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How cult leaders influence their victims

National
 Controversial preacher Paul Makenzi. [File, Standard]

A video of an emaciated woman berating her rescuers speaks to the depth of indoctrination in Pastor Paul Makenzi's unravelling horror fest of fasting and death.

By Thursday's tally, the body count had risen to 104, and still counting, as police officers continue their search for more victims.

A news report appearing in The Standard on Wednesdays quotes one of the rescued victims saying; "Everybody came here independently and we have never been forced to fast. We just decided to fast so that we can prepare our bodies to absorb our Christian beliefs."

David Mwamburi, another victim, said: "We attended the church services voluntarily. One has the right to make his or her own decision without any coercion. For me, I got what I wanted and I'm a strong believer of Makenzi."

According to Mr Mwamburi, Makenzi did not lure anybody to the church but they were only attracted by his 'true prophecy'.

Ordinarily, people rescued from such self-induced traumatic experiences would be remorseful and glad to have been rescued. But most of Makenzi's victims have readily defended and absolved him of any wrongdoing.

Makenzi, on the other hand, does not appear remotely bothered by his arrest or the shocking revelations that have gripped the nation.

Prof Lukoye Atwoli, a renowned psychiatrist and former dean at Moi University School of Medicine says, "Most religious zealots will not say anything negative about their leader since they believe they are always right. They actually believe they are doing the right things without coercion and pursuant to their deity's wishes. It is therefore not surprising that they will not incriminate their leader"

The Makenzi victims' attitude evokes memories of what came to be known as Stockholm syndrome in 1973. Psychologists describe this syndrome as a coping mechanism that helps victims adjust to situations that could be life-threatening. "In the process, most of the victims develop hard feelings against the police and other authority figures".

On August 23, 1973, a bank raid in Stockholm, Sweden went awry and one of the robbers held four hostage in the vault for six days while bargaining for his freedom. In those six days, the robber and his victims developed a bond that baffled many. The hostages refused to testify against the bank robber and even raised money for his defense. It was this bond that psychiatrists and criminologists later christened Stockholm syndrome.

So far, the syndrome is manifested in survivors of the Shakahola horror that has attracted global attention. Sociologist Peter Mugi Kuruga says that cult leaders employ what is known as the power of suggestion to totally control the minds of their victims.

"Power of suggestion refers to the ability of an authority figure, such as a religious leader, to influence people's thoughts and behaviors through subtle cues, persuasion, or manipulation if they perceive the preacher as having more knowledge or authority than themselves. In many religious communities, there is a strong emphasis on conformity and obedience to authority figures," said Mr Mugi.

Makenzi has expressed disdain for Western education that he, rightly or wrongly, blames for things like lesbianism and gayism, among other vices. And while Makenzi put his believers on the path to self-destruction in the belief they would go to heaven, it is worth noting doomsday conspiracies are almost as old as the world, and they draw most of their inspiration from the writings of John, the presumed author of the book of Revelation.

Some scientists and religious leaders have also consistently predicted that fire and floods will be the medium through which the apocalypse will be actualised. When Mount Vesuvius in Italy erupted in October 79 AD, spewing huge balls of ash and fire that consumed at least two cities near it, cultists at the time believed their prophecy was being fulfilled.

The book of Revelation seems to partly fuel the doomsday conspiracies. Revelation speaks of wars, famines, epidemics, and strange signs that will warn the world of a serious crisis.

It paints a vivid picture of the suffering people will undergo shortly before the return of Jesus.

The reality of things is that in the midst of difficult times when citizens are beset by myriad hardships, some of which appear to have been captured in the Bible, cult leaders can easily brainwash their followers.

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