“When I first entered the refectory, as I watched the nun feeding an elderly person, I saw beauty. The attention to the person who had just arrived... an attention that is present in every moment. There was no indifference, but neither was there condescension, nothing “mushy”. It was beauty that I sensed. They make beauty a part of everything they do: in a decoration, when they prepare Mass, lunch”.
The impact of her first visit, in 2011, was so powerful that, despite a physical disability which confines her to a wheelchair, Berenice chose to return once, twice, even three times a year (except during the Covid period) to the Little Sisters of the Poor, in their home dedicated to the elderly, in Tokan-Calavi on the outskirts of Cotonou.
One has to travel on red dirt roads to reach the large ochre and beige brick building. There was nothing there before the first stone was laid in 2001, two years after the congregation’s arrival in Benin. Gradually, life began to sprout around there, and various buildings emerged. The sisters’ home is in an urban area, but it remains an oasis of peace for its 32 guests.
“The elderly have already suffered so much in life”, explains the Tokan home manager. “They have worked so much, and now they are tired. And we are here to show them that it is possible to give freely and out of love. With us, they experience a certain well-being. They are comfortable, they are at peace. The proof is that they have been here for 10 to 15 years. Their life gets longer when they come to us”, says Sr Filomena.
The Nigerian nun heard the call to serve the Lord when she was 14 years old, when she went to visit the home of the Little Sisters with a priest from her parish. “That’s where I understood the joy of giving one’s life to serve others”. Sr Filomena has a very vivid memory of her grandmother, who accompanied her childhood. “I was so happy to live with her. I saw everything that I could do for her, I saw how happy we were when she was there”. She remembers the tales her grandmother used to tell her, the complicity in mischief, corrections without threats nor punishment. Sr Filomena explains that already at the time, she could sense the joy of living with elderly people.
Together with the other sisters in the community, Sr Filomena tries to give courage to her guests: “We always seek to convey to them a taste for life, to make them flourish again and take advantage of the life and strength the Lord gives them, because”, she notes, “for the elderly it is easy to think that they are no longer capable of doing anything. Rather, it is important to help them understand that they are still capable of doing things”.
Right, because there is always something to do at the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. After morning Mass and prayer time, the guests have breakfast and are then invited to participate in house chores. Some help out in the kitchen cleaning vegetables, others go to the laundry room to fold and sort dry laundry. Then there are those who help the most fragile walk around the garden. The house has a single story, designed that way to make it easier for guests to move about. It’s in the shade of many trees and has its own vegetable garden.
The house of the Little Sisters receives many visits from benefactors and friends, but rarely from family of the guests. Among all the admission requests that arrive, the elderly at Tokan are admitted from the poorest and most isolated. In fact, some of them have literally been abandoned by their own family. “Life has changed in a radical way and unfortunately many sons and daughters have commitments that prevent them from caring for their parents. They go into the city and their parents remain in the villages. Unless they are still dependent on their parents, very few children stay to live with them”, explains Sr Filomena. She notes that in the last years, the number of requests for shelter in their facility has really skyrocketed. “We don’t know what to do anymore”, she laments. The religious sister explains that in Benin, there are no social, financial or health care policies to assist the elderly.
To further explain the fact that some elderly persons are actually discarded, the Nigerian nun talks about a popular belief that has had a profound impact on her. She remembers a young couple who came to the home to ask for the blessing of their grandparents who were residing at the Little Sisters’ home in her country of origin. In Benin, on the other hand, it’s a different story. While some continue to love and respect their grandparents, others believe that elderly people are sorcerers or otherwise people who resort to witchcraft to prolong their lives at the expense of others. Sr Filomena truly does not understand such beliefs, and prefers to keep them at a distance.
At Tokan, as in their home in Porto Novo, inaugurated in 2018, the Little Sisters bear witness each day to their joy in serving the elderly. They strive for their inclusion and rehabilitation in community events, parishes and schools. Wherever possible, they carry Pope Francis’ words from his recent General Audience catechetical series dedicated to the elderly.