May 21, 2023

A religious community retreated into the forests of eastern Kenya. Then they turned into a starvation cult

Rebecca Armitage, Lucia Stein and Lucy Sweeney


The man who walked into Langobaya Police Station had such a horrific story to tell, it seemed almost unbelievable.

WARNING: Readers might find the details in this story distressing.

He told officers that he was gravely worried for his young nephews, who were living in the forest with their parents in eastern Kenya.

The man's brother and his wife had taken them there to join a doomsday cult, run by a preacher, who claimed that they could meet Jesus through starvation.

He was terrified something had happened to them, so police agreed to trek out to the 320-hectare property in the Shakahola forest.

Amid the low-lying scrub and red earth, they made a horrifying discovery.

Two of the man's nephews had died and were buried in shallow graves, while a third was emaciated and close to death.

The boy, just 8 years old, was rushed to hospital where he is reportedly recovering.

Police arrested the parents on suspicion of starving and then smothering their two children.

They also detained Paul Mackenzie, a taxi driver-turned-televangelist, for allegedly inciting the parents to kill their children.

But when Mackenzie came before a magistrate, he denied having anything to do with the cult, claiming he had stopped preaching years before.

"I am shocked about the accusations placed before me," he said.

"I closed my church in 2019 … If a person used to worship with me then, they should do it on their own now and not by my name. Follow Christ and not Pastor Mackenzie."

Police asked for the suspect to be held without charge for 30 days while they investigated.

But in a fateful decision, the magistrate declined, releasing Mackenzie on bail for $109.

Investigators now allege that Mackenzie went straight from the magistrate's court back to Shakahola forest.

There, he allegedly told his followers that his prophecy was wrong.

Mackenzie had initially claimed the world would end in August, when he predicted Satan would begin his 1,000-year long rule of Earth.

But with authorities closing in, the alleged cult leader moved the date up. They had just weeks left to enact his ghoulish plan.

The cab driver who became a preacher

Paul Nthenge Mackenzie was an impoverished cab driver in the coastal city of Malindi when he met a woman who would change his life.

Unimpressed by the Baptist church where she was a parishioner, Ruth Kahindi decided she wanted to strike out on her own.

She had always liked Mackenzie, another parishioner who she said raised eyebrows in their church for his intense fire-and-brimstone sermons.

Together, they founded the Good News International Church in 2003, which grew so popular that they soon built their own house of worship from materials donated by their flock.

But Kahindi soon grew uncomfortable with the tenor of Mackenzie's sermons.

"He started preaching things that we did not agree with, telling the congregants not to take their children to school or to go to the hospital when they were sick. I tried to talk him out of it, but unfortunately, I did not succeed," she told Nation Africa.

"I left the church to him. He was a little boy and I saw there was no need for me to argue with him."

By 2017, Mackenzie was a popular televangelist, broadcasting his increasingly aggressive doomsday sermons on his own gospel channel Times TV, as well as on YouTube.

He claimed that he could communicate directly with God, and demanded his female followers shave their heads, forced members of his flock to quit their jobs and pull their children out of school, and warned them that the "end times" were near.

Mackenzie was arrested later that year for promoting extremist beliefs after he claimed that formal education was "not recognised in the Bible".

He was released on bail and his TV station was shut down.

But in 2019 he was detained again for alleged radicalisation after he railed against a digital ID scheme that would give Kenyans greater access to government services.

He warned his followers that registering for an ID card was akin to selling their soul to the devil.

Again, Mackenzie was released on bail. But this time he'd had enough.

He shocked his flock by announcing that he was closing down the Good News International Church and retreating into Shakahola forest.

He said those who wished to join him could purchase small plots in what he described as his new "holy land".

Hundreds followed him to the forest, where they were beyond the reach of authorities, and totally under Mackenzie's control.

Nightmare in the new 'holy land'

In April, several weeks after the bodies of the two boys were discovered, Kenyan police received another tip.

A man was distressed because his wife and daughter had left him to join the cult and never returned.

Investigators returned to the forest and executed a more thorough search of the property.

They found 15 emaciated people in such dire condition that they immediately rushed them to hospital for treatment. Four of them died before they got there.

As they searched the property, the horror kept unfolding.

