Behind the Lens in West Africa

Behind the Lens in West Africa

Gian-Paolo Mendoza, a recent graduate of the International Reporting Program at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, was part of a team that helped the New York Times tell the challenging story of prayer camps in West Africa. Here is his first-person narrative about the experience of covering this subject and what it brought to his life and career as a result.

A story by GP Mendoza

Last December, I went to West Africa with my fellow journalism school reporters Linda Givetash, Maura Forrest, and our instructor and producer, David Rummel.

We were tasked with putting together a chapter on Benin and Togo, two very small countries, as part of a larger journalism project on mental illness in the developing world. This was a fully funded reporting trip that enabled us to go — and report from — a place in the world I would never have otherwise thought to visit.

We saw things there that surprised and shocked us about how people with mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are treated. We filmed scenes that are going to live with us for the rest of our lives.

This trip was my first time doing journalism abroad, and my low retention of high school French was suddenly and painfully obvious. Moreover, it was the first time I was assigned duties as the principal shooter (the person in charge of operating the main camera and capturing major scenes).

In 2012, I had been to Central Africa before, as a volunteer with my church, to the Republic of Congo. In the two weeks I spent there, I had an idea of what a French-speaking African country looked, smelled, and sounded like. But I had no idea what the experience in West Africa was going to be like.

Benin is an incredibly tiny country. Nobody I knew had any idea where it even was. When I couldn’t find the country on a map, I wondered, quite literally, where on earth was I going?

The anxiety abated somewhat when we landed in Cotonou, the largest metropolitan center in Benin. Things suddenly felt oddly familiar — the sounds of traffic, street hawkers, oddly-painted hair salons and electronics store signs, and Christian motifs on every doorstep — while overwhelming, were all welcoming me back to Africa.

The tail end of our trip found us reporting in Togo, a neighbouring country to Benin and remarkably, even smaller in geography. It was here we would experience one of the most shocking surprises of our life, and capture what would become one of the most important scenes in the entire project on global mental health.


From the Director

Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)

In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.

Our media partners have included The Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.

We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”

From the Instructor

An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

Shooting and Working in West Africa

Shooting and Working in West Africa

There is also a widely held belief that mental illness is caused by demon possession and incurable without traditional medicine or spiritual intervention.

I had worked in commercial video and photography in Vancouver for a few years, but that was a world far from the rugged and demanding environments this project entailed.

Before going to Africa, I had little idea as to how much things cost. Flights, hotels, meals, wages for drivers, fuel, fixers (local journalists to help connect you with people for the film), water; all these things added up more quickly than I had originally imagined. I was constantly learning about the realities this kind of production presented — I couldn’t conceive of doing something like this on my own without any prior knowledge of the amount of financial and material resources required.

Luckily, we had a seasoned journalist working and mentoring us through the entire trip.

Our instructor and executive producer Dave really pushed us to keep the focus of our story clear. He was extremely cognizant of things that you wouldn’t normally care to think about; things like the driving distance between cities, always reminding us to ask ourselves what the focus of our story was at the end of each day, always pushing us to think of what footage and interviews we would need before each new day began, and generally keeping us on our toes throughout the trip.

It probably goes without saying that gathering all our story elements in the field was exponentially more fun than sitting in class. In West Africa, our minds were active nearly every waking minute. All the theory we learned in class — the ingredients of good journalism — all took a back seat every time we hopped out of the van into the 40-degree heat to start another gruelling day of shooting.

The story we were covering was about a man named Gregoire Ahongbonon who had devoted his entire life to building care clinics for people with mental illness. With little government support and minimal funding, he built clinics on the Ivory Coast and in Benin, where people receive care, shelter, and treatment. The number of psychiatrists and institutions are extremely low in these countries, and state-run institutions are expensive and inaccessible to most people. There is also a widely held belief that mental illness is caused by demon possession and incurable without traditional medicine or spiritual intervention.

Interviewing patients at the Saint-Camille de Lellis clinic in Avrankou, Benin
Interviewing patients at the Saint-Camille de Lellis clinic in Avrankou, Benin.
A patient learns to weave
A patient learns to weave.
Patients sew dresses and skirts
Patients sew dresses and skirts.
A traditional healer demonstrates a ceremony with a patient
A traditional healer demonstrates a ceremony with a patient.
Prayer centres

Prayer Centres

Dave and Maura interview the pastor about his operation

Part of our story required us to capture images of what the circumstances were like for people living with mental illness in Benin and Togo, who have no other alternative. We had been in touch with a young Catholic priest named Father David from Togo, who was our point of contact for Gregoire Ahongbonon.

David had told us via email that he had visited a couple of places called “Prayer Centres” which were a few hours drive north from the capital, Lome. These are places mostly run by evangelical churches. People come to pray for healing, fertility, wealth, and numerous other “blessings” that the pastors promise them. There are various prayer centres across Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and other West African countries.

David told us that we might be allowed access to what he thought might have been one of the biggest prayer centres in the country.

He also told us that he couldn’t sleep at night after visiting it himself.

We had called the pastor in charge to let him know we were coming, but with how intimidating all of our filmmaking equipment looked, we didn’t know if we were even going to get into the centre. It was in the last days of our trip, and we didn’t sleep much on the night before the shoot.

