Residents of Shakahola in Kilifi County have told of the first signs that showed followers of Pastor Paul Makenzi were starving themselves.
The villagers also described Makenzi's arrival in the area and shared their impressions of him and his followers.
In early 2020, Makenzi approached local elders to purchase land for farming. However, the residents were unaware that he would eventually become a malevolent figure, leading his followers on a deadly fasting marathon that claimed many lives, including those of children.
Village elder Changawa Mangi, who lives near Makenzi's 800-acre farm, confirmed that the controversial preacher had followed all necessary procedures to acquire the land.
According to Mr Mangi, the Good News International Church leader was vetted by local administration and registered as a farmer.
Mangi said that everything seemed fine until early this year when he was approached by some children who had escaped from Makenzi's land, claiming they had been denied food.
“Initially, I thought the children were in need of food since we had a drought. But nonetheless I told the assistant chief who passed the information to his seniors.
“But, over time, I realised Makenzi’s people were no longer visiting Shakahola trading centre and boda boda riders were barred from entering the farm. That is when we sought to discover what was really taking place,” he said.
Mangi said that he mobilised a team of riders and visited the farm where they were confronted by an armed group stationed at the main road to keep away intruders.
“Our efforts failed as we were attacked and we had to run for our dear lives. We lost two motorbikes which our assailants set on fire. I immediately reported to the assistant chief who alerted the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI). That is why the security operation is taking place,” he said.
Mangi said that hundreds of people followed Makenzi, but they denied knowing him when they were questioned. "If you made the mistake of asking those people about Makenzi, you would be in trouble because they distanced themselves from him. They kept saying that they were fasting because they wanted to see Jesus Christ and that the world was coming to an end."
Some followers strictly adhered to Makenzi's prophecy, stating that children, women, and men would die in that order before the world ends in August this year.
Makenzi, who preached the 'true gospel', needed food and drink for energy and was expected to be the last man alive. Makenzi owns a home on the farm where he keeps cattle.
Despite some followers being rescued from the farm, many remained loyal to him, insisting that he didn't force anyone to fast.
Many children in the religious community didn't attend school, and some families had relocated from distant areas to live on the secluded, forested farm.
Mangi said the 'Makenzi villages' are approximately 15 kilometers from Shakahola trading center and Baolala, situated deep within a thicket and largely inaccessible.
Security vehicles and those involved in the ongoing operation to rescue church followers and exhume the bodies of those who fasted to death use a narrow, unmarked road to reach the farm.
Local businessman Hosman Abdala said that he was familiar with Makenzi's followers, as he used to sell them various goods, including foodstuffs.
“They used to buy foodstuff in bulk, and one person could buy cereals worth Sh3,000. But all that changed and we are counting losses since some cereals like njahi, which we knew from those people, don't have customers,” Mr Abdala said.
Ernest Vesdasto said he had come from Tanzania to look for his wife, Judith Aseli who left home last month for Shakahola.
A heavy stench still hangs over the first gravesite that had produced 89 bodies by Tuesday evening, forcing those exhuming the bodies and journalists covering the operation to wear face masks.
So far, three sites believed to host 58 graves have been identified. The first burial site had one grave that contained seven bodies.
Meanwhile, in Taita Taveta County, Ministry of Interior officials are investigating the mysterious disappearance of a woman and her three children from Shigaro village, near Wundanyi town, who reportedly joined Makenzi in Shakahola.
The 40-year-old woman, identified only as Evalyne, was arraigned on January 19, 2021, for not sending her children to school because it was 'against her faith'.
Acting chief Elijah Kimbichi said that before disappearing, the woman had been on probation. The Department of Children's Services had subsequently enrolled her children in school. Taita Police Commander Onesmus Kombe said the woman had told them that she had a dream from Jesus Christ not to take her children to school.
[Nehemiah Okwembah, Patrick Beja and Renson Mnyamwezi]