Benin: For more than 50 years, Brother Florent Priuli has been saving human lives

Benin: For more than 50 years, Brother Florent Priuli has been saving human lives

He was the guest of the Great Catholic Conferences in Brussels last December.

With a wool scarf tied around his neck, a smile on his lips and a mischievous look, brother Florent Priuli, of Italian origin, is only passing through Brussels. It has been his “home” for more than 50 years in the north-west of Benin, in Tanguieta, on the borders of Togo, Burkina Faso and Niger, on the edge of the Pendjari national park. An area now crossed by violence imported by jihadists. “They sometimes come for treatment in a medical center which is even closer to the border than our hospital. Staff were instructed not to ask questions. Of course, we take care of them, that’s our mission”explains Florent Priuli, who has been managing the destiny of the Tanguieta hospital for half a century. “These people have money. A bag of corn which normally costs 5,000 CFA francs (7.50 euros), they are capable of paying 8,000 (12 euros) to 10,000 francs (15 euros) but woe to those who refuse to sell to them, they will have their throats cut”explains Brother Priuli who, since the beginning of the 1970s, has lived a thousand lives in this end of the world.

“The first time I came, for what you could call a mission to discover the place, it was market day. There were just 20 people. I remember a shop that sold three pieces of sugar and as many matches individually. There was no money, it was barter, smiles Brother Florent, who continues: the hospital was already there but there was no one there either, the 82 beds were empty. When we had a visitor, I moved some beds, I had the feeling that it seemed less empty”he continues with his slight Italian accent in a great burst of infectious laughter.

Today, the Tanguieta hospital has 450 beds, all occupied. “We have to put mattresses on the floor. There are people everywhere. 450 beds, in fact, is too few to accommodate everyone but it is too much for our team, that is our big concern. »

“Help women”

Success, recognition, he owes them first to his work, even if he prefers to talk “of providence”. Hours, days, weeks spent treating women in this hospital which has become a benchmark, particularly for its maternity and pediatric services. “Until then, women gave birth at home, the mortality rate was very high both among future mothers and newborns. We started the maternity ward in 1979 with two beds, today we have 60 and that is sometimes too few. We were able to demonstrate, over time, that we could really take care of these future mothers. We are not very expensive and we have made cesarean sections free. We practice a lot of it at home. Many women come to us at the end of their journey. They first started work at home, before going to the dispensary or a medical center. But as soon as things get complicated, they are sent to us, which explains the large number of cesareans, continues Brother Florent before releasing, in a burst of laughter, “The poor state of the roads helps us a little. Some women, due to repeated shocks, give birth in the ambulance. »

International success

Word of mouth quickly worked. Patients started coming from further and further away. Sometimes more than 1,000 km from Niger, Togo, Burkina Faso, to leave it in the hands of Brother Florent. “Foreigners are getting organized. They regularly rent minibuses to travel in small groups, particularly from Ouagadougou, which is a little over 400 km away with two borders to cross. Today, with insecurity, it is no longer like before. But they still come despite the danger. The drivers know the roads where it is possible to bribe guards. This means that journey prices have soared, going from 1,000 CFA francs (€1.50) to 20,000 francs (€30). But they come. »

In half a century of working in these very particular conditions, cut off from everything, Brother Florent has seen many colleagues pass through. Westerners came for a few weeks to help and enrich it technically. “There is always something inspiring about working alongside other specialists“. But he also has this desire to train a new generation of surgeons who will one day be able to take up the torch. “I am in my 78th year, we must prepare for the future. Many of the surgeons who came to complete their training at Tanguieta have left for other hospitals where they can earn a better living and be closer to their loved ones. Here, it’s a bit like the end of the world even if the region has developed a little, mainly thanks to the success of the hospital. But today, I think I can count on a good team who can take over. There may be fewer people, I have a bit of this white wizard label which reassures patients, but it will continue. The problem is money. To treat everyone, we charge very low prices. The Beninese government pays us 125 million CFA francs (€190,000), that’s one month’s salary for the staff. We have to make do for the other 11 months. We have a few patrons, I give conferences when I come to Europe, I try to meet as many people as possible but with the current crisis, everything is more complicated. We may have to limit the number of beds and employees. In Tanguieta, there are 350, which also means that we support 350 families. So these are difficult decisions. We have achieved real miracles. We also experienced failures. But the fight is worth fighting. I have the example of this young girl who fell from a mango tree. She had a compound fracture. The bones were in contact with the earth. The parents waited 2 weeks to come to the hospital. When she arrived, she was followed by a cloud of flies. It was gangrene. I had to amputate his arms. I tried to cut as narrowly as possible. Today, this little girl is a teenager. She is first in class. She has superb writing. If she continues like this, we’ll find her teaching at the university.”he says in a burst of voice that combines laughter and tears. “When we see that, we no longer feel tired, we forget financial worries. We just tell ourselves that we have to continue, again and again.”

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