Need to be crazy to experience art and depth to this level

“Oasis of Love” is a centre for Mental Health Aid in Calavi, a suburb of Cotonou. I was not sure what to expect and what a surprise to enter and see color and life everywhere.IMG_6984

Sylvain welcomed us, he is a French man who has been supporting Gregoire for a while already. Gregoire? A regular Beninoise citizen who saw there was a need and opened a centre to support the mentally ill.

Sylvain is psychiatrist and artist. Together. So he blends his two passions to run the centre’s programs. He explained that typically the mentally ill pass up to 20 hours a day sleeping because of the medications, but also poor nutrition, neglection and other factors in the same line. Their aim at the centre is that they sleep the regular 8 hours a day and occupy the rest of their time in good stuff. Their definition of good stuff? Art.

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So the weekly schedule is full. It includes:

  • Sports, games, corporal expression (lots of: imagine I am like a bird… everybody open your wings… etc)
  • Knowledge of the world, the arts, the religions, different cultures, rights and obligations, ecology

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A sculpture of Mami-Watti (the spirit of the waters in the West African Folk Tradition) hanging from the workshop roof

  • Speaking circle
  • Self-knowledge, self-development

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The actual models get lost here in the color, but they are actually paper people representing each of the patients.

  • Breathing and relaxation
  • Plastic arts: painting, sculpture, modeling, origami, recycling

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This is sculpture: the person made himself one side smiley one side angry. The reflection that followed was about how the choice is ours in self-regulating our attitude towards the everyday happenings in life.

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Statue made of recycled plastic water bottles

IMG_6967Animals made of metallic cable

  • Singing, theater and mimics
  • Curiosity and imagination

IMG_6972     IMG_6975 IMG_6973 As an example of a creativity activity, they have this book called “The Earth from the Sky” so in group sessions under the tree, they open one random page and show it to the patients and start asking questions: what is it? what might it be? where? why? what happened before the picture was taken? what are your thoughts? your feelings?…

  • Dance: guided and free style (tam-tams in place of course)
  • Viewing of self. Literally.

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They have a small “studio” which a video camera, a USB cord and an old computer. There they record small clips of the patients and show them back to them. A full psychological debrief and reflection follows, patients advice and give each other tips…

  • Free time, reading
  • Story time, documentaries
  • There is also a tailoring workshop where some of the patience learn to dye battiks (the traditional local clothe) to make dresses, tablecloths, drapes…

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I almost wanted to come and live here myself. And Sylvain is SO PASSIONATE about his work it is even contagious! He is full of hope, full of enthusiasm, then we learned by Gregoire that at his… what, 50+ years old he sleeps on a mat in the floor together with the mental ill patients, eats their same food, and he is just the most joyful person ever.

IMG_6986Madame who wanted to be in the picture (can’t avoid that here in Benin), Gregoire, Monica, Sylvain, Sister Silvia and Cecile

Once a month Gregoire also organizes a meeting with all the clients’ families and general public to spread awareness on mental health. From how to support a relative with mental health issues to fighting back the myth that it is witchcraft and bad spirits possessing the person. Oh! so many of these patients have been exposed to the most inhuman tortures in good will to exorcise them from the bad spirits inside of them, when all they have is dementia, depression, a bi-polar disease, or their brain is just not within the parameters of normal, period. People here call them “the fous” (the locos, the crazy ones). Reminds me of a mexican song which makes the point if it is seiner the one who thinks or the one who looks at the moon.

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By the time I took the picture the talk had already finished and just the chairs remained, but under the tree next to the workshops it actually gets pretty crowded. Not bad for a culture that kills or abandons kids who are born different under the label of witch-children.

IMG_6978Voila the “crazy ones” relaxing and chatting under their art on a Saturday afternoon. They smile and very friendly greet you as passing by: “Bonjour madame!”

Oasis of love is a very inspiring place, full of color and really, of love, which provides dignity to its patients, but also a deep inspiration for everybody passing by: foreign volunteers (French, Canadian, Belgian, Senegalese interns fight for a placement to come and spend some time here), local organizations or potential partners as we were. Monsieur Gregoire and Sylvain are so modest and welcoming and transparent, a living example of sharing their talents and gifts with the most vulnerable ones. Incredibly also, two of the happiest people I had ever met.

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Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Need to be crazy to experience art and depth to this level

  1. Aurora

    This post was so moving…. I wish there were more places like this all over the world!

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