KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — After a year in and out of the hospital, swinging between hope and hopelessness, Leonnie Mangaza came to this prayer camp in the city of Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo province. A stranger prays on her behalf, and she waits for God to heal her.
In January 2021, Mangaza, a 39-year-old mother of five, started behaving unusually. She would suddenly get up and start taking off her clothes or shouting without any reason. Sometimes she would try to break everything in the house, says her husband, Aristote Juma. Juma took her to Hospital Generale de Reference Makiso, which has the only neuropsychiatric unit in Tshopo, the largest of DRC’s 26 provinces. The hope was that doctors would diagnose her and give her medicine, and the couple could leave after a few days. But things didn’t turn out that way.
The facility has perpetually struggled with a lack of specialists, medicines and adequate care. In fact, in this neuropsychiatric unit, there are no neuropsychiatrists. At any given time, no matter the number of admitted patients, there is only one attending doctor, who is not a specialist in the field, and eight nursing staff members, leaving patients like Mangaza, who are grappling with severe mental health issues, unattended, untreated and, as Juma says, “confused.”
“I had to sell everything in the house just to save my wife. We didn’t know what else to do. I was confused,” he says.
Despite being part of the general hospital, the neuropsychiatric facility does not receive medicines from the hospital pharmacy like other units do. Dr. Aime Zola, the supervising doctor in this unit, says the only medicine that the unit receives from the pharmacy is the anti-anxiety drug diazepam, because it is the cheapest and most necessary medication for this unit. For anything else, patients must take care of themselves. “We only have diazepam. Besides this, the medical prescription is the responsibility of the family, who must organize to find the medication so that patients can be treated,” Zola says.
It doesn’t help, says Dr. Mathieu Kanga, a doctor at the general hospital, that all of Kisangani does not have even one neuropsychiatrist. The hospital, says director Junior Balanga, is not able to provide appropriate care because psychiatric drugs are expensive and the government does not provide support for psychiatric treatment, as they do to treat and prevent diseases like malaria.
Mangaza and Juma sustained their faith in medicine for a year, but eventually, Juma decided to leave the hospital and chase hope elsewhere. Mangaza and Juma are not the only ones. “It is true that this unit suffers from certain constraints on the medical and hospitalization side,” Zola says.
Severe shortages of medicines and specialist doctors in the neuropsychiatric facility are pushing mental health patients in the province to flock to what are locally called “camps de prière,” or prayer camps, for divine intervention. “The doctor kept saying we are going to be fine. But we weren’t. We kept waiting and hoping. Eventually, I left the hospital and came to the prayer camp … and I think today my wife is getting better,” Juma says.
Organized by churches, the prayer camps are physical spaces where “men of God” perpetually pray for the sick, particularly with illnesses that doctors consider incurable. Located on the top floors of homes or churches, these rooms are strewn around Kisangani. Richard Kakonda, the interim legal representative of revival churches in Tshopo province, says, “I can’t give you an exact count of these rooms because these are springing up like mushrooms.” He can’t pinpoint when the first such room opened but says the trend started in the late 1990s.
A typical prayer room contains mattresses for patients, water canisters, pots, plates and buckets. It is a quiet space, with the silence broken only by the sounds of prayers and chants in Swahili at specific times of day. Intercessors aid the process of praying and, in some cases, even fast on behalf of patients. “It takes chains of prayers, not just praising God but imploring him, because God has the power to heal all kinds of illness,” says Patrick Kalongalonga, an intercessor at one of the prayer camps.
As Juma stayed with his wife at the hospital, their five young children stayed with friends and family. Juma says he couldn’t just leave his wife alone. “Even here, in the prayer room, I follow every move she makes. We are always praying. The prayers we recite are specific to each person based on the severity of their problems,” he says.
Mangaza is not the only patient who has come to a prayer camp after disappointment at the hospital.
Kalongalonga says, “We have received these cases several times here. At the moment, we have four cases of the mentally ill who left the hospital to come here, and thanks to prayer, there is an improvement in their condition.”
Another patient, Solange Ekili, says she spent more than six months in the hospital “behaving like crazy without being healed.” Now, she says, she thinks she is regaining her health.
Not far away from these worshippers, every morning, Safi Pangi prays for a miracle, to somehow see her ailing 23-year-old son bloom back to health. But sitting in the neuropsychiatric unit at the general hospital, it seems like a far-fetched dream. “I have been here with my son for six weeks, without sufficient medication for him. I only receive prescriptions for medicines that are not available here, so I must send money to Kinshasa [the capital] for someone to then get the medicine for me,” she says.
But the lack of medicine or care doesn’t stop patients from visiting the unit. The unit registered more than 200 patients last year, Zola says. “Here, support is rare with regard to complicated illnesses such as those of the mentally ill. … Human life is sacred. I have just asked the head of the health division to see how this service can be improved,” says Dr. Marcel Sabiti, who coordinates the government mental health program in Tshopo province.
After six weeks in the unit, Pangi finally gave up. She and her son left for a prayer camp, to see if miracles really happen.