Thursday, 5 April 2012
We are in Madjre, at the Centre d’Accueil Père Hervé, a home – if that is what you can call it – for people with a mental handicap or psychiatric disorder. This is our weekly visit, begun shortly after our arrival in Benin, interrupted by the incident on February 1st, and recommenced a few weeks ago. We had heard of the centre in Holland already: googling for Dogbo, Marijke found a site called www.detuinvantoyo.nl/. Worth going there yourself: this is the initiative of a Dutch couple who had been visiting Dogbo quite some years ago and were shocked by the sight of a handicapped young girl in the market, begging for scraps and totally uncared for. Toyo was her name, and with her in mind this couple mobilized friends and acquaintances to help provide for her and others like her: a place to live, to be cared for, and if possible to be productively employed. The Centre d’Accueil existed already, if I am not mistaken, but was in state of disrepair and had few prospects. With this new support network, things began to change. A property was acquired a few kilometres away, a deep well was dug, vegetable gardens were laid out, a number of buildings were erected, and the more able inhabitants of the centre were given the opportunity to work and live there. Given enough time and money, the hope is that all the inhabitants will eventually be moved to the new location and will each contribute, as well as he or she can, to the life of the community.
But those are dreams for the future. For the present, most of them are still idle, housed in conditions unthinkable by western standards, living and dying as best they can. Naked, metaphorically speaking, but sometimes quite literally as well, like the man on the bed on the veranda. We hadn’t seen him at first. Actually, we were on our way out, after a visit of about ¾ of an hour. We had been welcomed exuberantly, had spent our time kicking a soccer ball around, talking and laughing and singing and dancing, had shared a picture sheet with the story of Good Friday and Easter, and were headed back to the gate. Then someone tugged at our arm. Elle aussi, he said, pointing towards the veranda. Yes, Adja speakers seem to mix up gender when they speak French; what we saw there was definitely male. And he had been watching us in his upside-down world. Not able to kick a soccer ball or talk or sing or dance. Or control his bowels, which is, I imagine, the reason for his lying there like that. But he could laugh, boy, could he laugh! His limbs grotesquely twisted, suppurating sores at contact points of skin and metal, unable to do anything but be cared for... He laughed, the raw, uncontrolled laughter of a spastic.
Someone told us a little of the story: this man had been badly burned when he was younger, and since then he was like this. New to the centre, he had been rescued from the village, like so many of the malades, by M. Raoul. Raoul, apparently once malade himself, but picked up off the street and nursed back to mental and physical health, had made it his mission in life to care for the abandoned, the chained, the abused, the unwanted, 40 or so of whom inhabit the centre which he now heads. This man was the newest. Hugely happy to see us coming closer, and to meet us. We weren’t really able to talk. We were just there with him for a few minutes, shocked and moved and wondering why there was no better solution for a burn victim in Benin, and then we left. He waved goodbye, clutching a sheet with three crosses over an empty grave in his malformed fist. Naked.
There is a lot of nakedness in Benin. Like last Sunday morning. Walking home from church, glancing around suddenly at the sound of water splashing: there stood a girl, in her early teens, outside the family dwelling. Totally naked, but not at all ashamed. She had lathered in her glorious body and was holding high a calabash bowl to rinse away the suds. She saw us and waved with her other hand. We waved back, and walked on, trying hard not to keep looking. Not quite an everyday experience, true, but we have seen more nakedness here in the past four months than in the five previous decades. It’s tricky, for me, a man, to deal with in a Christian manner: look, no problem when breasts are long and flat and wrinkled (which seems to occur at an improbably early age here, we think due to the weight of the baby carried on the mother’s back, it being wrapped tightly in the pagne.) But many of what we see aren’t at all long and flat and wrinkled. I think Marijke is probably unaffected by the sight of a (semi)naked woman. But then, she needs to deal with the sight of men urinating. Whenever and wherever they need to go. And only some turn away from the road and public view. Nakedness. Takes getting used to.
Back to Madjre, and the people there, naked and clothed. We both sense that it is no coincidence that we have become involved in what happens there. Our dream is to connect the people of the ERCB to the people there. Also the people of the ERCB are Beninese. Also the people of the ERCB are naturally inclined and culturally conditioned to abandon the handicapped to the night and the mercy of God. Few of them have a strong conviction that the mercy of God generally comes in the form of people who are willing to be there for the helpless and the hopeless. Our dream is that we can contribute just a little, to make the nakedness visible. So that when the morning comes Jesus will say to them and to us: I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me (Mat 25.36). For the alternative is also possible:you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked (Rev 3.17).