A Broad Chain. Wikimedia Commons

Torn out of the Void

Gregoire Ahongbonon was a family man with a successful business selling tires but, at a certain point, he lost everything...from the depths, his life was reborn, and in gratitude he sought to serve others, even the mentally ill.
Alessandra Stoppa

Gregoire Ahongbonon was a family man with a successful business selling tires but, at a certain point, he lost everything. All he wanted to do was kill himself. However, from the depths, his life was reborn, and in gratitude he sought to serve others, even the mentally ill chained to tree trunks by their families. He has liberated and healed thousands of people, loving each of them like his only child. His gaze on them has become a method, and is changing the culture of a people.

He caresses his head, “How are you?” The boy stares at him and does not react. In the dust under the sun, his skin and his gaze are parched. He only says he is hungry, that he hasn’t eaten for days. “My name is Gregoire. I’ll bring you with me. Do you want to come?” He reacts violently, his chest heaving, and would jump up if he could, but he can’t move, because he is chained to a tree trunk. He has been immobile for three years. Completely naked, his two thin legs are like dry branches.

The people of the village gather around to see what will happen, but nobody speaks. There is only the echo of a hammer. Gregoire strikes forcefully until he bends the pinions, and two of them raise the boy to his feet; it seems that his legs will break under the weight. Gregoire passes a sponge over him, delicately, over his entire body, and cuts his crusted hair. They put a shirt on him, while the boy watches in silence, letting them do everything for him. Gregoire buttons the shirt as if he were a child, as if he were his only child. The fact is that he is unique, like the other 15,000 and more, whom Gregoire Ahongbonon has taken with him.

A Taxi Business Run on Luck
Today, that same boy works in the hospital, in the radiology unit. When Gregoire freed him, skin and bones in the midst of the scrubwood and the odor of his own excrement, he was “the crazy one,” the one possessed by the devil. For this reason, his parents had bound him like a slave–the fate of those with mental illness in certain zones of Africa. Their frightened family or neighbors bind them in chains anchored to tree trunks or to spikes hammered into the earth, and leave them there under the rain and the sun for years, so that the evil spirits will leave them. These poor people await death to free them; none of them expect a man to come and liberate them.

Not even Gregoire expected this for himself. At a dark moment in his life, a stranger embraced him in that way, “as if he’d been waiting for me forever,” a priest who “took the time to listen to me, and my problems became his.” This priest was moved for him, and tore him out of the void. Gregoire says that he will never be able to explain what happened in his life. “But it happened,” he smiles.

During this dark time, Gregoire had lost everything. Before that, at the age of 23, he was one of the very few young men in the Ivory Coast to have his own car. He was a tire repairman. “I repaired tires, that’s all.” But his business flourished, so much so that he bought four taxis and good luck became his point of reference. The wheel of fortune spun and spun, until all was overturned and, at the end of the 1970s, Gregoire lost everything. “The only thing I wanted was to kill myself. I didn’t hang myself because I heard that the life in me did not come from me. God came to my rescue.” He came face to face with that priest, who some time later invited him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Twenty-eight years have passed since his time in that village and since God’s love saved him from himself. Gregoire has opened his entire life to that love, and in his gratitude has shared it with others, in response to a challenge he heard during a homily in Jerusalem: “Every Christian participates in building the Church, placing his own stone.” He returned to Bouaké, at the center of the Ivory Coast, where he lived with his wife and children, to understand what stone he had to place. He had absolutely no idea. At the time, the only thing he did was to begin a prayer group with eight others.

The Stone and the Child
One day, one of them told him that there was a gravely ill child in the village who could no longer speak or eat. “His parents are Muslim but, if they give us permission, we can go pray over him.” The family agreed to it and they went. The next day the little one’s mother ran after them, exclaiming, “My son has recovered and is eating and talking!”

