Living Chained

June 16 2019 | by

“PEOPLE with mental illnesses are the forgotten of the forgotten,” says Grégoire Ahongbonon, a former tyre repairman and taxi driver, and now a modern-day Samaritan. “They’re treated like trash, like human garbage in our society.” In West Africa, where psychiatric help hardly exists, mental illness is completely misunderstood – the erratic and strange behaviour of someone suffering from a mental illness can be frightening and many people still believe that the person is possessed by demons or evil spirits.

In Togo, one of Africa’s smallest and most impoverished countries, many people live on just over one dollar a day. Many poor families cannot afford to send their children to school, and mothers struggle to provide a meal for their young ones. In the face of such poverty, the “forgotten of the forgotten” are found wandering naked in the town streets eating out of dustbins. An embarrassment to their families and to society, they are often abandoned, beaten and abused, or taken to so-called prayer camps where they are often chained to trees – sometimes for years.

“Don’t let fear keep you from welcoming the stranger,” Pope Francis said. In Togo, one man is reaching out to those who are shunned and avoided because of fear: the fear of mental illness. That man is Grégoire Ahongbonon, who is dedicating his life to rescuing mentally ill men and women from a life in chains.


No need to fear


Born in 1953 to a farming family in a small village in Benin, West Africa, Grégoire left school early and, in search of adventure, moved to Côte d’Ivoire. There he built a business as a tyre repairman and taxi driver, but in 1980 he experienced such severe financial problems that he contemplated suicide. He received counselling from a priest and emerged from his depression with a craving for the Scriptures. After a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Grégoire set up a group which visited and fed the sick, lepers and prisoners. One day, he was walking down a street and saw a sick person, naked, rummaging through a bin. Grégoire stopped to observe the man, and it was while the man was searching through the bin that Grégoire saw him in another way: “I saw the one who gave his life, who sacrificed himself for my sake. Christ: that’s who I discovered.” He realised that if that man represented Jesus, there was no longer any need to be afraid.

In 1994 he founded the St Camille Association for people with mental disorders in West Africa. Its mission is to give dignity back to people with mental disorders through care and support, and to help them to reintegrate back into society and to rehabilitate them through work. It now has treatment and rehabilitation centres in three West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Benin and Togo, and has helped many thousands of people, the majority of whom have been successfully reintegrated into their villages of origin. In January 2015 Grégoire was presented with the Daily Trust African of the Year award, chosen from 800 nominations across the continent for, according to Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, Chairman of the award committee, “doing the extra-ordinary work of caring for the mentally-ill under very precarious circumstances, including danger to his life.”


St Anthony International Award


In the evening of November 14, 2008, Grégoire visited the Basilica of Saint Anthony to collect the 6th Saint Anthony International Awards from the Messenger of Saint Anthony magazine (see our January 2009 issue), in recognition of his charitable works. Ten years later, in November 2018, our Director, Father Giancarlo Zamengo, visited Togo to witness his work first hand. “Since that evening when I heard his testimony from the Basilica I have been struck by Grégoire’s extraordinary ability to be close to any person in distress,” Fr. Giancarlo says. “He does not hold back, he does not turn his head away – ever. Even in the face of the most difficult challenges.” At the treatment centre in Zooti, previously established by Grégoire with help from St Anthony’s Charities, our magazine’s charitable organisation, Fr. Giancarlo was struck by the fact that for many of those he encountered, their illness had manifested itself after a long period in which they had “tried to do their best”– there was a degree to be obtained, for example, or the family had disintegrated and the father didn’t know how to take care of the children. The consequences were often devastating: a blocked mind, darkness within and all around, with consequent self-harm and mental imbalance. Fear developed both internally and in the people around them – they became “possessed by another spirit.”

 Grégoire continues, “In a world where faith, magic and superstition intertwine, it is difficult to persuade people that it is not true that an evil spirit has taken possession of those who were previously brilliant,” he says. These are stories of people who yesterday were at the margins of society, but today, thanks to Grégoire, Sister Simona, and the generosity of many others, have before them hope and a future.


Not I, but Christ


The time available for Grégoire to meet Fr. Giancarlo in Togo was short, yet he was able to convey his thoughts and experiences before he needed to rush off to offer answers in other centres which need his help, his strength, and the certainty he exudes in every situation. “I refuse to accept that it is I who does things,” he told Fr. Giancarlo. “Here in Togo, too, because of how these projects started, how can I not think that the hand of God is in play? The project is developing, and now we have a ten-hectare plot nearby. Once again God offers us an accomplished fact! I repeat every day: Lord, I do not want to follow what I want, but what you want!”

“Grégoire concluded his reflections,” recalls Fr. Giancarlo, “by looking into my eyes and saying: ‘St Anthony’s Charities is a great opportunity for the sick. Only Saint Anthony was able to take care of them.’ This phrase struck me, because they are the same words I heard in the refugee camps of the Lebanon, and those repeated to me in Ecuador last year. It was these words that made me realise that this is the project and these are the people that St Anthony wants us to take care of in 2019.”


Teaching self-reliance


“I’m not sure the dust or the holes in the road slow down his Jeep. Grégoire is always in a hurry,” Fr. Giancarlo continues. “He knows that along the way someone might need him, someone who wanders without a goal.” Grégoire takes those he finds to one of the reception centres he has founded, where they can be cared for and given appropriate medication. “But after that, what will happen to them?” he asks. Although healing is important, they need to learn again to be self reliant and independent. For this reason, Grégoire has asked St Anthony’s Charities and the readers of the Messenger of Saint Anthony to help set up a Vocational Training Centre not far from the treatment centre at Zooti. This will provide accommodation for about fifty people who will be given training and learn a skill: perhaps to become a farmer, carpenter, mason, or electrician, maybe a mechanic, baker, seamstress or hairdresser. In the centre they will take a final step towards normality and finally, at the end of the training, be able to return to their families.


Humanity chained


The land for the centre has already been found and the plans approved. Help is needed with building material and labour costs. A gift of $40/£25/€30 could pay for materials to make windows and doors, $60/£40/€50 for roof tiles, $130/£80/€100 for bricks to make a secure foundation, and $650/£400/€500 would be enough to equip an entire skills studio workshop. Your gift will help to give the ‘forgotten of the forgotten’ in Togo a safe place to live and to learn a new skill. Can you help them to take the first step back to a normal family life?

“As long as there is one man in chains, it is humanity that is chained,” says Grégoire. “When I see a man tied to wood or in chains, I see my own image. And it’s the image of each and every one of us.”

“To hear Grégoire talk, I am reminded of the story in the Bible when Jesus took pity on a man who had been kept in chains because the people thought he was possessed. Jesus did not judge, he did not question, he simply helped,” concludes Father Giancarlo. “Please will you be a friend and a good Samaritan and give Togo’s mentally ill the chance to live a useful and dignified life at the heart of their communities? Thank you so much.”

Updated on June 16 2019