Picture Lucien and Julienne Kousse, a young couple from Namab in northern Togo. God has just blessed this couple with twins, a boy and a girl. Having newborn twins, in any part of the world, means double the blessing but also double the problems of sleepless nights, and around the clock feedings.
But in Namab, Lucien and Julienne had the extra problem of being torn between the rites of their faith and the tradition of their culture.
"Outdooring" and the Customs of the Konkomba
Lucien and Julienne belong to the Konkomba ethnic group. According to Konkomba tradition, newborn children are considered supernatural beings with the power to grant prosperity and a good harvest to their parents.
Tradition states that an “outdooring” ceremony must be performed to protect the newborn children. In West African cultures, an outdooring is a ritual when children are named and brought outdoors for the first time, introducing them to their village. Until newborns have undergone their outdooring ceremony they are regarded as strangers or visitors from the spiritual world. For Konkomba people, if this ceremony is not performed then misfortune will befall the parents and one of them may die.
Tough Decisions: Outdooring or Baptism
Lucien is one of our catechists in Namab, an outstation of our Notre Dame de Lourdes parish in Guérin-Kouka. As a catechist he wanted to set a good Christian example. At first Lucien refused the non-Christian outdooring practice. Despite dire warnings from the family, he wanted his children to be baptized Catholic. Lucien consulted with our Divine Word Missionary priests at the parish, who whole-heartily agreed to baptize all children. With the family rift brewing, the priests tried to find a way to help and fortunately they were guided by our missionary teachings in our Constitutions: “Wherever we work, we always keep in mind that we are missionaries” (c.102.2).
We must give witness to the universality and diversity of the Kingdom, reach out to our partners, and share something of ourselves. With these teachings in mind, we made the decision to combine the outdooring rite with a shared ceremony of the Church’s ritual of baptism.
Combining Two Cultures in One Special Day
The celebration to receive the children and present them to the community started at Lucien and Julienne’s house. From the house to the church, community members made a long procession filled with songs of joy. At the church’s entrance, the parents with their newborn twins were officially welcomed and led to the altar of the Lord. After the Catholic baptizing of the babies, we invited the family elders, as part of the Konkomba tradition, to come forward and receive the newborns into their family. Then, representing the Christian community, two parishioners and the godparents received the babies and promised to see to their religious instruction. Together we invoked the blessings and protection of God upon these beautiful new children and their parents, so that they might be free from all fear.
As it turned out, the combination of the Konkomba tradition and a Catholic baptism made for a most festive occasion. A wonderful meal was offered to all who came to witness this exceptional event. All who participated rejoiced with the couple and are grateful to almighty God for the gift of these twins, baptized Pierre and Pierrette.
Evangelization Opens Minds and Hearts
While countries all around the world have customs and traditions surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and the welcoming of newborns into their life, this unique celebration opened the minds and hearts of Christians and non-Christians, well-wishers and the just plain curious. It touched all in the community. A neighbor commented, “We never thought that our traditional outdooring could be done in the church.” As missionaries we must read this as a sign that evangelization must continue in order to bring people out of their mistrust of Christianity. But it is a learning process.
It is possible only when we understand and work together with cultural and traditional practices and the value attached to them. Only then can we bring the light of the Gospel into people's lives.