The dark allure of cults


From Kenya to the jungles of Guyana


by Mercy Asamba

The dark allure of cults: From Kenya thro' Uganda to a forest in Guyana

Recent concerns by DCI boss George Kinoti about rising cases of cultism in Kenya has brought to the fore an issue that has been largely taken for granted. A week ago, he said police had documented incidents where people were forced to present some human body parts so they could be allowed to join a perceived powerful cult that promises money and fame. "Until we proscribe these groups, which remain secrets to us, we have to be proactive for now. Unfortunately, we are now dealing with killings that have happened," he said.

His remarks come in the wake of the macabre murder of Catholic Priest Fr Michael Kyengo in Embu on October 9. According to the police, the main suspect in the murder confessed that the ritual killing was meant to enable the killers to be promoted or recognised in a cult that promises prosperity to its members. Kinoti also cited the death of Ferdinand Ongeri, who was the Kenya National Union of Nurses Kisumu branch deputy secretary-general in July 2019, saying investigations had led them to cultism.

So what is a cult?

The Webster Dictionary defines a cult as a formal religious veneration or a system of religious beliefs and rituals. The term also describes the adherents of such veneration. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his paper titled Cult Formation in the early 1980s. He highlighted three primary characteristics of occultism.

  • 1. It features a charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship, as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.
  • 2. It will have a process of indoctrination or education in use that can be seen as coercive persuasion or commonly called "brainwashing".
  • 3. It involves economic, sexual, and other forms of exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie. Below, a look at cults in and outside Kenya.

Kavonokya Sect

The Kavonokya sect adherents in Mwingi District of Kitui County believe a capricious god wants them and their loved ones to die of curable diseases. The group has been at loggerheads with the Government over alleged persecution of their faith that prohibits medication. Some of its members were arrested in June 2012 following the death of 11 children after an outbreak of measles.

The sect demanded the Provincial Administration and police tolerate their beliefs that prohibit them from seeking medical attention when they fall ill. They maintain that they believe in divine healing as prescribed in the Bible. The sect says their stand, which is not shared by most other Bible-believing Christians, cannot be compromised at whatever cost. In May, a couple that subscribes to the sect was charged with neglecting their son. They were accused of refusing to take their 13-month-old baby to the hospital.

The couple is said to have lost some of their children after refusing to take them to the hospital. In Central Kenya where the sect caused a storm when its members refused to participate in the census saying they would be counted in heaven. There, their name is spelled as Kabonokia. Some were sentenced to serve diverse jail terms for declining to be enumerated. Those convicted by Marimanti Senior Resident Magistrate Stephen Nyaga and Principal Magistrate SPN Maina mostly hailed from Karocho, Thiiti, Kathangacini and Gatue villages in the vast Tharaka Constituency in Tharaka Nithi County. The convictions saw 18 men and 25 women sent to prison for a period of between six and 12 months for objecting to the census.

Young Blud Saints

In May 2018, police issued a warning about a group called the Young Blud Saints, which targets university students in Nairobi. The Director of Criminal Investigations cautioned members of the public and urged parents to keep a keen eye on their children to prevent them from being recruited to the organisation. In a Facebook post, police said the cult believes that there are three gods namely: true god, false god, and random god.

"They also believe that the random god is the one who fails them because he is not firm with his decisions and that his answers are not straight. Members are expected to sacrifice what they love most to prove loyalty to the organisation," police said. "DCI is closely monitoring the activities of the cult. Parents and the general members of the public are encouraged to seek psychological guidance from professional counsellors and religious institutions when they notice an unusual change of behaviour in their children," added the police.

Mary Akatsa’s Jerusalem Church of God

The self-proclaimed Prophetess Mary Akatsa of Jerusalem Church of Christ in Kawangware once brought 'Jesus' to her church on June 11, 1988. The 'Jesus' who appeared in the Kenya Times newspaper the following day stood next to the four feet and six inches frame of the self-proclaimed Prophetess Mary Akatsa of Jerusalem Church of Christ.

When Mary Akatsa brought 'Jesus' to her church in Kawangware Nairobi, and above, she punishes errant worshiper.

A few years earlier, Mary Akatsa had prophesied that the Messiah would drop by her church. And there 'He' was: Tall, barefoot, bearded, and resplendent in white robes and his head covered in a turban. Strange, sporadic light wafted on top of his head, feet, and body. The crowd went wild, shouting "Jesus of Nazareth!" Akatsa had incredible feats of her own: Her mother-in-law had killed her via witchcraft and, like Jesus, she rose from the dead after three days.

