Did you know that there are ‘prayer camps’ in Togo where people living with mental illnesses are kept in chains or locked up for years? The Sisters Hospitallers’ work in the region, managed by the Province of France, aims to find a solution to this distressing situation. This is ‘the city of the forgotten’.
My name is Esperance Sona and I am a Sister Hospitaller of Congolese nationality (DRC). I hold a degree in Psychiatry and for two years I have been the Director of the Congregation’s Mental Health Clinic in Dapaong, Togo.
In Africa, people living with a mental illness are considered bewitched, and as a consequence, there are several ‘prayer camps’ run by those claiming to be religious guides with the ability to drive away evil spirits.
There, those with a mental disorder spend their days chained to trees under the scorching sun, waiting for eventual release. They are tortured, beaten, starved; and those who, due to their fragile health, cannot bear to stand or be bound in chains, are locked away.
Faced with the realization of this terrible situation, under the initiative of Sister Rosalia Goñi, Provincial Superior of the Province of France, we began a series of visits to the ‘city of the forgotten’, the name given to one of these camps located in Yembour, about 40 Km from Dapaong (Togo), where roughly 30 people living with mental illnesses live with the consent of their families.
We wanted to learn first-hand about this cruel reality that dehumanises these sufferers. The practice of hospitality requires that we help those in need, offering them hope for the future.
After visiting the camp, we decided to launch a project to free these men and women from the yoke imposed by these ‘spiritual leaders’, which deprives them of their dignity. To that end, the Sisters Hospitallers in Togo became involved and committed to a process of dialogue and cooperation with those in charge of the camp, with the aim of providing a hospitable presence that Sister Hospitaller in Africa welcomes, heals, liberates, and comforts those who have been chained for months or even years. We were aware from the outset that this mission would be complicated.
We immediately faced the challenge of finding common ground with the camp’s director, who categorically opposed to releasing the sick from their chains.