Chain People.



The world is a beast, brooding in the black case of the radio. If you hold your breath, if you stay quiet, quieter than the moths which rule the night, you will hear its curses. The world splutters, whispers, it torments. It wants to break your skull and drink your blood. Two years ago it viciously assaulted the plantation worker Joseph Yao Kouadis while he was listening to the hissing of the radio. Kouadis, a schizophrenic, is rolling in the dust, white foam sticking to his teeth, his jaws stretched wide open, whimpering, panting, howling with fear and anger. He has turned the white of his eyes to the front, his pupils are staring backwards into his skull, which offers the securest, the insecurest, the most confusing sanctuary. Joseph is a clever man who knows he is trapped. The dust on his body is his shroud.

The madness in the world is pulling Joseph Yao Kouadis with all its might, but he is still resisting. His hoarse voice is tearing up the silence of the day and the night. Slowly, month after month, his cries will become weaker. His people have banished him to the clearing of a sugar cane field in the Ivory Coast. This is where his haunted mind is leading a solitary battle. Joseph’s right foot is chained to a concrete cone, heavy and massive, which has been embedded deep into the earth. He can take two steps, half a third one, before the chain tightens.

The misery of the mentally ill is nowhere greater than in West Africa. They are kept like wild animals, locked in dark dungeons, they carry chains, their bodies rot, there are tens of thousands of them. Their next of kin cannot cope, they are all party to it, the neighbours, the police chief. This story is about common sense. Some people have faith in it. A mistake .

Joseph’s mother is standing in front of her son, her arms crossed. Her face is a mask of revulsion. A year ago the ministers of a protestant Free Church had advised her to bring her shrieking child to this place of God’s mercy, where illness is cured by the power of prayer alone. The ministers hold marathon masses lasting five hours, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They say prayers at the sick peoples’ sides, when their condition suffers yet another severe setback. Demons have taken possession of them, say the priests. Their disciples, young men with clubs, beat the evil spirits. They must beat them hard, persistently, as the demons cannot endure the strokes and will fall silent eventually.

His mother had asked the clergymen to put him in chains. Joseph’s behaviour frightens her. Only two days ago she had set him free, but instantly he had acted strangely again. He had danced through the huts, wildly, ecstatically, spinning around, after one year in chains, he had sung. His mother had become scared once more. While he was dancing two men had taken Joseph by surprise, overpowered him, and, with great effort, returned him to his chains. Now Joseph’s cries can again be heard throughout the prayer centre. The families of the mentally ill pay the ministers for the treatment, the costs are lower than in the state hospitals. There remains, however, hardly enough money to feed the sick. These “Centre Prière” are scattered all over West Africa. They are prayer centres of the evangelical-protestant church C.M.A., founded by American missionaries.

God’s medical station. On the outskirts of the “Centre Prière” in Bouaké, the second largest city in the Ivory Coast, there are five gnarled trees. At their roots hang rusty-brown chains with padlocks of various strength. Some have long been out of use, spiders and woodlice have built nests in them. Others shine in the sun, polished by the flesh they have bound for years. Ten living skeletons covered with skin are at present cowering underneath the chain-trees of Bouaké.

Over the years their skin, whether they are young or old, resembles the skin of cattle, rough and cracked. They grow into the wood, the flesh consumes one or two kilogrammes a month, until all that remains of the body are bones, not much more. The people in chains pass the day without stirring. A mother of three children is tied to a root by two heavy padlocks. Her youngest daughter brought her to the tree. She has been appointed by her family to provide for the mother. Once a day she takes her a tin of mashed corn. Sometimes she loses control. The mother complains that her daughter beats her. A black plastic sheet, which she pulls over her head in the rain, is her only possession.

“People say I’m mad. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been bewitched.” A pain in her shoulder blade prevents her from sleeping. Sometimes the woman in chains has fits, which throw her onto her back. For minutes her stiffened body rises and sinks. The chains tear at her ankle, while from the huts of her relatives comes the raucous noise of children at play.

