Jailed for prayers: Inside the church prison for the 'mentally ill'

One of the “mentally ill patients” detained at The Holy Ghost Coptic Church in Kisumu County

One of the “mentally ill patients” detained at The Holy Ghost Coptic Church in Kisumu County peers from his cell on January 22, 2023.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

About 4.8 kilometres from Kisumu City on the Kisumu-Kakamega highway sits the mysterious Coptic Holy Ghost Church.

Its foundation stone was laid in 1971 following the ex-communication of its founder, His Holiness Father John Pesa One, from the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Pesa is loved for his sense of humour and feared in equal measure for the mysterious manner he runs the church.

He is known for walking around with a contingent of armed police officers and private security guards in his retinue.

His church is an architectural masterpiece whose design Father Pesa often boasts of borrowing from Syria and Goa.

Entry to the premises, a yellow and white edifice barricaded behind a live fence buttressed by thick barbed wire, is controlled through a black gate that limits strangers from accessing the church unless cleared by the hawk-eyed guards.

But behind the highly guarded fortress lies dark secrets. The compound hosts several dingy cells where “patients” with mental illnesses who have been brought by their kin for “healing” are held against their will.

A Nation investigation has unearthed flagrant violations of human rights, where innocent people are chained, denied proper meals and kept in solitary confinement where they see the sun only once a week. 

The Nation got a tip from our source who claimed that some people were using the church to get rid of troublesome kin in succession battles.

"Ugly side"

When Nation accessed the compound together with dozens of armed police officers who were on a rescue mission, what we met was the ugly side of a church whose leader rubs shoulders with the high and mighty.

A contingent of police officers at The Holy Ghost Coptic Church in Kisumu

A contingent of police officers at The Holy Ghost Coptic Church in Kisumu to rescue people who had allegedly been detained by Father John Pesa on allegations of being mentally unstable on January 22, 2023.

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

We meet one of the inmates, Ms Millicent Atieno, who screams at us begging us to help her.

She incessantly scratches her body, which is covered in filthy rags. She peers at us from behind thick metal bars that imprison her in a room from where a rancid stench emanates.

In the corner of the room she shares with two other inmates is a yellow bucket which acts as the toilet.

She is said to have been there for close to a year. Ms Ada Adhiambo sits in another room she shares with six others.

She is said to have been brought all the way from Kayole in Nairobi. Her pale skin, white eyes and protruding collarbone betray her deteriorating health.

In yet another tiny cell, Mr Willis Onyango, 40, is shackled to the wall using rusty chains. Father Jared Richard told Nation the “patients” are served three meals a day — porridge in the morning, ugali and vegetables at lunchtime and ugali and beef or other stews in the evening. But our source said they are given food only in the morning and evening.

“Some of these people are not usually given food which is why their bodies are as thin as they appear. The church is lying to the public,” said our source.

Father Jared, however, said the meals are usually prepared by different people at the church but the responsibility of feeding the patients lies on their kin, who are supposed to bring the food to them every day. 

The rooms where the women sleep do not have window panes, exposing them to cold at night.

There are no beddings in the semi-permanent structures whose mud walls have already started falling off.

“We provide them with mattresses but most of them end up tearing them up, eating them or relieving themselves on them. There is little we can do about it,” said Father Jared.

Wayward behaviour

He said workers usually remove the buckets from the rooms every morning and empty them before returning them to the rooms. The inmates are only allowed to leave their rooms on Sundays when they go to church.

The church has been accused of forcing patients to work without pay while in chains, slashing the compound or painting the walls. It’s a claim the church denies.

Other people the church imprisons here include those whose families accuse of wayward behaviour, such as drug addicts and others embroiled with their kin in property disputes.

Only Father Pesa can authorise the release of an inmate.

“Baba [Father Pesa] is the only one who can tell when one is totally cured and then he or she is released,” said Father Jared. In his defence, Father Pesa told the police in his office yesterday that some people are out to tarnish his name and that of the church.

He, however, admitted that there were more than 120 people being held as “patients” at the church last year but the number had reduced to about 30.

The 71-year-old cleric denied holding them against their will.

Coptic Holy Ghost Church leader Father John Pesa

Coptic Holy Ghost Church leader Father John Pesa addresses journalists outside his church on October 14, 2020. 

Photo credit: Tonny Omondi | Nation Media Group

“We do not kidnap these people and bring them here. It is their families who bring them to the church. There is nothing wrong with praying for people to be cured,” said Father Pesa.

He pointed out that they even have forms that have to be signed by families of the people “brought in for prayers”, letters from the assistant chief of the patients as well as their hospital records and authorisation.

On the issue of patients being chained, Father Pesa said some of them are violent and that is the only way to contain them.

“You do not expect us to let these people roam freely yet some have mental health issues. They have to be chained so that they do not attack the other people around them, However, when they become a bit calm, we remove the chains,” he said.

The clergyman added that they also take the patients, especially those infected with HIV, to clinics for medication and have a community health worker who ensures that all the patients take their medication in time.

There are about 60 orderlies, both men and women, who are said to be handling the mentally ill patients.

Asked why they were holding mental patients yet the church is not a registered medical facility, the cleric stated that they were brought to him for healing because the hospitals have failed. 

Staunch defenders

The controversial cleric, however, has staunch defenders in Sister Phylis Masanga and Sister Mary Wanjiku Onyango.

“I have seen miracles performed by Father Pesa. People are only out to tarnish his name. He has cured infertility in men and women. He also cured my father of mental illness. Whatever outsiders are saying is not true, this is a good church and we will correct the few things that have been raised,” said Ms Wanjiku.

Father Pesa is not new to controversy. He was ordered by the High Court in Kisumu to compensate a boy he is said to have refused to free to enable him to prepare for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination in 2017.

The parents of the boy had, instead of taking him for medical treatment, committed him to Father Pesa’s church for “spiritual healing” but were shocked when they visited him in the company of officers from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

He remained in the custody of the church and Father Pesa until May 2019, which was long after the KCSE exams. He missed his studies and taking the national test.

The court was told the boy was shackled in heavy chains and when they demanded for his release, Father Pesa is said to have declined to do so, forcing them to seek legal redress in a battle that saw them frequent the corridors of justice since 2018.

Father Pesa was fined Sh500,000 and together with his Holy Ghost Coptic Church of Africa and another party, he was to pay the boy the cost he incurred in the case plus interest that is to be calculated at court rates.