MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 2

JOHN GOARNISSON


I MET FATHER Goarnisson at a quarter-past seven in the morning and we walked over to his hospital. He is a stocky bearded man of sixty. From early boyhood, Father John Goarnisson wanted to be a missionary priest, but his father had other ideas. He was a doctor and he insisted that his son should be a doctor too. John obeyed, but as soon as he had qualified as a doctor of medicine he went to the White Fathers' Seminary of Philosophy in his native France and asked to be admitted as a student for the missionary priesthood.

That was back in 1922 and, after the usual seven years training, John was ordained priest at Carthage in 1929 and sent to a refresher course in medicine to specialise in tropical diseases. He paid special attention to eye diseases because of their prevalence in Africa. He has now been working in West Africa for twenty-seven years and the tales told of him are legendary.

Seeing his intelligent bright eyes twinkling with humour I could quite believe the story I heard of a French Officer in the area who was inspecting his troops and was horrified to discover that one of his men had suddenly developed a remarkable squint. "What on earth's happened to your eye, man?" he asked. "Nothing, sir," replied the astonished soldier. "But it's all twisted - go to Father Goarnisson at once." Transport was called and the man soon stood before the priest-doctor to whom he explained that his Captain had sent him because—so he said—his eye was twisted. Father Goarnisson examined the man's eye and chuckled.

"Your Captain doesn't know that you've an artificial eye, I suppose?" he enquired. "Perhaps not, Father, he has only just come to us." "Good," said Father Goarnisson, "don't tell him. Just say I put your eye right." With that he removed the artificial eye, put it back the right way round and sent the man back to his regiment. The amazed Captain has never lived it down.

We walked over from the mission and approached a lemon grove planted by Father Goarnisson to provide Vitamin C, which is so lacking in the local diet. In the shade of the lemon trees a couple of hundred Africans were patiently awaiting attention. The Sisters would be able to deal with most of the patients, the rest would be passed on to the doctor. By half-past eleven up to a thousand patients would have been dealt with, and the surgery over for the day.

The clinic was divided into three sections, "Eyes", "Maternity", and "General Dressings", with a White Sister in charge of each section. African nuns trained by Father Goarnisson assisted them. In one room, two of these Africans were using microscopes. I looked through one and saw tiny dots linked together: "Meningitis", said the Sister.

A man said to me: "I speak English small, small". He had walked four hundred miles from Ghana. A woman patient had been a fortnight on the road from Mopti, hundreds of miles to the North. The varied styles of dress and hair told their own tale of the different tribes represented at the clinic that morning, where at least half the patients were eye cases.

At one time Father Goarnisson was so busy removing cataracts that he could find little time for anything else, so he decided to train his own "surgeons". He could not hope to provide Africans with a full course of medicine and surgery, but he could train his Sisters to do one specific job. He got as many eyes of dead animals as he could and, using them as specimens, he set to work. In six weeks two Sisters could remove cataracts quite safely from human eyes, and in a year twelve of them were doing it every day.

He pointed out to me a little African nun. "That one has two hundred successful operations to her credit, and the White Sister over there has removed six hundred cataracts and has lost count of the number of trachomas on which she has operated."

I asked the Doctor what the Government thought about these improvised "surgeons".

"Government? Oh, delighted! These nurses now have State certificates. Some of the White Sisters do other minor operations, and that leaves me time to attend to the major ones. When I began to use the White Sisters as 'surgeons' they soon had no time to attend to other work, and that led me to train African nurses and establish my General Nursing School. I needed a textbook in Mossi, so I wrote it. In the last twenty-five years the School has turned out a thousand nurses and all the hospitals in this part of West Africa are now served from it”.

During the morning I saw many patients with a strange kind of eye trouble, obviously not cataracts. The Doctor told me that at first, because he could not find the cause of the disease, he had been able to do little about these cases. "By elimination," said Father Goarnisson, "I came, at last to insects. Everyone knows how Africans ignore insects on their faces. The children had great fun, because I asked them to bring me everything they could find crawling, jumping or flying, and I soon had an insect zoo. Later I discovered a small fly which had a flaky substance on its feet. When I mixed this with the liquid taken from a human eye it produced a chemical reaction which burned into the eye tissue. Finally I found the counter agent and the job was done." "Hm," said I, "it sounds very simple!" Then, remembering something I had been told I asked: "Didn't you have something to do with sleeping sickness?"

"Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I got so busy with it that it became another reason why I had to turn my nurses into 'surgeons'. When I first came here, twenty-seven years ago, people were dying like flies from sleeping sickness. I needed a lot of help and that really started me off training picked Africans to do things themselves. The Administration approved and the School became the official centre for training anti -sleeping sickness teams. We have turned out over four hundred good assistants. The disease has practically disappeared now from this area."

"There was more to it than that really," he went on. "A large number of the cases we cured with the standard drug went blind in those early days. I tried to find out why and made a significant discovery. People who got over the disease without our help did not go blind, and so I examined the drug we were using. I found that too much of it attacked the optic nerve, but we could not reduce the dosage and cure the sleeping sickness; we had to find another drug. I reported my finding to the medical suppliers, but could not wait for them to discover a way out. It was a long job, but eventually I found a poison that would kill the infection and spare the patient's eyes. So, today, a lot of people are alive and many can see who would otherwise be either dead or blind."

While we were talking the phone rang. "Yes," said the Doctor, answering it, "certainly, right away." He sent a boy for a lorry and explained that a White Father sixty miles away was very ill, and had no transport. He arranged for a nurse and a driver, then had mattresses placed in the lorry and saw it off on its mission of charity. As it drove off a Sister brought in a child with infantile paralysis. "We can usually save them, if only they will bring them in soon enough," said Father Goarnisson.

I began to be conscience-stricken about taking up his time, and rose to go. "What's the hurry, Father?" he asked in surprise. I muttered something about wasting his time. "Don't worry about that," he replied, "I want to help you—and it's all organised, you know. There is something else I should like you to see," he continued. He took me outside to a group of huts. "Lots of these poor people come a long way," he said, "and so we arrange to put them up here." There were two Christian widows breaking up firewood; three more were busy in the kitchen. A meal was being prepared not only for the visitors, but also for the very poor of the district. You would think he had more than enough to do with the sick, but he could not neglect the poor. He had even established an orphanage to which he took me at feeding time. "Nice kiddies, aren't they?'" he asked.

One mite, aged nine months, finished his bottle and lustily tossed it away empty."He always does that," chuckled my companion. "We picked him up one day near a well: his mother had died and he was abandoned." Father Goarnisson then told me what had led him to start the orphanage and how it got its name "The Drop of Milk".

"When I first came out here, a blind old African taught me the language, and he told me a lot about the customs of his people. He told me that twins were killed at birth, and their bodies put in a large anthill through a hole made at its base. The ants dealt with the bodies of those tiny innocents. Their crime was that they were twins and thought to be evil spirits, dangerous to those around them. Some years later, I learned for myself what fear of the evil spirits could do. A newborn babe was brought to me; he had been found abandoned near a well. I learned that his mother had died in giving birth, and the father had died a few days earlier. There was no doubt in anyone's mind - this child was a 'Kinkiga', it was not real child at all but an evil spirit which must be got rid of at once. So the baby was put near a well, and normally a hyena would soon have carried it off. Happily, it was not a hyena that first passed that way, but two nuns, and they brought the child to me. We gave him a drop of milk, and managed to rear him. And that's how we started this orphanage."

Dozens of abandoned children have also been adopted by Christian families and enjoy a normal, happy childhood. "You ought to go out to see one or two of the Bush clinics if you can. We have the whole area covered now, thanks to the little African nuns, and we have been able to put up quite a number of Bush chapels," he said. I laughed: "What do you do with your spare time, Father?" I asked. He chuckled: "Well, as a matter of fact, I close down the clinic on Sundays so that I can do some ministry in the mission."

Father Goarnisson joins the other priests for the weekend confessions and on the Sunday he has a class of three hundred "specials" for baptism. "I take the old men and the blind," he said, "they need special care."

The man was incredible. On our way back to his office he spoke a word to everyone we passed. I was told that he spoke Mossi like a native and could use two hundred and fifty Mossi proverbs: "So useful to clinch an argument or drive your point home," he said. Back in the office he showed me his collection of polycopied medical textbooks which he had written for his students.

A short time before my visit Father Goarnisson was elected deputy to the Local Council by an overwhelming majority at the elections, and he had calmly shouldered this extra burden in local government.

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