Humble beginnings: Grégoire Ahongbonon and the St Camille Association

Denied citizens

Grégoire Ahongbonon talking to a homeless man
Grégoire Ahongbonon talking to a homeless man

"In certain countries in Africa and elsewhere, mental illness is considered to be a magical, supernatural event, caused by spirits that take over the body. People with mental disorders are considered dangerous or contagious and are abandoned by their families, left to wander the streets with no food and no home. Or they are chained to tree trunks, left alone, hidden from the rest of the society. Some are beaten and left with little food to 'purge the evil spirits' through physical suffering."

"I was born in 1953 to a farming family in a small village in Western Africa. I immigrated to Côte d'Ivoire. By 1994, I had been caring for people excluded from society such as prison inmates and people with HIV/AIDS for 10 years. At this time, I learned about the fate of people with intellectual disabilities and mental disorders. I decided to get actively involved in their care and founded the St Camille Association for people with mental disorders in Western Africa."

"The first challenge was to get these people off the streets, liberate them from their chains, care for them, and rehabilitate and reintegrate them. In almost every village, there is a person chained up, but it is so shameful to the family that it is hidden. Sometimes I find patients in the most deplorable state. I see mistreatment almost everywhere I go. You know, in so-called developed countries, the solution isn't much better. I've seen your hospitals. You lock patients into rooms, drugged to the eyeballs. It's not much different from chaining them to a tree."

"My mission is to give dignity back to people with mental disorders, through care, support, and help to reintegrate them back into society. The St Camille Association provides shelter, medical treatment and follow up to people with mental disorders, and helps their social reintegration and rehabilitation through work. Several farms and centres have been created where people with mental disorders can cultivate manioc and other local products, as well as breed chicken, pigs and rabbits. We also try to facilitate the reintegration of people with mental disorders into their village of origin, if they wish to go back."

"My organization currently runs 12 centres in Côte d'Ivoire and Benin and has helped 2500 people, of whom 1800 have successfully reintegrated into their village of origin. The Association currently serves about 70 000 meals a day with the financial help of European non-governmental organizations."