2021 Aurora Humanitarian Grégoire Ahongbonon is the founder of the St Camille Association, which helps people in West Africa suffering from mental illness and seeks to end the inhumane local practice of keeping them in chains. We talked to him about the personal experience that inspired him to take on this courageous mission.
The Moment That Changed Everything
I am a tire repairer. At 23, I was making so much money that I was one of the few young people who had a personal car. But it didn’t last. I lost so much that I almost committed suicide. When I had money, I had a lot of friends, but when I lost everything, I found myself abandoned by everyone. It was the most terrible thing I have ever experienced.
One day, I met a missionary who took his time to listen to me. The same priest was organizing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He paid for my ticket and took me on this pilgrimage. At one of his sermons there, he said that each Christian should participate in the construction of the Church by laying a stone. I began to ask myself the question: “What is my stone to lay?”
Back in Côte d’Ivoire, where I was living with my wife, we started to look for our stone. The idea came to us to create a prayer group. With this group, we took one day a week to go to the hospital in Bouake to visit the sick and pray with them. During a visit, we discovered in a room of patients who were totally abandoned.
In Africa, there is no social security. If you are sick and you arrive at the hospital without money, no one looks at you. If you have an accident on the road, the firemen send you to the hospital and if you don’t have a relative who comes immediately, you are left to die.
I didn’t know anything about it. When we entered this hospital and saw these people abandoned in their filth, we started to wash them and to look for a way to get medicine to treat them. Soon, many of these patients began to recover. Those who still died at least died with dignity. From this moment, I began to understand why Jesus identified himself with the poor and the sick.
Challenging the Stigma
One day in 1990, I was walking through the streets and saw a naked mental patient rummaging through the garbage. The mentally ill, it must be noted, are thought to be possessed by the devil in Africa. People think that they are witches. They think that they have been cursed. Everyone is afraid of them. I, too, was very afraid of the mentally ill.
But as I looked at that man, I said to myself: this is Jesus. I discovered that they were men, women and children who wanted to be loved like everyone else. I told my wife about it. We bought a freezer; she prepared meals. Every night, I distributed food and fresh water to the sick. The only water they drank was the rain that fell in the gutters. There are no public taps in our country. Little by little, a bond of friendship was established between us and these patients.
But we had to do more. At the University Hospital of Bouake, where we visited the sick, we had a small chapel. There, that we gathered the first patients [with mental illness] and treated them with dignity – of course, with the help of doctors.
“Go Away, It’s Not Worth It”
In 1993, the Minister of Health came to visit the hospital. When he saw what we were doing, he was so happy that he said: “I hope that your association will soon spread to all the hospitals of the country, because we don’t know what to do with these people who have been left behind.” I asked him if he could give us a piece of land on the hospital grounds to build our center. On the spot, he instructed his people to do that. We were given a 2,400 m² plot of land for the first center. We started to collect all the sick people who were on the street.
As we continued to get results, families in the villages started calling us. In 1994, the day before the Palm Sunday, a lady came to us. “Help me, my brother is mentally ill,” she said. We drove with her for miles to get to her village. Once there, her father shouted at her: “Why did you bring people here? Your brother is already rotten! Go away, it’s not worth it!” I said I was going to bring the police and he got scared. After consulting the village chief, he finally opened the door.
It was a big shock for me. In front of me, a young man was stuck to the ground, like Jesus on the cross, both feet and both arms tied with wires. We tried everything to untie this boy, but in vain – the wire had gone into the flesh. We were forced to turn back, and next day, we returned to this village with a shear. With difficulty, we managed to detach him.
When we returned to the center, after we finished cleaning him, he looked at me and said: “Sir, I don’t know how to thank you and thank God. I don’t know what I did to deserve this treatment from my own parents.” He still had the desire to live, but he was in such bad shape that he didn’t survive. But at least he died with dignity.
Nobody Knew What to Do
From there, we began to go through the villages and discovered images that we couldn’t have imagined. Men, women, children, left in the woods, chained to trees. Nobody knew what to do [with them]. When I go to a village and see a man or a woman chained up in the woods, I tell myself that it is not always the fault of the parents who do not know what to do.
In African countries, the mentally ill are forgotten by all our authorities. In Côte d’Ivoire, where we started this experiment, there are more than 25 million inhabitants, but only two psychiatric hospitals in the whole country. If you don’t have money, they don’t take care of you. In Benin, where I come from, there is only one psychiatric hospital. In the end, what do families do? They have no choice.
But the worst thing are the numerous sects that see the devil everywhere. Since the mentally ill are considered possessed, parents chain them to trees. The treatment consists of making the body suffer to drive out the devil. The patients are beaten, deprived of food and water. They can remain like this for three or even four days. It is this revolting practice that has led me to dedicate my life to these people.
Paying It Forward
At the beginning, in the small chapel, we had about 40 patients. Someone from outside would cook meals for them. But one day, I didn’t have enough money to pay this person. I didn’t know what to do, I gathered all the sick people and told them “Pray for me, because the situation is getting difficult. We can’t afford to pay your cook anymore.” One woman stood up and said, “When I wasn’t sick, I was cooking at home. Can’t we do our own cooking?”
I understood that from then on, they had to be involved in this mission. Some of these patients were young people, students, pupils who graduated from high school. We made an agreement with a nursing school that it would train them. Many of them became nurses and now help treat the others.
These are people who were totally forgotten before. Now, they are the hands of God, caring for others. They are the ones who go through the streets to pick up other sick people. They are the ones who come to the villages to unchain the sick and heal them. I bless the Lord that the mindset is beginning to change. There is work to be done.
When I learned the story of Aurora, how it started, it was a great joy to know about this movement. The suffering endured by the Armenian people is what the mentally ill experience and it is still not recognized today. But some people continue to support them, like the Armenian people who suffered so much.
The St Camille Association founded by Grégoire Ahongbonon has already helped around 100,000 people with mental illness. To help fearless modern-day heroes like him continue their life-changing work, support Aurora at auroraprize.com/en/donate.