By Serena Clayton
Imagine that you are walking down the street and you see a homeless person, unwashed, clearly disturbed, yelling to himself as he careens around the sidewalk.
Most of us will carefully navigate around him, look away, cross the street. No matter how much sympathy we feel, we tend to move away from this man, not towards him, but a little part of us knows that this is not the person we want to be.
The St. Camille Association, that I went to visit in West Africa, is a group of dedicated people that does exactly what no one wants to do—walk towards homeless, mentally unstable individuals. They seek out the most challenging people on the planet and take on all of their physical, psychological, and social problems until they can care for themselves, which, in some cases, is never.
One rarely hears about mental illness in Africa, but it occurs at the same rate as in the U.S., the difference being that there are no safety net services whatsoever. Seriously mentally ill people are often naked, walking or lying on the side of the street. In the worst cases they are put in cages or chained to trees or walls for years.
St. Camille is changing social norms in a way that we in America could learn from. In Benin their treatment and rehabilitation centers have become well known enough that when police, clergy, or neighbors see mentally ill people on the street, they know they can help by bringing them to St. Camille. Entire camps where people were chained to trees have been cleared.
On a personal note, I saw that St. Camille not only restores the humanity of the mentally ill, it enabled me to be the person I want to be.
On the last day of our trip (when we were supposed to be tourists) Rachel and I saw a naked man in Lome, the capital of Togo. I gave him food, and Rachel insisted we buy him pants. Our efforts attracted attention and soon people were offering to take us to meet his family. At first I was skeptical – how would this family in Lome get to the treatment center two hours away? But then I realized that St. Camille stops at nothing and would come to their house to pick him up. So we went to their house to talk to his father. His son has been sick most of his life, and the family has tried everything so they were motivated to call St. Camille. We don’t know if they did, but we left feeling we had offered everything we could. It was literally the only time I have passed a person on the street in America or Africa and felt good about my actions.