More than 200 bodies have been found buried in shallow graves. In one pit, an entire family was found slain.

Autopsies showed that the victims died of starvation, strangulation, suffocation and blunt trauma.

Survivors and their families told police that the situation in the commune had spiralled out of control in recent weeks.

Mackenzie allegedly told his followers that they must fast to death to ascend to heaven.

Survivors say he told his flock that the children should be first, then the women, and then his male followers. He claimed he would be the last to join them.

"He lived a lavish life inside the vast Shakahola ranch where he would be seen feasting," police alleged in their report.

"If questioned about his appetite he claimed that he needs the energy to preach God's gospel."

Authorities are now searching the forest for cult members who might still be hiding among the trees where they can continue their fast.

Soon after his arrest, Mackenzie appeared in court, looking well fed and dressed in a vibrant pink Puma jacket.

Prosecutors say he could face murder and terrorism charges. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The case has caused shock waves throughout Kenya.

"How did evil of such an astounding magnitude take place without being detected?" asked Amason Kingi, speaker of the Kenyan senate.

"How did this 'pastor' gather so many people, indoctrinate, brainwash and starve them to death in the name of fasting and then bury them in a forest without being detected?"

But some in Kenya say rogue pastors have long been an insidious presence in the deeply religious nation, luring innocent people into joining dangerous churches and cults.

The rise of Kenya's dodgy preachers

Sub-Saharan Africa has been a stronghold of Christianity for centuries, and while evangelical denominations have fallen out of favour in some parts of the world, they are thriving here.

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates more than 80 per cent of the Kenyan population are Christian, many of whom identify as evangelical.

After Kenya gained independence in 1963, Christian churches began springing up all over Nairobi, as foreign missionaries flooded in.

By the 1980s, televangelists and Pentecostal preachers were a mainstay, and today there are as many as 8,000 registered churches dotted across the country. Only 32 are legally recognised.

While Kenya remains a secular state, religion and politics have long been intertwined.

Last year the country elected its first evangelical Christian president, William Ruto.

He snagged a win with just over 50 per cent of the vote, a result described by the Supreme Court Chief Justice as "a work of God".

As he climbed the political ranks, the man who calls himself "the hustler" amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune, drawn from his private business interests, extensive real estate portfolio and a large chicken farm.

Much of that wealth has funnelled back to the church, through splashy donations at local "harambees" — the fundraising events that are a long-standing tradition in Kenya's Christian communities.

French newspaper Le Monde reported last year that in the first six months of 2018, he donated $US600,000 ($900,000) to the churches, "both in cash and in kind – including cars", an amount estimated to be around 12 times his salary as vice-president.

But Ruto has never gone to great efforts to hide these donations, dismissing his critics and preaching to congregations: "I urge you to ignore those who are opposed to building the church."

The mass starvation of a religious cult in a forest will likely pose a challenge to Ruto's leadership, as well as his symbolic status as Kenya's most powerful Christian.

As the case made national and international headlines, questions have swirledover how the preacher and his followers were able to avoid detection by authorities.

Local media reported Kenyans had expressed outrage at how the government handled the case amid claims the team deployed to carry out the exhumationsand rescue operation had complained over a lack of adequate manpower.

Ruto has taken responsibility for the disaster.

"I am not taking it lightly. I am taking responsibility that as president this should not have happened," he said in a joint interview with Kenyan news outlets late on Sunday.

"It should not have happened when we have all the agencies. We have our intelligence, we have our CID [Criminal Investigations Department], we have chiefs and all the other people in the whole of that ecosystem."

What will happen to the elusive cult leader?

The president has described Mackenzie as a terrorist who should be thrown in jail.

"Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mackenzie are using religion to do the same thing," he said.

Mackenzie remains in police custody but has not yet been required to enter a plea, despite appearing in court last month.

His lawyer says he is cooperating with the investigation.

Meanwhile, authorities have begun the second phase of exhumation efforts to recover more bodies in the forest.

The president has set up a commission of inquiry into the cult deaths, with a remit to "review the legal and regulatory framework governing religious organisations".

But for the victims and their families who fell under Mackenzie's power, it is far too late.

"He is like an evil spirit with this strange power to lure people into his trap," Elizabeth Syombua, the sister of one of the men starving in the wilderness, said.

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