We travelled there with Gregoire, the founder of the NGO we were covering, along with a volunteer Italian psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse, who were traveling with him as visitors.

Whether it was nerves or excitement or both, we were anxious to visit the centre. We started our day at 3am, the day after we entered Togo from Benin.

With our cameras rigged up and ready to record, we arrived at the prayer centre in the early evening. It was called “Jesus is the Solution,” and it was located at the end of an hour-long drive down a bumpy dirt road through rural Togo.

The pastor was a tall man who wore an extraordinarily shiny watch and nice leather shoes. He invited us onto his porch for a prayer, where we explained what we were doing and what we would use the footage for. The entire negotiation only took about half an hour. I sat in nervous silence, unsure if we were going to be able to go inside.

The pastor hesitated, giving it some thought. Eventually, he let us in.

He walked with us through his property. We passed a large open-walled sanctuary, where he held prayer gatherings every week, and a number of smaller concrete buildings, where people sat on the steps and stared at us as we walked in.

He took us to a row of cells, each occupied by a single person.

I didn’t think any of it was real. The scene happening all around me felt so horrific that it had to be unreal, but it wasn’t.

They were all chained to small metal loops on the concrete. We immediately started taking photos and filming. While the pastor was distracted talking to my partner Maura, I walked past the cells.

The nurse had gone ahead of me already. She grabbed my arm and stopped me. She subtly nodded her head in the direction around where the row of cells ended. I walked around and immediately stopped moving.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Real people, chained to trees, sitting far apart from each other, entirely alone.

There appeared to be over 150 people. Some were naked; others were having what seemed like aggressive psychotic episodes. We found out later that they are chained outside for months, weeks, and in some cases, even years.

Sensory overload is understating my experience of that place. Some people were screaming, there was a church prayer service going on where the preacher and congregation were having an extremely loud and impassioned prayer session during worship, and it smelled like a foul combination of smoke and many different kinds of body odours. I could pick up a faint scent of human waste when I crouched down for the lower shots.

I didn’t think any of it was real. The scene happening all around me felt so horrific that it had to be unreal, but it wasn’t. Already overwhelmed by the collective human suffering, it disturbed me further when the pastor thought it necessary to have his friends supervise us as we filmed around his centre. One of them was peeking over my shoulder to check what I was filming, and lingered around my partner and myself as we shot our photos and footage.

The pastor then called in his personal film crew, with tape camcorders and bright LED lights, to start filming us as we were interviewing him and filming the people. We learned later that he hires the crew for when he preaches his healing and revival sermons in big cities. It was a stark juxtaposition with the people chained to trees in the dark.

All we saw were cameras and bright lights pointed at us whenever we took a step, which only served to attract a large crowd around us. To think all this could happen on a school trip was surreal. My teammates would probably be in agreement that there was simply nothing our instructors or professors could have prepared us for when it came to the prayer centres.

  • Dave and Maura interview another prayer centre pastor

    Dave and Maura interview another prayer centre pastor, who runs a much smaller operation.

  • The harrowing nature of the prayer centre

    One image encapsulates the harrowing nature of the prayer centre.

  • Patient chained at a prayer centre

    This woman is one of over 150 patients chained at this prayer centre.

  • A man sits idle inside this prayer centre in Togo

    A man sits idle inside this prayer centre in Togo.

What I Learned

What I Learned

Journalism became real for me that day. For the first time in my life, it felt like I was doing something that might actually make a difference in somebody else’s life.

It was an invaluable first experience into the world of international reporting, and I’m glad it was as guided as it could be. The project was explorative, not just for my journalistic and documentary abilities, but for my own humanity as well. I experienced a response to horrors—unimaginable to me before my trip to Togo—that I had never felt before and in turn, I learned how I react in high-pressure reporting scenarios.

I had never felt my empathy completely shutting down before in reaction to a horrific sight. As hard as that might be to wrestle with, I hope it will prepare me for doing more serious reporting in the future.

This story is one small chapter in a much larger story that needs attention. There is a strong human rights narrative running through the IRP series for the New York Times, and behind that narrative are over 150 faces I have seen in Togo. I hope our work on this story inspires and ignites new stories about mental health and humanity to be told. Issues of mental health need to be addressed and hopefully stories such as these, as shocking as they may seem to many viewers, are what is needed to highlight this global crisis.

GP Mendoza

About the Author

Gian-Paolo (GP) Mendoza is a journalist and filmmaker from Vancouver, B.C.

He loves crafting stories driven by real people and captivating pictures.

He is finishing his last year at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, and equally loves a good documentary and a strong cup of coffee.

Story Credits

Author: GP Mendoza

Guest author: Peter Klein, Director and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism

Photo credits: GP Mendoza, David Rummel, Linda Givetash

Thank you: Team Benin: Maura Forrest and Linda Givetash, and the IRP Faculty: David Rummel, Peter Klein, Kathryn Gretsinger, and Videsh Kapoor

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator, Digital Information Channels; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer. Additional research and copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor and Researcher.

Published: June 2015