There are no records of her death at the Kisumu hospital where she had become stiff. Akatsa was in the headlines again in 2017 after a video emerged of her whipping her congregation to instill discipline. The women in her church are usually dressed in long floral skirts, with t-shirts and socks on their feet and headgears matching the skirts. The men, on the other hand, are always in floral suits similar to the women's, but young men are adorned in striped T-shirts and hats. In our 'modern' trousers, we stand out like sore thumbs.

Finger of God

Joseph Hellon Onyango's church, The Finger of God, was the one that landed former television star Esther Arunga into controversy. Esther Arunga had resigned from her news anchor job to be fully involved in church and become a politician who thought she could use their bizarrely named Platinum Centraliser and Unionist Party (Placenta) party to change Kenya. The church was accused of having cultic beliefs. This led to the arrest of some of its members.

Hellon said he chose the name of his church after carefully reading the Bible. "Finger of God is the holy spirit. The Law of Moses was written by the finger of God. There is nothing dirty about that name as Kenyans were suggesting," he said. "There is nothing cultish about my church. I am controversial and I do things differently. Our messiah was controversial. Preachers who are not should ask themselves if they are really working for God," he said in an interview with The Standard.

Esther Arunga and Quincy Timberlake

Arunga would be married to Quincy Timberlake of the same church and go in exile in Nigeria citing persecution by the Kenya authorities. In Austria in 2014, Timberlake would beat their three-year-old son Sinclair son to death claiming he was riding him of demons he was charged with murder.

Arunga would be charged with being an accessory to the murder and plead guilty only to be handed a ten-month sentence and released on parole by Judge Martin Burns. The Judge observed that Arunga's beliefs had led to her tribulations as she tried to bring up a family in a foreign land, and worse still, losing a son in the process. Timberlake is in a psychiatric facility where he checked himself.

Heavens Gate

Marshall Applewhite, founder of Heaven's Gate, one of the most notorious cults of the 20th century. (Courtesy)

According to Rollingstone.com, Heavens Gate was founded in San Diego in 1972. The owners believed that aliens would escort members of the sect to the 'Heaven' via extra-terrestrial spacecraft. In 1975 they convinced 20 new followers to give up their earthly possessions, leave their families and disappear. It was never clear whether they were taken on a so-called trip to eternity – or simply taken." They turned out to be living underground, camping everywhere from Rhode Island to Oklahoma.

"In March 1997, the group carefully planned and then executed a mass suicide, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, which members thought would conceal the alien spacecraft on its way to earth. Clad in black tunics and Nikes, 39 Heaven's Gate members ate applesauce mixed chased a sedative with vodka, covered their heads in plastic bags and died. Nine of the 18 men – including Applewhite – had been surgically castrated, as the group mandated celibacy. An upbeat videotaped message made the members before the suicide indicated that they were willing – even happy – to die and move to the next level," Rollingstone.com reported.

Faizrakhmanist

The founder, 83-year-old Faizrakhman Satarov, was charged in 2012 with negligence and arbitrariness after police found 27 children and 38 adults living in catacomb-like cells, dug on eight levels under the home of the sect's founder. Prosecutors said some of the children had lived there for more than a decade. Faizrakhman declared himself a Muslim prophet in contradiction with the principles of Islam. The sect was uncovered in a Kazan during an investigation into attacks on Muslim clerics in Tatarstan.

A member of Faizrakhman Satarov's sect that lived underground, without access to education, healthcare or even daylight. (Courtesy)

The Peoples Temple and the Jonestown mass suicide

This was the mother of all cults. It has been described as the largest single incident of intentional civilian deaths in American history, 911 being the second. More than 900 people, many of them children, died in a mass murder-suicide 41 years ago at Jonestown village of Guyana. This was after their cult leader Jim Jones ordered them to drink cyanide-laced fruit punch.

An aerial view of the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, which took place on November 18, 1978. (Courtesy)

On a fateful day, Rev Jim Jones, the charismatic leader of the sect ordered his followers to murder a US congressman and several journalists, then commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch. Jones was a preacher who formed the Peoples Temple in Indiana in the 1950s when he was in his 30s. He later moved his followers to California and in 1977, the church was moved to its headquarters to a remote area in Guyana where Jones build a utopian society away from the government or media interference.

As a show of commitment, Jones’ flock was expected to devote itself completely to the church’s utopian project. They turned over their wealth, engaged in unpaid labour for the church and were forced to break contact with their families. They were also asked to sign false testimonials that they had molested their children. The church kept this for potential blackmail.