Two months after a starve-to-death order was issued, Salama Masha strapped her one-year-old daughter to her back and ran outside the forest.
Together with her four other children aged between eight and two who were on the fourth day of dry fast, they were exhausted, deprived of food and water and had endured Messianic cult leader Paul Makenzi’s orders for the last two years.
Salama was the wife of Makenzi’s deputy and aide, which put her as the fourth senior-most member after Makenzi, his wife, and her husband.
‘’I tied my one-year-old daughter on my back, and my four other older children went in front of me and I drove out of the forest on that sunny afternoon, ‘’ Salama recalls .
For 12 kilometres through undergrowths so thick they could hardly see in front of them, they ran towards the main road.
“I was so scared I was shaking, I was waiting for a machete or panga and me dropping. I didn’t expect to live beyond the age of 30,” Salama told the Nairobian.
Her husband Kahindi Kazungu - Makenzi’s deputy preacher and aide - had forced them to fast.
Salama had been living in the Shakahola forest since 2021, when her husband bought land and they relocated there.
The deal became even more exciting as Makenzi started marketing the Shakahola forest as a holy land where people would meet Jesus.
Makenzi had dug several dams inside the forest to provide water for visitors.
It was a life filled with hope but later dejection crept in. It became a struggle for survival for hundreds of Pastor Makenzi’s followers who had flocked into the forest in Kilifi County starting in 2020.
“Nothing grew in the forest because of drought. It was also dreadfully hot and there were mosquitoes and many snakes,” she says.
Homesteads in the Shakahola farm are named after villages in Israel.
‘’He told us to wait for Jesus in the ‘’desert’’ as he would always refer to it. We were many then; I remember during the Saturday sermons, we would gather more than one thousand people ‘’ she says.
According to Salama, Makenzi would meet them every Saturday for sermons and encourage them to continue fasting.
“Initially, we used to fast for days, say four or six, continuously and then take a break. But in January this year, Makenzi decreed that the fasting should be nonstop,” reveals Salama.
According to her, people started to drop and die inside the forest at the end of January.
Forensic experts have exhumed over 240 bodies and the process is expected to take much longer as detectives continue to identify mass graves every day.
The people who left the comfort of their homes wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. However, they found themselves trapped in Shakahola and cut off from the outside world as their leader deprived them of food, sleep, and hope for a better tomorrow.
Those who were promised farming land realised that the area is not ideal for agriculture due to the unpredictable rain patterns.
‘’Nothing grew in the forest because of the drought. It was also dreadfully hot, and there were mosquitoes. There are snakes. There are all kinds of critters,” says Salama.
She adds that Makenzi’s first sermons on fasting centred on the 19 Bible verses on children and the kingdom of God.
Some of the verses Makenzi preached from, according to Salama, were Matthew 18:3-4, Luke 10:21, and Numbers 14:31.
For example, Luke 10:21 states: “At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.”
The verse in Number 14: 31 says: “Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey—I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected”.
In January, children were the first to die then women followed by men.
The instructions, Salama says, featured a methodical plan for mass suicide through starvation.
‘’As a parent, we would lock the kids, cook and eat and when the child cries for food, we would take a cane and beat them. So they can go to and eat in heaven,’’ she discloses.
“The first to perish were to be children in March and April, it would be the turn of women, followed by men.’’
However, Makenzi said he would stay alive to help lead his followers to “meet Jesus” through starvation but that once this work was done, he, too, would starve himself to death ahead of what he said was the imminent end of the world.
Many kids were to be buried at his homestead.
Makenzi told his followers that this was meant to be a way for him to identify with Jesus’ command to “Let the little children come unto me.”
Makenzi also disclosed to them that the men who died last would not be buried; they would just drop dead and be eaten by vultures.
She recalls attending a burial ceremony of eight children who had died in the neighbouring village of ‘’Judea’’.
‘’I attended the burial of eight children who starved to death in Judea. After that, I started to scheme on how to run away,” says Salama.
It is at this particular time that Makenzi stopped tolerating criticism and controlled his members by ordering them to fast and die. Those who tried to escape were seen to have joined a giant conspiracy to destroy him and they were strangled by his aides.
Mackenzi had a way of telling parables that captivated his followers’ hearts and shook people to the core, especially when he turned the story around and applied it to those listening.
Hamphrey Ngonyo, an ex-follower, says Makenzi was so convincing when he applied parables in the Bible to those listening.
“He liked to use the parable of 10 virgins and the bridegroom in Matthew 25-1-13. He consistently warned us not to be like the five foolish virgins who failed to prepare and they were locked out when the son of man arrived,” he says.
Ngonyo adds: “He would tell us that if we don’t die now, heaven will be full next year, and the angels will close the gate of heaven. We would have no option but to remain in hell. Let those who have ears hear, and eyes see.”
Mr Ngonyo says the key to unravelling the Shakahola massacre lies in the oratory skills of Makenzi.
“Like all powerful speakers, Makenzi’s greatest asset was his ability to determine what listeners wanted to hear and give it to them in simple language that appealed to them on an almost instinctual level,” he notes.
With the cadence and fervour of a Baptist preacher, the charm and folksiness of a country storyteller, and the zeal and fury of a maniacal dictator, Makenzi led his followers to their early graves. Many followers were drawn to his cause by his soulful delivery and Pentecostal preaching style.
Makenzi painted himself as modern Moses who would save his people by leading them to the promised land through starvation.
When the fasting started, Salama says she decided to fast and seek answers from God.
‘’I fasted for seven days and on the 8th day of fasting, I heard God’s voice saying that I should break my fast. That I should not die because my work on earth is not over yet,” she says, adding that that is when she started to contemplate on how to escape.
However, in March, her husband had to force them to fast.
Many who tried to escape were not as lucky as her.
‘’The victims were tied with a rope around their neck and legs to firm up the blankets wrapped around them,’’ says a grave digger on a condition of anonymity.
In another discovery, The Nairobian has established that Makenzi told those in marriages not to make love because they would not be pure in the eyes of God and instead he encouraged them to live as brothers and sisters.
Hundreds more people are still missing, perhaps buried in undiscovered graves.