There has been a growing focus on prayer camps and their activities, especially in relation to their treatment of persons with mental illness and other neuro-psychiatric conditions, which requires some discussion about these camps. Prayer camps are usually lumped into the category of faith-based healers.
The prominence or notoriety of prayer camps and their involvement in mental health treatment have been well documented. Mass media audio-visual documentaries have given added popularity or notoriety of their presence and activities in Ghanaian society.
The origins of prayer camps are not exactly clear. However, their emergence can be linked to the rise of Pentecostal/Charismatic churches. Prayer camps in Ghana are isolated settlements on the outskirts of communities.
The prayer camps are usually a mix of makeshift and permanent structures that serve for religious services and residences. Being tailored for religious/spiritual activities, a prayer camp will have a church or prayer centre and/or holy ground for prayers and other religious/spiritual activities.
The churches or prayer centres are pavilions. The more permanent buildings are usually the residential quarters of the prophet/or prophetess (owner) of the prayer camp, and his/her elders, wise men/ women, managers and assistants or such others. There will also be other cheaper dwellings for the habitation of persons who need to live in the prayer camp for the services they need, mostly mentally ill people and their carers.
Location and activities
The location of prayer camps on the outskirts of communities is for, at least, three reasons. One is biblical. To match or relive the lives biblical prophets lived - in the wilderness. This keeps the prophets holy and insulated from the secular and material world.
The second reason is access to the unfettered and good amount of land for their present activities and for future expansion.
A third reason is for the activities of these prayer camps to be out of prying eyes of the general public. This notwithstanding, a number of the prayer camps have become whole communities inhabited by surrounding community members and former beneficiaries of the camps.
The main activities of the prayer camps are made up of church prayer services, which include all-night prayer and exorcism sessions, bible reading, and consultation and counselling services provided by the prophet/prophetess. Not too visible activities include individual prayer and fasting. Common sights are also of mentally ill people who will be chained to trees or held in rooms provided for them and their accompanying relatives.
The prayers and counselling services provided are to address a range of problems that the clientele present. These include the quest for a job, countering and expelling demons that possess people and which thwart the general success and health of the person, fertility and childbirth, as well as the success of the business and in acquiring a visa to travel to Europe or North America.
Socio-cultural and religious beliefs and values make the followers and clientele of these prophets/ prophetess of prayer camps hold them in high regard. They maintain steady clientele of believers, some of them being well educated and successful business people, including politicians. A majority of their believers, followers and clientele are poor and are females.
Owners of the prayer camps hold themselves as men and women with divine powers which they are using to help humanity. They portray themselves as philanthropists going out of their way to provide not just the spiritual services but also material support to persons in need who come to them, including feeding and accommodation. A number of the prophets and prophetesses encountered have given stories of having supported their clientele through school and other skills training, enabling them to gain employment and have secure livelihoods.
A number of the prophets/ prophetesses revealed their intentions to have medical wings in their prayer camps to provide medical treatment for persons with mental and other physical illnesses. They also mentioned their intention to construct hostels to accommodate people who would come to them.
Despite these positive acts, a notable majority of the prayer camps are holding mentally ill people in their camps to treat them. For practitioners in mental health, the mention of prayer camp is synonymous with situations of shackled or chained mentally ill persons thinly clad, and usually hungry or angry looking or just with an indifferent countenance. Discussion of prayer camps tends to focus on the excesses and violations of the personal and human rights of people with mental illness in their camps for ‘treatment’ and rightly so.