Authorities continue to exhume bodies as death toll runs into hundreds. Photo: Reuters

By Emmanuel Onyango

Many people in Kenya and beyond are still in shock and disbelief as more bodies are being exhumed following mass deaths linked to the activities of a cult group in the Kilifi county in the south-east of the country.

The horror which first came to light in April, is even more agonising for relatives of the victims including women and children – who were allegedly told by the cult leader to starve themselves in order to see ‘Jesus.’

"We have never seen a religion where breastfeeding women and infants are forced to fast," Zipporah Kwamboka, who last saw her brothers in 2021, tells TRT Afrika.

A third round of exhumation of bodies linked to a Kenyan murder cult started this week near Shakahola forest.

The death toll has climbed to over 250 after nearly a dozen bodies were unearthed on Tuesday, and the authorities fear hundreds more are still scattered across the vast forest near the coastal town of Malindi.

Zipporah's brothers are still missing since joining the cult in 2021. Photo: Others

The deaths appear to have been caused by starvation, but some victims - including children- had signs of strangulation or suffocation, according to government-appointed pathologists.

Anxious wait

Police believe the bodies belong to followers of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a taxi driver-turned evangelical leader of the Good News International Church, whose teachings are said to have encouraged extreme ascetic behaviours as a pathway to heaven.

Teary-eyed Kwamboka says her brothers had sold off their family’s possessions before joining the cult.

''They sold our family land and said they were going to buy land in (neighbouring) Tanzania. But this year in April we got news that they were members of the Good News International Church,” she says.

Kwamboka is among dozens of victims' relatives camping outside a government office in the region and anxiously waiting for information on the whereabouts of their missing loved ones.

Spiritual movements with apocalyptic teachings have previously led to mass deaths and other sufferings of their members in parts of Africa.

But the latest case in Kenya is believed to be one of the worst cult-related tragedies in recent history on the continent given the mounting death toll and the mystery surrounding it.

Officials say most of the deaths have been caused by alleged starvation. Photo: AA

Now a presidential team has begun to find out how gaps in law, regulations and societal orientation allowed Mackenzie to spread his teachings that allegedly led to the mass deaths.

The preacher has previously admitted to preaching on apocalypse. Although he has appeared in court, the actual charges against him have not been made public yet.

Officials had said Mackenzie would be charged with terrorism-related offences for misusing religious sensitivities to radicalise thousands of people.

Local media in Kenya have reported that he denies wrongdoing relating to the mass deaths of his followers.

Miracles attraction

Mackenzie has been in detention and the authorities say investigations are continuing.

The pastor used his television channel, which also streams on the internet, to draw followers from Kenya’s hinterland and beyond the country's borders but the authorities say some of his teachings were radical.

He had an omniscient grip on his followers who were urged that their work on earth was done and they should die to gain salvation, according to those who defected from the church.

The perverse scale of the horror has left many Kenyans baffled as to the kinds of people who join the cult activity and how current regulations allowed the goings-on at Shakahola forest to have remained unnoticed for so long.

"Many of the people who will end up in such groups are going through one challenge or the other,” said James Mbugua, a counselling psychologist at Africa Nazarene University, a Christian-based university in Kenya.

Relatives of those who died in the cult-like circumstances are seeking answers. Photo: Reuters

“And especially in our Kenyan situation it’s the vulnerabilities that many of us carry around… and when they hear of miracles that are instant of course they will be attracted to these groups. Their teachings are about a better place than where this person is coming from,” he says.

Among the issues the presidential taskforce will have to grapple with is the issue of religious freedom, which is enshrined in Kenyan law, but which many now consider as being abused.

Kenya is a country of devout believers – 85% are Christians while 11% are Muslims according to official estimates.

Exploited loopholes

Kenyan President William Ruto has condemned the circumstances leading to the mass deaths and vowed that his government would take action while acknowledging institutional lapses in monitoring the activities of such cult-like organisations.

There are now growing calls for a legislation for better regulation of the activities of faith-based organisations and their leaders.

Some cite some of the successes recorded in Rwanda with a similar law under which clerics must have certain level of academic qualifications and pass credibility test while grants and other financial support to their organisations must be channeled through banks. This is to ensure proper scrutiny.

Leader of the church, Pastor Paul Mackenzie, is being held by the authorities. Photo: Reuters 

But regulating faith-related activities is also likely to run into headwinds given the deeply religious nature of the society.

Analysts say it will be a major test for the government taskforce in its bid to work out a consensus on a reform package that will guard against harmful religious teachings and practices.

For proponents of regulation, there is no better option. “When we talk about regulation we are not talking about curtailing of worship. Religious leaders need to work within some defined limit,” says Dr Mbugua.

“This (the Shakahola incident) was long time coming and probably we will have much worse in the future with the current set up of religious organisations. We need to be honest with ourselves,” he adds.

For Zipporah Kwamboka and other relatives of victims of the cult mass deaths, their immediate priority is getting justice as well as a clearer answer as to how and why they lost their loved ones in such tragic circumstances.

TRT Afrika