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 becauseso he saidhis 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.
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
"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
"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 youand 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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