Doctors are not well received here where there are only men of God, the highest ranking of whom is called Prosper. He is dozing in front of his house on a reclining chair, from time to time believers kneel down in front of him and ask for his blessing. “Jesus,” wearily Prosper lays his hand on to the bowed heads. “I, Prosper, your humble servant, ask you. Tell me how this man can receive help.” Prosper is in command of one alert, suspicious eye, the other one is half covered by a paralyzed lid. Timidly, the faithful ask for an audience, among them former presidents and police officers , at present there is a waiting list of a week. Whoever gives more money than the others will be seen sooner. In Prosper’s view, chains and prayer belong together. “Otherwise the mad people get away. They don’t hear mass and don’t fast.” He is aware that this treatment causes many of the sick to die miserably. Those suffering from depression, senility, fits and schizophrenia have died, he will have their relatives believe, “because their faith was weak”.

Prosper’s opponent, who aims to destroy this murderous trade in insanity, the only person in the country the ministers fear, is Grégoire Ahongbonon. Wearing grey Maoist clothing, but also armed with the bible, he has been fighting against the scourge of the chains in West Africa for 20 years. “Dogs are chained up. If you chain up sick people this will not cure them. They will become like dogs.” These are revolutionary sentences in a region where every physical contact with the mentally ill is avoided due to the belief that madness is contagious.

Chance led Ahongbonon to his first patient who, in a shack without light, had been left to rot by his family. Maggots in his ears and nose, grey wire in the flesh of his upper arms and thighs. So tightly and so long had he been bound by the wire that it had eaten deep into his body. Green and black stains of decay were on his stomach and legs, yet this man was still breathing. Ahongbonon stood helplessly in front of him, not knowing how to free him from the wire. He tried for a long time, when he eventually succeeded the man died. Ahongbonon, a Catholic convert and former taxi driver, has set 2500 people free since then.






























Ahongbonon’s “Association Saint Camille de Lellis” runs six centres around Bouaké. He has set up reception camps where the newcomers have their tangled hair shorn from their heads after decades of imprisonment. Saws are used to shorten their nails, which are thick as planks and centimetres long. They are scrubbed, until from beneath many layers of dirt, a body appears. There is a psychologist who assesses their illness and prescribes appropriate medication. Ahongbonon has built four rehabilitation centres, with a tiny budget of 30 000 Euros he feeds 950 people. Even in Africa this means walking a financial tightrope. The former chain people plant yam roots and sugar cane, produce soap and breed hens. Most importantly however: People shake hands with them once more.

Ahongbonon’s tours through the Ivory Coast are journeys to the boundaries of the human psyche. He is chronically tired. The jeep’s tape recorder endlessly blaring out rousing church music keeps him awake. Today his passenger is a 50-year-old woman returning to her village, where, for 15 years, both her legs were in the wood, as they say here. This had been a decision of the village’s council of elders. Two men had sawn a narrow hole in a trunk, they had forced Adingra Siata into it and nailed iron fastenings over the gaps. Forsaken by her family, Siata had been vegetating imprisoned amongst the rubble of a derelict house, when Ahongbonon found her. She had been eating refuse and flies. Her daughter had already bought her shroud. “Leave her. She’s as good as dead!” said one of the neighbours.

Timid, but beaming, dressed up in new clothes, she is sitting on the back seat of the jeep. Her back has been deformed by her long imprisonment, it is bent in the form of an arch, she cannot straighten beyond hip height. Nervousness causes her to be sick. How will the people react? Siata stayed in Bouaké for four years, once a week she took a psychiatric drug. She herself determined the degree of her participation. This is what Ahongbonon’s centre actually is: A substitute for the village community, where the inhabitants, men, women, children to a large extent organise their own lives. All the leaders have a history of illness, were in chains for years. Siata cooked for the women , cared for the children, played with them. Slowly she found her feet again.

Her mother covers her face with her hands in agitation. Ahongbonon has driven to the village without prior notice. Timidly, with two fingers, the mother touches her daughter’s hand. “She recognizes me!” The mother begins to weep. “A great miracle!” whisper the gathered villagers. Siata greets them all by name, asks how they are. When she was in the wood, she bellowed obscenities at everybody. Her eyes stared, her body stank worse than a corpse. “History,” says Ahongbonon to the village gathering. “This is all in the past. Erase Siata, as she was, from your memory. She has recovered. She is one of you. Treat her accordingly. I don’t want money from you. I just don’t want you to lock anybody into the wood again.” Doubts remain in the eyes of the villagers.