So then, they thought, maybe the people in the hospital needed their prayers as well. They began going there to visit them. “That’s all there was to it.” Gregoire became increasingly attentive to their need, and that of the crazy man he saw wandering without clothes on the street, and others he found chained to trees. He began serving the sick as he could. By dint of grasping the palms of their hands, they became his task and his desire, to the point that his life coincided with their need. “There is just one need,” he says, “that of all of us, to be loved.”

Just a year after his journey to Jerusalem, he founded the Saint Camille de Lellis Association which began to care for those who could not pay for medical assistance, prisoners, refugees from nearby Liberia, and the mentally ill. In time, the association has become an enormous and exceptional reality, with 11 centers of hospitality and rehabilitation for people with psychiatric problems, located throughout the Ivory Coast and Benin, and a hospital and various businesses for re-entry into the workplace, including a print shop, a bakery, and a farm.

Today, he says he was not the one to want all this or to do it, as if placing his stone was simply his way of seeking God. “Now, I don’t know how to thank Him for all He has made happen,” for making Himself be found.

One Fact After Another
Gregoire is a man of humble ways, who speaks only about what happens. Nothing else leaves his mouth, not a thought too many, nor abstract lines of reasoning. In his life, each thing has come like the hospital in Bouaké, one fact after another. He is very happy when he talks about it, as if he were talking about a gift he’d just received. “We opened the first center for the mentally ill in the city hospital. In addition, poor people passed through to receive free healthcare, because there, if you don’t have money, you’re abandoned. One morning, the hospital director called me to say that people needed to begin paying because the structure survived on prescriptions. Also, our center had no more room for patients. So I went to the prefect to ask him for land for a new center. He said, ‘Go to the city and look for a place.’”

He went, but the land he found no longer belonged to the administration. He tracked down the name of the owner and called a meeting of the association members, all important people in the city. He proposed forming a delegation to go ask for the land. The vice-mayor stood up and said, “You may be nuts, but I’m not. That land is in the heart of the city and you want to ask for it for free? You’re sick.” He slammed the door and left, and all the others followed, except one. Gregoire looked at him, and asked, “Will you accompany me?”

They went to the owner, an elderly man. “Along the way, I thought that if I spoke to him about a center for the association he wouldn’t accept. I had to tell him we wanted to build a hospital–maybe that would convince him.”

“The land is yours.”
“The idea of the hospital came to me that way.” They explained their request to the owner, and the old man lowered his head for a few minutes. “Ever since I began seeing the work you do, I’ve told myself that if I were young I would work for you. And today, you come to ask me this. It’s not you who have come; God came before you. The land is yours.” At this point, they didn’t even have a hundred francs to begin the construction. But, slowly, things came together. Gregoire met a friend who wanted to help him and sent him to the builders, and then another found him a doctor who would work for free for two years.

Only one thing was missing: “The blessing of the Church. The priests didn’t support me. Only the bishop was left.” One day, Gregoire saw him in front of the cathedral. Not daring to tell him that he wanted to build a hospital, he spoke to him about a small medical center. “The bishop listened to me, then said, ‘I’d prefer that you talk to me about a Catholic hospital, not a little medical center.’ There, I had my ‘authorization.’ Today, the hospital is the only help for the poor in the entire region. Was I the one who wanted that hospital? I was not the one.”

He thinks back to the words of his wife, Léontine. It was difficult for her. First, she watched him bringing the sick to their home. They slept under the trees. Then she watched him leaving at dawn and returning increasingly later in the evening. The sick and poor multiplied, together with responsibilities and problems. “In the beginning, she didn’t understand, but the Lord prepared her ahead of time and helped her in a hurry,” Gregoire says. One day, Léontine called him: “I understand that God wants this. All I ask of you is to pay for the education of our children.” From then on, she has backed him in everything, working at the market to support the family and managing the drugs for the association. Their six children have done the same. The youngest, who is twenty, has decided to study medicine so she can help her father in his work.

