The man who frees people chained for being ill

Aime chains

For almost 30 years, Gregoire Ahongbonon, a former mechanic from Benin, has helped thousands of West Africans affected by mental illnesses, caring for them in residential centres run by his charity, the Saint Camille association. Above all else, he is determined to stop the practice of keeping mentally ill people in chains.

Aime has just come out of his room. He is taking tiny steps – his ankles held in leg irons.

The scene takes place in a small house in the city of Calavi, on the outskirts of Cotonou, the capital of Benin. Aime, 24, has a mental illness and his elder brother and sister have been looking after him to the best of their abilities.

“We’ve had to lock him up because he disturbs people and they come to our house to complain,” says his brother, Rosinos.

“Sometimes he even attacks people in the street saying they’ve stolen something. He can’t stop screaming, day or night. He can’t sleep, so neither do we. I’m so overwhelmed by all this.”

The family could not afford for Aime to be treated at the country’s only state-run mental health institution, the Jacquot Public Hospital, where fees start at 20,000 CFA francs per month, almost half the average salary. Instead they gave him medication prescribed by the hospital – but after eight months they could no longer afford that either.

Aime had become calmer, but without treatment his illness quickly returned. Rosinos and his sister, Edmunda, were in desperation when Edmunda went to a lecture by Gregoire Ahongbonon, campaigning against the stigmatisation of mental illness.

Afterwards Edmunda asked Ahongbonon for advice, and Aime is now being taken to a centre run by the Saint Camille association in Calavi.

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