In the neighbouring village they know of a woman who has been squatting in a dark hut, in chains for years. How long exactly, the relatives cannot say. One says three years, another ten. Only a small gap underneath the wooden door lets light into the dark. The skin of her body is covered in excrement and dirt. The stench is horrific. Ahongbonon is choking. One of her feet is chained to a tree trunk, until recently an iron clamp had secured her arm to it as well. The trunk is three metres long, covered with black skin grease and fleas. Ahongbonon injects a sedative, leads her to the jeep, where, during the return journey, she repeatedly urinates on the seat. The first thing she will do in the centre in Bouaké is to mix her portion of rice with her own excrement and consume it rapidly. An old habit.

The return journey to Bouaké is delayed once more. During a break Ahongbonon hears of a man who has allegedly been locked up by his oldest brother. Just a few houses away Sie` Kouane, 47, sits in a hut with his legs crossed. His relatives have fastened his left wrist to the wood with an iron clamp, five centimetres wide, four centimetres high. His finger nails are the length of daggers. “I’ve lost some weight lately,” he says wonderingly, looking at his arm in the clamp. Ahongbonon asks who he is. Slow as a reptile the man lifts his head and looks at him with a frown. “Have you ever heard of the highest being? That’s me.”

Until ten years ago, the man who thinks he is God worked as a civil servant in the ministry of agriculture, in the capital Abidjan. People in the village had looked up to him. They came to him when they needed advice or somewhere to stay in the big city. But then he fell ill. “You see”, he recalls in the foul air of his prison. “Everything became too much. I was over-worked, that was in 1991. Since then there has been suffering, only suffering. I don’t understand it. Maybe the highest being must suffer, I sometimes think. And then again I think, no, that’s wrong, he should be happy.” He suffered from depression, was dismissed by the ministry. He wandered the village restlessly, ranting and raving. “He attacked our uncle with a machete”, say his brothers in their own defence. They say he stole food from the old women in the village. For three years he has been sitting on his old briefcase, he can neither stand up nor lie down.

Five men are needed to carry the trunk outside. The daylight hurts Sie’s eyes. They have become weak during the years of darkness, he complains. “I can no longer read letters.” Ahongbonon asks for the hacksaw from his jeep. Half the village is watching, spellbound, children are fighting for the best places. Without causing injury he eases the skin from the wood. “You’re coming with me”, Ahongbonon takes Sie’s arm, while he is still staring at the palm of his hand, stunned. He has not seen it for years.

Simply killing him would have been more humane, his brothers admit. But they did not want to commit a sin. And they could not set him free. “Now he’s weak, but he would have become strong again. That’s the problem.” The first days in Bouaké are a shock to Sie` . After years of solitude he is thrust into a ward of 25 people, sick people are stretched out to his left and to his right. So much movement, so much noise. “I can hardly bear it. I’m not used to being among people.” He had watched the act of liberation calmly, almost bored, as if this had nothing to do with him. Now his tranquillity is gone. He is sitting on a bench outside, lost, rubbing his temples uneasily. His head has sunk deep down between his legs. The other patients lay their hands on his shoulder encouragingly. Underneath his hardened soul something is moving: After a long absence his feelings are returning. Despair comes first.


Back home from the trip to Cote d’Ivore the photographer Andreas Lobe and I founded the association „friends of St. Camille“ in order to raise money. The association has been acknowledged as charitable. Since 2003, when the fundraising started, a total amount of 30 000 Euro was collected. Every cent supports the project of Gegroire Ahongbonon, it is used to buy food and medication. After the publication of our feature St. Camille has established several more centres in Benin. www.st-camille.com


Freundeskreis St. Camille
Nr.: 9 7 9 5 - BLZ 640 500 00
"Psychisch Kranke in Westafrika"



























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Andreas Lobe, Reutlingen