The Association Saint Camille de Lellis, after the name of the patron saint of the sick, is a hive of activity as you enter its faded white gates.

There are raffia mats and people relaxing just outside the entryway talking to guests who have come to meet. Several inhabitants wait in a courtyard at the entrance’s left as ladies converse and braid each other’s hair in the open space ahead. The chapel for individuals in need of peace may be seen in the distance.

With up to 300 individuals from around West Africa in need of care, the Saint Camille center, or “St. Camille,” seems like the residence of a very big family.

In a world where a mental disorder is stigmatized, the center will be the first location for many of these people to feel comfortable.

There is a widespread lack of attention paid to mental health treatment across the world, but the situation is particularly serious in Africa. Poverty, superstition, and taboos exacerbate the lack of available resources and well-trained staff. Some healthcare experts, for example, think that mental diseases, particularly psychosis, are caused by supernatural powers such as witchcraft, bad spirits, or divine punishment. This has led to stories of individuals being chained and transported to prayer places in order to be cleansed of their affliction and be healed.

The terrible tales of many of the sheltered women at St. Camille account for the fact that women with severe mental illness are more likely than the general public to be victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Gregoire Ahongbonon, who built the first St. Camille institution in 1991, says that “homeless and mentally damaged women get being raped because of a belief that if a guy sleeps with a psychologically disturbed woman, he would be wealthy or even no spiritual spell will ruin his life.” “That’s why our first instinct is to take these ladies off from the street as well as give them a place to call home.”

Ahongbonon said that he regularly drives his automobile when he spots someone who appears vulnerable. He is now seventy-years-old. He tries to strike up a discussion with them by introducing himself and outlining the mission of his organization. To begin with, he provides them an accommodation and access to medication, after which Ahongbonon with his team work to determine if their newest resident has any family members.

There is no charge for lodging or treatment at the St. Camille facility because of philanthropic donations that cover food, clothes, and medicine for patients.

While Ahongbonon said that St. Camille is free from paying import tariffs, the Beninese government provides no monetary support to this institution or the other six throughout Benin that are under the umbrella of St. Camille.

“We don’t really have a stable source of funding. We rely solely on the grace of God to survive, thanks to the generosity of our friends and donors “Ahongbonon chimed in.

“The vulnerability of women with mental disorders who are deserted by society and forced to live on the streets is made worse by the region’s inadequate mental health governance systems. There is little or no oversight from official entities about their removal to a secure location and their ability to choose when to leave “Co-author of the first West African Strategic Mental Health Plan, Abdulmalik remarked.

Odette’s story

Odette used her left hand to smooth the shaved top of her head. She stood outside the chapel, her feet swollen, wearing a patterned pregnancy garment. She looked exhausted.

Odette, who was seven months pregnant at the time of talking to CNN, said, “I get ill a lot, and this has resulted in lack of appetite, weariness, vomiting, weariness, and  sleeplessness,” she added. There is no way I could care for a child on top of my disease, therefore giving birth is not an option for me.

Firefighters discovered Odette wandering the streets of St. Camille in February, seeming lost. They saw her vulnerability in the way she dressed and spoke, so they brought her to the hospital and sent her to St Camille.

Nicole Ahongbonon, the center’s psychiatrist, identified Odette with schizophrenia and anemia once she arrived at St. Camille.

Often, Ahongbonon’s pregnant patients and their children are shunned by their relatives, which is a major problem for his team. A pregnant woman needs all the help she can receive, he said, and this is especially true for women with mental health issues.

Even after years of sexual assault by guys in the market, Odette had many pregnancies as a result of it. She had been living at the market for some time, according to the traders, who said that she had been pregnant multiple times.

Odette gave birth to a baby girl on May 10. The employees at the center are making arrangements for the future because she has not altered her decision about keeping a child.

As long as the team is unable to locate and return Odette to her family, she will stay at the psychiatric hospital. If she doesn’t, she’ll join the ranks of the many others who have made St. Camille their permanent residence.

Ajoke’s tale

One cannot miss Ajoke because of the golden brown ends of her braided hair that dangle from her shoulders.

Since Ahongbonon and his colleagues spotted her outside Cotonou one night, nude and clearly pregnant, St. Camille has been her home.

Ahongbonon stated that she had said her name was Ajoke and and she was from Lagos, Nigeria, while they sought to identify her.

At one point in her life, Ajoke had been married, but she said she was forced to leave her husband’s family after his grandma died.

She told CNN, “I didn’t realise that I was unwell.” My spouse and his mother told me that I was acting strangely, so I knew I wasn’t sleeping.

With her previous two pregnancies, she had no recollection of comparable experiences, but during her third, she awoke insistent that she can still hear the wail of a baby. “I would talk with myself and hear things or the sound of a baby sobbing,” I recall saying.

After losing custody of her two eldest children, Ajoke went wandering and found herself in Benin, roughly 140 kilometres away from Lagos, Nigeria.

In addition to being diagnosed with schizophrenia by an on-site psychiatrist at the time, Ajoke’s medical checkup revealed that she was HIV positive, further aggravating the already difficult situation of the 29-year-old.

Because of her illness, “Ajoke’s labour day was a really terrible one,” Ahongbonon reminisced. “The physicians were terrified when they learned what she had.”

In the hospital, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, who was afterwards adopted.

“Kid placement is decided on the basis of the mother’s mental health and willingness to care for the child, as well as on the child’s own needs. If we perceive that the mother is capable of caring for the kid, we allow her to keep it, but only under the supervision of Ahongbonon, who added: “Whenever the women get well, [they] determine whether or not they want the infants adopted or given to them. We have never collected any money, donations, or other remuneration for our service, and we will never do so.”

She began to miss home as her mental health improved. At St. Camille, a guy identified simply as Justin began visiting her in 2018, 2 years after she originally came at the facility.

While Ahongbonon argued with her, Ajoke insisted that she would travel with him, despite his reservations about his motives.

When she recalled, Ajoke shrugged and remarked, “I believed he was sending me to Nigeria.”

“As opposed to the hotel, he brought me to his residence in Cotonou and proceeded to bed with me. He would starve and beat me on occasion. Again, I’m expecting.”

It wasn’t long until Ajoke was abandoned on a roadside near St. Camille after a series of tragedies, including a reconnection with her family, whom Justin did know.

It’s been three years since Ajoke left Nigeria, however her family won’t take her back.  She has no choice but to live in the centre. This is the place where I know they’ll give me the drugs I need to keep healthy,” she remarked with a smile.

Abigail’s story 

Abigail’s pre-St. Camille existence was characterized by a high level of violence. Abigail claimed she was unable to recall many aspects of her upbringing.

Throughout her childhood, she spoke of hearing voices, believing she was possessed by evil spirits, and fend for herself from the time she was a small child. As she made her way throughout Cotonou in search of food, she eventually found herself living in a district known as “the ghetto” by other residents of the city.

However, Abigail claims that because she was alone and exposed, some males took advantage.

The scars on her right sleeve, which resemble the strokes of a cane, showed how they would beat her, administer medicines to her, and even sleep with her before giving her something to eat.

A guy approached Agoton in 2015 and informed her that he had been to St. Camille, a centre that helps the mentally sick. Abigail was pregnant then.

Abigail, like Ajoke, suffers from schizophrenia and is HIV-infected. Antiretroviral therapy and safer delivery channels were put in place by the medical personnel at St. Camille promptly to avoid the virus from being passed on to her baby..

Smiling brightly, Abigail informed CNN that her baby was adopted and moved away. “I am pleased here,” she said’. It’s a pleasure to assist out in the kitchen and get my medicine and meals from them.

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