Father John Pesa was a little-known spiritual figure until 2021 when he quoted a biblical verse about King Solomon killing Goliath with a stone.
But the verse does not exist. And the Bible does not speak about Solomon battling Goliath, rather it was his father David who did.
His church, the Coptic Holiness, sits on prime land in Kisumu. It is an iconic building painted white and yellow. Flags of East African countries flutter gently in the wind.
Behind the church is a big white cross in the ground. To the left is a lonely grave. No staff here wants to reveal who is buried there.
Church members literally worship Father John Pesa. After leaving their shoes at the door, his followers crawl to seek audience with the high priest.
A visitor to the shrine in Mamboleo would have no inkling about the torture going on behind closed doors.
John Pesa has employed a number of youth to mete out atrocities on hapless detainees who he describes as ‘patients’. All this is done in the name of spiritual healing.
As you enter, a keen ear will pick out the jingle of chains. These sounds are made by ‘patients’ moving around while shackled on the ankles or sometimes even the wrists.
We posed as new converts seeking a church where we could worship. We wanted to be around for a while and mingle with members.
As is the case in prison, the ‘patients’ here are not allowed to have phones or use any other means to communicate with anyone outside the compound. They take breakfast and lunch only and use buckets for toilets, which happens in front of all other inmates in their respective cells.
We meet Brian Onyuro who is in chains. He is a former laboratory science student who was brought here by his relatives. After he completed his studies, the orphaned second-born in a family of three returned home where his tribulations started. He was accused of smoking marijuana, which his uncle didn’t like.
His relatives accused him of stealing and arrested him. He was taken to the police, charged and later acquitted at the Winam law courts in Kisumu. After his release, his relatives took him to Coptic Church and told Father Pesa that he was mentally challenged.
“In September 2021, I was tricked by some of my friends that I accompany them to Kisumu town from Miwani to withdraw money for youth empowerment. Since I was to get a cut, I obliged. Three of us got on a motorcycle and rode off,” said Brian.
They ended up inside the church compound. Brian looked around and didn’t see a bank or financial institution.
“I met my aunt in one of the rooms there. I was not allowed to ask any questions and the boys we were with vanished. I was now in the hands of strangers. My aunt also left after a while,” he said.
Brian is a shadow of his former self. He is frail and thin. He walks carefully not to be hurt by the chains that bind his feet. Another victim that we speak to is from Seme. He has been held at the church since 2019. He said his life has been ruined after being detained following claims that he was using drugs.
Following our quiet interviews with these victims, Father Pesa got suspicious of our activities. He called one of the ‘patients’ to inquire about what we were asking them.
He then took to the pulpit to issue a warning.
“If you are a visitor in this church and have come to worship, behave like a visitor. Don’t start asking my patients why they are chained. If you’re a spy, do things in order and you will be respected,” he shouted.
He then summoned some of the bound men and paraded them before the congregation as if to drive the point home.
“This one is a doctor by profession. He has been brought here. This other one was living in America before he was flown here to get healed. This other one here was a district officer in Nairobi before he became mad and is now healed,” Father Pesa bragged.
The alleged district officer is Peter Ogutu. He is seen in chains in a video on the church’s YouTube channel two years ago. He and others were brought in for ‘healing’.
This incident spurs Brian’s memory about his first day at the church.
“That day in the evening, a man took me to a room upstairs and gave me an empty can. It was my toilet. When I wanted to use it I found it had been used, but I used it anyway,” he said.
Whipping the chained men is the norm. If Brian said anything deemed controversial, guards would be called in to beat him. His back bears the marks of brutality. But Father Pesa is convinced he has been doing a good service to society.
“Chaining of mentally ill patients started during the times of Jesus. Mad people were chained to make them docile. Here we chain them to make them less violent,” he said.
According to him, “all five presidents who have led Kenya know of his healing powers”.
“The government is aware of what’s happening here. Nothing can happen here in Kisumu or Kakamega without the knowledge of the government. All the presidents who have served Kenya know what we do here.”
He also denied claims that the chained men worked for the church for free, which is what we witnessed.
“We accept our patients admitted here to take medicine, bathe, eat well and dress well as we give them spiritual medicine through prayer. Ignore the rumors out there from people who are jealous of us,” he said.
Linet Yogo, a psychologist based in Kisumu, says that what happens at Coptic Church is abuse. According to Ms Yogo, the mentally ill cannot be treated in an institution that lacks health structures and well-trained mental experts.
“We cannot treat our own like animals. We cannot treat our children like beasts in the wild. Someone suffering from substance abuse, if chained and put in that condition, can pick other mental illness like depression, bi-polar and even become schizophrenic,” she said.
Within the compound, there are several small rooms built to hold people. The cells have grills on the windows. Inside, the foul smell of human excrement is strong. The rooms are dirty from the floor to the walls.
Through one of the grills in the cells on the first floor next to the main church, a desperate youth is beckoning to us. We go behind the building and he tells us his story through the window.
He is Petro Odhiambo Aguda. His family brought him here one year and two months ago from Migori. He needed prayers to stop chewing miraa and kick the addiction, they said. That was his last day of freedom.
In another dingy room, four women yearn for freedom. They are dressed in tattered clothes and look wasted. Bedbugs and lice have sucked them dry, leaving them pale and pimpled. They barely access water for bathing, which could go for up to two months.