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Grégoire Ahongbohon, “the African Basaglia” who breaks the chains of mental illness

Grégoire Ahongbohon has devoted his entire life to people with serious mental disorders. He created the Association Saint Camille de Lellis, with clinics in Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo. He treats the mentally ill and raises awareness on the abysmal practice of chaining people with mental disorders to tree trunks and inflicting on them horrific tortures

In Italy he is called “the African Basaglia”, after the  celebrated Italian psychiatrist who abolished psychiatric hospitals. Grégoire Ahongbohon, 65, a philanthropist from Benin, has devoted his entire life to the most vulnerable in Africa: people suffering from serious mental conditions. Grégoire set up clinics in Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo. His mark of distinction is a long chain that he always carries with him, wherever he is invited to speak. In schools, parishes, European and international institutions. It’s the chain of mental illness in Africa, and unfortunately it’s not only metaphorical.  In some areas, people suffering from serious mental illness are chained to tree trunks by members of their family, based on the advice of the leaders of certain sects claiming to remove the devil from these people’s bodies. They are left without food or water, beaten with canes, frequently resulting in death. This dramatic discovery, in addition to his personal experience, drove him to assist them and to establish a charitable organization.

The young man in chains. “The first time I was brought to one of the villages I was shocked”, Grégoire told an audience of missionaries, religious and lay people during the National Missionary Forum organized in Sacrofano (Rome) by the CEI Office for Missionary Cooperation between the Churches and the Missio Foundation: “In a house we found a young man had his hands and feet chained to a tree trunk, with worms on his body, like Jesus on the cross. We treated him, medicated him, and brought him to our clinic, but he was so badly wounded that he died shortly after.

“He barely managed to ask me: why did I deserve to be treated this way?” 

But it’s not the family’s fault,” he said. “As they act in this way they suffer too. The problem is the lack of specialized medical centres. Sects profit from this situation by promising miracle cures in exchange for money”.

From personal crisis to commitment. Grégoire, born in 1953, personally experienced the hard life of the migrant, marginalization and extreme suffering. He was born in Ketoukpe, a village in Benin near the border with Nigeria. At the age of 19 he left for the Ivory Coast, where he found a job as a tire dealer in Bouaké. “When I was 27, I lost everything I had and was on the verge of committing suicide.” He said: “Many members of the sects invited me to their celebrations. But I am baptized, I am Catholic, and I would have rather died than changed my faith. In the misfortune I was blessed to meet a missionary. He took me with him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very powerful experience.” When he returned to Ivory Coast, he joined a prayer group. He and his wife started to visit sick people and the lonely elderly in hospitals. The first meeting with the mentally ill, who had been abandoned by everyone, occurred in 1990. “I saw a naked man rummaging through the garbage and I got scared. I perceived the suffering of Jesus in these sick people and I said to myself, “If he represents Jesus, then why be afraid?”

Special treatments. On that day Gregoire and his wife started distributing water and food to people with mental disorders along the streets every day. They requested and obtained a room in the University Hospital of Chu, in Bouaké. The first patients- “finally treated like human beings” – were admitted with the help of some doctors. The results of the treatment – a combination of drugs, mental therapy and social rehabilitation – are so surprising that when the local Minister of Health visited the hospital in 1993, he asked the director to allocate property to house Grégoire’s activities. The first dedicated mental clinic was thus created. Today it forms part of the Association Saint Camille de Lellis: 4 clinics in Ivory Coast, 4 in Benin (one more is being built), 3 in Togo.

There are patients suffering from schizophrenia, depression, bipolarity. None of them is ever sedated.

 What makes the treatment special is also the presence of Gregoire, who knows how to communicate with his patients, embracing them and uttering reassuring words. Once healed, the former patients themselves become managers, nurses or volunteers in the same clinics.

“It’s easier to live with the mentally ill than with those who consider themselves sane.”

Over the years, Ahongbohon has been invited to speak at the European Parliament, at the Clinton Global initiative, which supports humanitarian projects. He speaks in schools, in parishes, he is invited to conferences. The situation of people chained for being mentally ill and his commitment are the subject the documentary-film “Réjétes” released in 2016, directed by Antonio Guadalupi. He seizes every opportunity to send out his message, always holding the chain in his hand: “When I tell these stories people break out in tears.  As soon as they leave the room they forget everything. What crime have these people committed? They must be helped.”

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