On the scooter in wartime.
“The work is not mine.” He never tires of saying this, as if he were breathing it. When people ask him where he finds the strength to continue doing everything, he says that it is in the daily Eucharist he receives. “And then, it’s not like I’m alone. There are the crazy people like me, who continually help.” When he has a problem, one of many, he calls them all together. “I can’t pay to bring in a cook for the center. I don’t know what to do. Please pray for this.” One of them gets up: “You have to know something. Our silence is a prayer for you. When I was abandoned, I never would have thought I’d see a man who’d reach out his hand to me. Instead, here, there are people who talk to me, who eat with me.” Another woman stood up: “Before getting sick, I was a cook. So then, we can cook for ourselves.” From that day on, all the kitchens have been run by the sick. “It’s evident that God does this work. He takes care of us.”

Knowing this is what enables him to sleep at night–even when civil war broke out, and he and his “crazy people” fed the population in flight by bringing rice back and forth on a scooter in the midst of shooting rebels. Or when the conditions of the sick are so inhuman that they made him dizzy, as when he finds a man nailed into the wood of a tree, putrefied. Knowing that God does this work gives Gregoire the strength to keep going, even when reality is too hard. “I get scared, too, and at times I don’t understand. But my prayer is to do His will, not mine.” For many years, for example, he has wanted to open a center in Abidjan, but there have been too many obstacles. “You see that now it is not among His concerns. My hope is not to lose this trust. And anyway, we needn’t fear–all that comes from God passes through trials.”

Then Providence presents itself in things so great that they are his hope. Like seeing Christine. He found her crucified like Jesus, because she was mentally retarded. Today, the chains that bound her are in church and she is the cook for one of the centers of the association. Many mental patients are at work in the centers, which are all coordinated by the sick. Healed.

To die like men.
When Marco Bertoli, a psychiatrist from Friuli, Italy, discovered the work of Gregoire, he was speechless, as were the other experts of psychiatric services and rehabilitation programs. “His approach has yielded extraordinary therapeutic outcomes. It’s an intervention on the cutting edge: he frees them, feeds them, cares for them, teaches them a trade, and brings them back home,” says Bertoli, who for over ten years has been at Gregoire’s side, helping and following his adventure.

“We don’t do miracles,” Gregoire stresses. “What brings clarity to our work is love.” They offer living proof that love responds to the human condition, and this love is transforming their culture, the mentality of the population. Over time, there have been many changes: where the Saint Camille centers have arisen, families no longer chain their mentally ill members. They used to do it out of desperation and shame, or they entrusted them to sects of Protestant origin that tortured them to free them from evil spirits, for a payment.

Gregoire, too, was immersed in this mentality. “Then, I discovered Christ in the hands of those forgotten people, and I was no longer afraid.” He looks at them and sees heaven, and they recover, or die with the dignity of human beings, loved, like him, who through them is reached every day by his destiny. Making himself almost transparent in their need, he becomes ever more himself.

This daily dedication has generated a method, that of a man who has never studied, and yet is more effective than the experts, with their erudite techniques. “What God wants to do, He does, independently of what we are.” A doctor from a large clinic in Benin called him to ask how he succeeded in healing a man with whom they’d tried every therapy possible. They compared the drugs he’d been prescribed and found they were the same. In the end, the doctor gave up, and said, “It is God who pushes you so that the world will open its eyes. The Saint Camille does not come from us.” “It’s true,” says Gregoire. “All I know how to do is to repair tires.”

What is the "Saint Camille"?
Gregoire Ahongbonon (above, with a patient) was born in Benin. In 1971, he emigrated to Bouaké in the Ivory Coast, where, in 1983, he founded the Saint Camille De Lellis Association. In the beginning, it was a charitable group for ill people needing care. Today, it runs six centers for psychiatric patients in the Ivory Coast and Benin, five rehabilitation centers, and various structures for vocational skill training. Other centers are under construction and there are also projects underway for Niger and Burkina Faso. In 1998, the Saint Camille Hospital was opened, which cares for over 30,000 people annually, the majority of them HIV-positive patients. In the same year, Gregoire was awarded the Franco Basaglia International Prize. In 2005, Hope Amman, his friend and collaborator, created the Swiss Saint Camille de Lellis Foundation, which supports Gregoire’s activities.