It was like episodes of a bad dream, says Caroline Wanjiku about the events of the night before her son, rescued last week from Shakahola forest, walked out of the house in 2017.
On that eventful night, Wanjiku said she heard her son, Stephen Ngugi, then 21 years old, and his two friends shout in unison; “Amen! Amen! So be it!”
Before she went to sleep, Wanjiku had quarrelled with her son over his indecisiveness on the day he would return to Moi University in Eldoret where he was studying medicine.
She left the three watching Pastor Paul Makenzi’s sermons denouncing education, saying it was ungodly when she went to sleep. But it is her son’s strong affirmation of the sermons that shocked her.
“I thought it was an episode of a sleep terror when I heard them shouting after Makenzi concluded the sermon on TV against education,” Wanjiku said as she fought back tears.
Ngugi and his two friends, whom Wanjiku identified only as Kamotho and Nelson, walked out of the house that night and never came back.
“Later, I learnt that he joined Good News International (GNI) church at the Gari Mbovu area in Likoni. He was given a woman to marry. The lady is way older than my son,” Wanjiku said.
Little did Wanjiku know that the marriage was an initiation ceremony for the boys who had joined the cult before they embarked on a journey to Shakahola Forest for a long fast.
“His wife had a child in Standard 8. It was shocking that a young boy could marry such an old woman. I accepted the woman because I did not want to drive my son away anymore.”
In Likoni, the parishioners of GNI lived in a house near the Amkeni area and worshipped in another little house in Gari Bovu. Detectives believe this is one of GNI’s ‘sleeper cells’ activated in 2019.
Multiple interviews reveal that Ngungi was one of the most respected members of GNI’s Likoni ‘sleeper cell’ established in 2017 but came active after Makenzi closed the main church in Malindi.
Wanjiku said her son was chosen to lead prayers and give sermons in Likoni because he could read the Bible in English and Swahili, and interpret it in strict compliance to Makenzi’s doctrine.
“The day Ngugi came to bid farewell and introduce his wife to me, he said I cannot accompany them because I’m an infidel or not saved enough to join them where they were going,” she said.
Like other cases of the people who went to Shakahola, Wanjiku said it is unclear how and when her son and his new wife exactly travelled to Shakahola. She said Ngugi told her they were going to Hola, Tana River.
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One of the accounts claims all the GNI faithful boarded a single matatu from Mombasa’s Buxton stage. Others say they dispersed and travelled in different buses to Malindi to avoid being detected by security teams.
“I sat where my son and all those rescued were being interrogated for four days, and I can tell you they may have taken an oath of secrecy or silence. They have the same story,” said Wanjiku.
According to detectives investigating the Shakahola Massacre, most, if not all, of those rescued appear to be frightened or were fed one false narrative for a long time and they believe it to be true.
“They’ve denied any link to Makenzi and his church. They claim to be innocent land buyers who were attacked by villagers and were hiding inside the forest,” a DCI officer said.
Traders and boda boda operators in a shopping centre about 10km from Shakahola forest called Bao Lala said they learned of the group living in the forest in 2017 when they came out to fetch water and buy food.
Kiti Kiraga, a shopkeeper, said those who lived in the forest bought maize flour from his shop but never liked to talk about where they stayed in the forest or what they were doing there.
“In January we stopped seeing them. But we could spot one or two whose health had started to deteriorate,” said Kiraga.
Jeffrey Kaingu, a boda boda operator, says he used to ferry them from the centre to a certain point before they went into the forest.
“Every time I carried them, I would take them to a certain point where I was not allowed to cross. It was very weird because we are used to customers who demand we take them to their doorsteps,” said Kaingu.
He added: “There was a girl inside the forest I used to date but she stopped seeing me in January when they started fasting. Her phone also went off.”
A local elder, Ali Mwalimu, said most of those in the forest came in phases to buy land. He said it was like Makenzi bought a big plot, subdivided it, and sold it to his followers.
In Malindi, those rescued are being questioned by detectives before being placed under the state protection programme and being counselled in Mtwapa.
Detectives involved in the probe say children are cooperating with the investigators.
A few old people who have agreed to testify, according to police, say they were forbidden from reading the Bible, using beauty products, going to school, or getting treated in a hospital. They were told such acts are “ungodly”.
One of those rescued told detectives that she relocated to Shakahola last year after her husband bought land at the farm. She said Makenzi told them that “world pleasure” was not permitted in the spiritual realm inside the forest.
“When I arrived at Shakahola with my two sons, my husband had already built a small hut at ‘Bethlehem’ village,” she said, adding that she learned about Makenzi through her husband.
“At the beginning of this year, we started fasting. It became very painful seeing my children subjected to continuous fasting. I wanted to leave but I couldn’t do it,” she said.
She was rescued on Tuesday last week with her three children and treated for malnutrition at the Malindi sub-county hospital. She hails from Umbra village in Msambweni, Kwale county.
“We were not allowed to mingle with anyone from the outside world. We were told this will deny us a chance to go to heaven,” she said, according to a detective.
Another victim who identified himself only as Mkawasi from Mwatate said Makenzi’s disciples ordered them to destroy all documents given by the government, including national IDs and birth certificates. By Saturday, a multiagency team combing the Shakahola forest had retrieved 179 bodies, and rescued 25 people.
The government says Makenzi’s indoctrination was incendiary and that he asked his followers to abandon earthly life, and meet at his 800-acre farm in Shakahola village for a fast “to meet Jesus”.
Detectives say he controlled sleeper cells that targeted people in Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi, Taita Taveta, Nairobi, Central and Western regions.
Another victim who told detectives that she used to work in a tourist hotel said they were instructed to quit their jobs, drop out of school, and stop feeding on “worldly food”. She said they met on Saturdays under a tree from 9am to 5pm for life lessons.
Due to the hidden nature of Shakahola forest, local leaders say they couldn’t smell the rat early enough until things got out of hand.
The place is so remote that when the police arrived they had to slash shrubs and bushes to reach the site with more than 80 graves. he rescue began on April 13 after two children were reportedly starved and suffocated to death by their parents on March 16 and 17.
According to the autopsy reports some of the cult members were either strangled, hit by blunt objects on their heads, or starved to death.
Titus Katana, a former member of the church, is now helping detectives with the investigations and exhumation of bodies in Shakahola forest. He left the church due to differences over new restrictions.