Shakahola deaths Probe: Makenzi closed church to deceive police

Some of the bodies that have been exhumed by police officers at Shakahola in Malindi, Kilifi County. [Marion Kithi, Standard]

The uncovered shallow graves on the desolate plains of Malindi’s Shakahola village tell a sorrowful story of a heinous crime.

Homesteads called Bethlehem, Judea, and Nazareth, where Makenzi’s followers reputedly starved to death to “meet Jesus,” are desolate within the village’s thickets.

Crows and magpies gnaw at tattered garments that wrapped the bodies of victims of a quasi-religious cult linked to Paul Makenzi of Good News International (GNI).

A sour foetid of death dominated the air in Shakahola along the Malindi-Sala Gate route for the last 15 days as detectives retrieved and carried the dead to a mortuary in Malindi town.

Over 110 bodies have been recovered from graves in Shakahola, 32 have been rescued from the forest, and 409 people, including 227 children, have gone missing. The mortuaries in Malindi and Kilifi Sub-County are both full.

As the death toll increased to the hundreds, Kenya Read Cross provided a 40-foot mobile mortuary. The state has also prohibited the media from the forest, which looks to be an attempt to regulate the flow of information.

This comes amid questions about security authorities’ inability to halt Makenzi and his accomplices, whose inflammatory lectures and threats first became public in 2013.

According to sources familiar with the investigation, before Makenzi relocated to Shakahola, GNI’s little churches resembling ‘sleeper cells’ that shared his beliefs across the country became active.

Makenzi said he had “completed God’s work on earth” when he closed his church in Malindi’s Furuzi neighbourhood in 2019. He requested that the media reject his pastoral titles and that his followers refer to him as a farmer.

According to a detective participating in the investigation, Makenzi closed the Malindi church to deceive the public and security forces on his trail, but he continued to oversee other branches that operated secretly.

He said one of the cells was situated in Wundanyi, Taita Taveta, the hometown of his wife Joyce Mwikamba. The cell allegedly recruited numerous members, including Evelyn, a woman known in security circles.

In 2022, the woman was accused in court after withdrawing her three children from school and launching anti-education and anti-modern treatment activities.

In court, she said in 2019, the same year Makenzi relocated to Shakahola, she got a vision in the form of a dream that revealed to her that modern schooling was “evil and ungodly.”

“I saw a child in a school uniform, and the vision said that education is evil. I decided not to take them to school,” she told then-Magistrate Emily Nyakundi of Wundanyi. Evelyn was sentenced to probation by the court.

However, she mysteriously vanished from her home with her children, and tens of her devotees and detectives believe she joined Makenzi in Shakahola.

On Thursday, David Mwamburi of Mghondi Gwa Waka village in Mwatate, Taita Taveta, acknowledged visiting Shakahola but returning once the crackdown on Makenzi’s followers began.

“We went to church on our own volition. I was fasting but returned after the police began arresting church members,” he said.

Yesterday, a taxi driver in Malindi, Julius Charo, a former GNI church follower, said Makenzi also “anointed” people who held prayers in some selected houses in Magarini’s Madunguni, Bungale, and Gongoni regions.

Residents in Bungale burned down a house and razed a church belonging to a Makenzi-affiliated preacher in 2018 for allegedly preaching extreme teachings.

In a phone interview, Mzee Charo Kenga said the church was opposed to formal education and medical care.

“Some of the prayers were conducted in people’s houses in Magarini, Mombasa, and Kwale. He distorted verses from the Bible to persuade people to hate education and medicine,” said Charo.

On the church’s website, GNI says it has branches in Nairobi, Watamu, Malindi, Kitale, Machakos, Naivasha, Mombasa, Mwea, Lunga Lunga, and Matano manne.

“It is clear that Makenzi ended his mission in Malindi but continued to operate satellite churches and activated “sleeper cells” that drove people to Shakahola. This explains why most people rescued are from outside the Coast,” said Julius Ogogoh, the Executive Director of Commission for Justice and Human Rights.

He added that those who sold their properties and joined Makenzi in Shakahola “imagine and believed exists a world where there is no suffering.”

Ogogoh said Makenzi also appears to have metamorphosed from a taxi driver and preacher into a land seller and that is why most people are from the communities that value land and agricultural activities.

An affidavit produced in court on Friday shows Makenzi joined hands with televangelist Ezekiel Odero of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church in Kilifi.

State prosecutor Alexander Jamii told a Shanzu court in Mombasa that Odera and Makenzi share a common history of business investments, particularly a TV station used in passing radicalisation messages to recruit followers.

“The intelligence information reveals that upon the demise of the innocent and vulnerable followers of Pastor Odero, bodies were preserved at a privately-run morgue in Kilifi before being transported and interred in Shakahola forest,” states an affidavit produced in court by Jamii.

But the shocking reports from Shakahola, and Makenzi’s modus operandi, since 2013 at Malindi’s Furunzi area, and later in Shakahola have been deduced by different people in different ways.

It is the controlling power, according to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), that Makenzi exercised to direct his subjects to starve to death, ostensibly to seek martyrdom.

But for the Mijikenda elders in the area, the Shakahola massacre was a repeat of sad events that took place in the area, which include Chakama, from 1913 to 191,4 during the colonial periods.

Kaya spokesman Baya Mitsanze said in May 1913, Mekatilili wa Menza administered anti-British oaths called kiharo in Chakama forest in the home of a respected matriarch called Hawa Waje.

Mitsanze said the oaths led to the arrest of Mekatilili, which later sparked an uprising that led to the death of several British soldiers and tens of the Mijikenda people in Shakahola.