Imagine that when you came into the world, your family and society saw your coming as a curse. Imagine that you, this cursed child, were most likely going to be killed. What will you do to escape this fate, this ‘destiny’, when all the odds seem set against you, a defenceless baby, if no adult stands up to fend for you?
Today, I am inspired by Germain Coulibaly Kalari from Côte d’Ivoire. The story that I want to share with you really begins in 1996, when this then 34 years old priest is appointed at the catholic parish of Katiola, in northern Côte d’Ivoire. Katiola was and still is region deeply attached to its traditions, where Christians go to church on Sunday and worship spirits and geniuses the rest of the week.
But Father Germain’s greatest fight was not so much to going to be to ask people to abandon all their culture and traditions but to abandon most inhuman parts of it, practices that had no place in modern times. The most merciless amongst them: the killing of children said to be cursed simply because of the circumstances of their birth or physical handicaps they were born with.
“A child whose mother dies giving birth to him or a child born with a disability is eliminated, because society hold him responsible of the death of their parent or his or her own deformity. That is sadly the reason you will hardly find any disabled person in our area.”
When a child is born in such circumstances, some ethnic groups are convinced that a spell has been cast on their family and that only the death of the child will remove that spell. As it is forbidden by law, it is done in secret and people will talk about it is veiled terms, referring to it as ‘sending back’ the child (sending him back to the spirits that sent him).
Germain made the fight against this practice his main fight, relentlessly exhorting his flock – from the altar or when he met them in the community – to abandon these practices, which by the way were also prohibited by law.
He probably thought that no one would really listened to him, but one day he found a baby at the presbytery door. His name was with a word:
“Since you do not want to be killed, take care of it.”
His name was Gérard, a beautiful baby whose mother had unfortunately died giving birth to him.
And then another child was brought to him, and then another. Later, he learned that the children were brought by midwives who had attended those mothers and could not accept that the child would be taken away to be drowned in the river.
Germain decided that it was God’s will and turned part of the parish buildings into an orphanage. He called it “Sainte Genevieve”, a saint recognized for her courage and her selflessness in service of others.
With the help of a nanny, a cook and a woman household, he tried to give them the family they could not have. It was a saving gesture for these children! The orphanage has continued to grow over the years, welcoming even children from other parts of the country.
Germain officially registered the centre and, with the support of his bishop and with the help of benefactors – including members of his community – he rehabilitated a house in Katiola where he set up a dormitory for girls and a dormitory for children, with bunk beds and a room for babies and an apartment for the staff. The living room is filled with books and toys, and the kids are all gradually enrolled in school when they reach the age to enter school.
Today, ten years after its creation, the centre welcomes nearly 24 young people at a time, from babies to teenagers. Miraculous survivors of our darkest traditions!
The centre tries to offer these children a normal family life. The day begins with a morning prayer and breakfast before taking the children are taken to school. The youngest stay at the centre, innocently having fun in the yard like any other child of their age.
A life that looks normal, but it is unfortunately anything but normal.
Germain knows that this path might be a lifelong journey as it is not easy changing attitudes and awakening consciences. But he is as courageous as Sainte Genevieve and he will not allow any obstacle to stop his mission.