video "PRAYING FOR A CURE" (New York Times) (durée 8'15")
Who did this ? It hurts !
Many of these people have mental illnesses. Their desperate families have left them here because they have nowhere else to turn. Daily prayers are their only treatment.
PRAYING FOR A CURE
This prayer center is one of the largest in Togo and one of many across West Africa. This Evangelical pastor says he is doing God's work here.
"If someone is sick with mental illness, they come here and we will pray for them and by the grace of God, they will be healed".
"A man or woman tied to a block, It's not the family's fault, they don't know what to do".
Gregoire AHONGBONON has spent his life trying to provide an alternative for people with mental illnesses.
"People with mental illnesses are the forgotten of the forgotten. They are treated as if they have been possessed by witchcraft. They are treated like garbage, like human trash in our society".
AHONGBONON is the founder of St Camille de Lellis, a mental health organization, that runs eight centers in Ivory-Coast, Benin and Burkina-Faso. We visited him in Benin, one of the poorest countries in the world.
The government spends little on health care. Medical treatment for people with mental illness is almost non-existent.
They are the last concern of our authorities. In Benin, where I am from, there is just one psychiatric hospital. If you have no money, they won't take you.
AHONGBONON used to run a successful tire repair business but in the nineteen eighties, it went under and he fell into depression.
I lost so much that I almost killed myself. I started living a very very miserable life.
He realized that in West Africa, most people with mental illnesses get no treatment. He started St Camille to provide care to anyone who needed it.
Close to three hundred new patients come to St Camille's centers in Benin every month. They get food and shelter, a diagnosis, and for a small fee, regular doses of psychotropic medication.
At one center, AHONGBONON brought in John off the streets. The staff cleaned him, shaved his head and gave him fresh clothes.
He spent nights and days without ever washing himself. They are people who can even drink water from the streets, from the gutters.
John received routine medical tests and psychiatric assessment.
Most people here have severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Pierre SANS, a volunteer psychiatrist, says the drugs patients take, are effective even without psychotherapy.
A very sick person with many hallucinations, St Camille brings them out of it very quickly. Sometimes in a few days, it's absolutely astounding.
But St Camille cannot monitor patients over the long term which means they risk being overmedicated.
We see patients that had an acute psychotic episode that we continue to treat with heavy medication. That's where we have a real problem. Are they really people with schizophrenia that must continue to be treated with heavy medication ?
"Are you eating well ? Are you getting enough water ?"
Nurses provide most of the care. St Camille gives them basic training but much of the time, they are on their own. AHONGBONON doesn't deny the challenges.
"But for me the most important thing is not necessarily healing every single person. It's the dignity of each person. That's our struggle".
At St Camille, patients also learn practical skills they can use to earn money. Raymond Madou was one of St Camille's patients. Once he began to take medication for bipolar disorder, Ahongbonon helped him set up this bakery. He now runs it with other recovered patients.
"Work is what makes a person. Without work, we are nothing. If the others also find work to do, they will also find joy in life; like I did".
Before he came to St Camille, Madou's family tried everything they could to help him.
"Every year, I relapsed. My parents took me to traditional healers. They spent all their money".
Like many others, he ended up chained at a prayer center like this one. Across West Africa, these places of worship promise to cure any ailment including mental illness. They appeal to families with very few options.
AHONGBONON believes St Camille has helped to shut down prayer centers in Benin.
"There was a prayer center here where there were more than 250 sick people. But today, there are no more sick people there because when we started, the families saw the results and they went and unchained the sick people and brought them to us.
But prayer centers are still thriving in neighboring Togo. AHONGBONON took us to the largest one he's seen. It is called "Jesus is the solution". It is run by Paul NOUMONVI.
"I've had my ministry here for 12 years".
Noumonvi's center has become one of the largest in Togo. He told us patients don't pay for treatment but families sometimes give gifts when they are healed. He also runs prayer gatherings that attract thousands of people who donate to his church.
"Over here is where they stay".
He took us behind the prayer hall where people with mental illnesses are kept.
There are 153 men and women here. Patients stay for weeks, months, even years, often without any diagnosis.
"Welcome !" "What's your name ?" "Victorine" "I wasn't sick…. I am not crazy".
These people sleep outside in all weather, living in their own filth until Noumonvi sees a sign that they are healed.
"If I start to pray for someone and he finds the cure, he himself will ask to be bathed. But as long as he is not healed, if we tell him that he has to go and wash, he will say no".
AHONGBONON now wants to expand St Camille to Togo. He wants to ensure that people with mentahongbononal illnesses always has a safe place to go.
"Because as long as there is one man in chains, it is humanity that is chained. When I see a man tied to wood or in chains, I see my own image and it is the image of each and every one of us.