Survivors of Shakahola cult face stigma as they settle down

Of the nearly 1,000 estimated devotees of Good News International church and its leader Paul Makenzi, who relocated to the forest to establish a cult commune, only a few survived.

Ms Salama Masha, who survived the cult with her five children and engages in small-scale farming along the banks of River Galana, says her husband perished inside the forest where he went to fast.

"My husband died there. I had to find something meaningful to take care of my children," she said, adding that she has been secluded by villagers and even her family members.

"After she escaped from the forest, I settled with my mother. I had a hard time fitting back to the community. I do not feel wanted. The truth is we aren't wanted by the community," said Ms Masha. Ms Masha said though six months have passed since she escaped from the forest, the vents that transpired inside the forest were still fresh in her head.

"What happened is etched inside my mind and heart. I'm sad that I lost my husband and the people I knew in my life; people who were committed so much to serving God but lost their lives," she said.

But she notes that what keeps her going is her children. "The loneliness I feel is like a cancer. People, including relatives, do not want to associate with me," said Ms Masha.

Her 11-year-old first-born son is yet to join school, because of financial challenges. Her other children were also facing stigma from friends and neighbours due to their link to Shakahola. "It's part of me. I am who I am because I survived the massacre. It drives me every day to do better. I will continue to serve God but I'm now aware of the dangers of following people blindly," she said.

The over 50,000-acre Chakama ranch is still considered a crime scene as detectives continue to look for evidence to prove that Makenzi and his co-accused were behind the death of over 450 people.

But residents of the villages near and inside the forest complain that the probe has taken too long and they are struggling to make ends meet since the ranch played a vital role in their day-to-day activities.

Mr Joseph Katana, who grills chicken over barbecue pits at the little town near the Shakahola forest, said his business has been hurt, following the eviction of the people from the forest.

"I have struggled to keep my business afloat. Before, tourists would stop by this town while heading to Tsavo, but they no longer want to associate themselves with this community anymore," he said.

Mr Katana, who used to make at least Sh2,800 a day, now barely makes Sh500 because drivers of the tour vans do not want to associate themselves with anything from the market. "We usually have market days on Wednesdays. The traders go back with them because there are no buyers," said Katana.

These sentiments have been echoed repeatedly in towns and hamlets dotting the isolated homesteads in Shakahola since the bodies of cult victims were discovered.

Residents also say that unlike in the past when investors or farmers used to throng to the area seeking land to buy, now, no one wants to buy it anymore. "Some of the buyers consider the area as an 'evil field," said Jumwa Charo, a resident. "The fear of the massacre has shocked these communities. But hope is still our driver," said Adu Member of the County Assembly Samson Zia. Shakahola is part of Adu Ward.