Father John Pesa's spiritual dungeon where the sick walk around in chains

A chained detainee in a room at the Coptic church located in Mamboleo, Kisumu. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

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.

Police officers conducting a search at the church located in Mamboleo, Kisumu. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

"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.

Father John Pesa at the Coptic church in Mamboleo, Kisumu. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

"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.