasing calm. A central circular chapel constructed entirely from local materials – with a separate stone bell tower to her left, flanked either side by a row of rooms and a stone path that cut through a vibrant green lawn. After a brief presentation, I followed the path into the chapel. Aside from two ladies in peacock-blue and red safari dresses who were lost in their work of mopping the stone floor, the room was empty. Unlike a church which is often dark and heavy, emitting a strong personality of religious melancholy, the chapel was the exact opposite. Constructed from teak, iroko, mahogany and bamboo the result was a building both modern, organic, uplifting yet respectful of its purpose. I slipped inside, eased myself onto a wooden bench and let the calm, alongside tiny dust particles gradually drift down to the floor.

The V shaped arches and a set of drums

The V shaped arches and a set of drums

The conical wooden roof is held together by a circular flat iron band — fourteen V-shaped wooden pillars attached to the stone pedestals loop around a central stone platform. The central altar’s design is in the shape of a chalice, 2 ½ metres in diameter, while the crucifixion of Christ rises in between a pair of slender wooden candelabras. Behind, set to a crescent are three rows of hand-carved chairs, a few have a sturdy pile of bibles at their side. A small wooden table at the front comprises four carved figurines as supports, each with an object: a pipe, a drum, a horn and a flute. When the monks meet at 5 am for the first of their five daily praises to the Lord, they include the use of liturgical instruments including zither, the kora, the tam-tam, gong and castanets. Various sets of drums, both vertical and horizontal, can be seen at the back with a bright orange pair at the foot of the steps. Light pours in through a set of revolving wooden panels, bamboo on one side and teak on the outside. Everything here is crafted to a high standard, setting a precedent in regards to other places of worship. Nothing is half-finished, crooked or broken, and one feels that the Lord would be quietly pleased.

Public seating in the wood and stone chapel

Public seating in the wood and stone chapel

The Monastery was founded in 1961 by the En Calcat Abbey in Dourgne, southwest France. It was father Abbe Germain Barbier who wished to respond to the call of the church. After addressing the representative of the Holy Sea in Africa -Arch Bishop Lefebvre,  was informed that Togo would be favourable ground. Several possible sites were listed, but it was Dzogbegan that was most favoured. Several families donated 123 hectares of land which were handed to the monks to form a monastery. On December 3rd, 1961, the foundation stone was laid. Various brothers arrived over the succeeding years, and Rome granted the opening of a Canonical Novitiate in 1963. By the mid-’60s, the first Oblates, mainly from Lome, had come. A church was consecrated in 1970, then a dispensary followed, providing first-aid to the villagers, and run by two French nurses. The monastery complex has adapted to the growing population and now offers internships at their Agricultural centre which oversees the development of 25 villages on the plateau.

Hand carved figurines that support a table

Hand carved figurines that support a table

Today the community has 35 brothers with monastic life being primarily spiritual, one of prayer, meditation and work. Eucharist is at the centre of celebrations, made every morning. On Sundays, mass is celebrated both in French and Ewe, allowing both to participate.

The Monastery is also responsible in an impressive array of enterprises towards locally made produce. Alongside religious books, CD’s and wooden iconography, the on-site shop also sells:

Homegrown coffee which is also produced there and sold to Benin and Ghana. Robusta and Arabosta varieties. Roughly 750 CFA for a 250g bag.

The orchards grow orange, mandarin, lemons, grapefruit, avocado, guava, papaya, carambolas, pineapple, and banana. Several are made into jams, preserves and syrups.

Alongside fruits are spices which include pepper of paradise, white pepper, ground black pepper, ginger, cinnamon leaf/bark/powder.

The monks have held a deep interest in beekeeping and sell honey and honey-vinegar. The propolis ointment comes from the propolis of bees and can help heal haemorrhoid, skin problems and scar wounds.

Incense and essential oils including lemongrass, mint, and cinnamon, are made in conjunction with women from both the villages. Lemongrass oil is effective at deterring mosquitoes as well as easing joint pain such as arthritis and rheumatism.

Pomavoc – an ointment made from avocado oil is beneficial as a pomade for hair.

Wooden chairs and bibles Main chapel

Wooden chairs and bibles Main chapel

Facts:

The Ascension Abbey of Danyi – Dzogbegan is a working monastery. A place for spiritual renewal and rest within an environment of silence. The monks preach retreats, conferences for priests, nuns, laypeople and students. It is open to the public to visit. The complex has 35 twin rooms ranging from 5000 – 7000 CFA per bed, per day. It is possible to stay, but reservations are essential. The shop is open from Tues-Sun. 08:00-midday and 15:00-17:00.

Reservation Enquiries: +228 90 06 98 73

+228 90 99 22 90

www.abbayedzogbegan.com, The website, is in French but right click your mouse to drop down an English translation option.

The Monastery can be reached either from Kpalime in the South or Atakpame in the North. From where you descend at the Adeta junction 30km North of Kpalime. From here you can take a motorbike (1500 CFA – one way) or hire a private taxi for the final 20km to Dzogbegan, and the Monastery is a kilometre beyond the village. Motorbikes for the return can be found easily enough by walking back to the village.

Various Produce on sale at the monastery

Various Produce on sale at the monastery