The 'holy land' where 'believers' starved to death

By - Apr 28th 2023

The unbearable stench of mass graves in Shakahola hits one when you visit the isolated forest is about 70 kilometers in the remote part of Malindi.

In the middle of the forest, piles of fresh earth marked by crucifixes await the attention of forensic experts -since the exercise began at least 95 bodies had by Wednesday been exhumed with forensic experts estimating that the exercise could take more days. They estimate those who starved to death could surpass 500 considering that it's only one site that had been dug as of Wednesday.

The road to the farm is narrow and rough with few people living in the locality, one could only see a few charcoal burners and herdsmen during a drive to the farm where Pastor Paul Makenzi Nthenge had established Bethlehem, Nazareth and Judea ‘villages’ and named his aides ‘disciples’.

The dead are thought to have been members of the Good News International Church. It is believed they were persuaded to starve themselves in order to reach heaven before what they were told was going to be the end of the world.

They were buried in shallow graves of about two meters. These victims were buried with no dignity.

According to the locals, Makenzi arrived here in 2019 after the closure of his church and started distributing relief food to the locals and that’s how he become a darling to the villages.

His followers from upcountry and outside the country are said to have heard his preaching through his TV station and decided to relocate here.

Kesi Katana, a former follower of Pastor Makenzi, has been here for the last week helping forensic experts identify the graves.

“The stench is unbearable,” he told The Nairobian.

Due to the hidden nature of the Shakahola forest, local leadership couldn’t smell the rat early enough until things got out of hand. The place is so remote that when the police arrived here for the first time they had cut back shrubs and bushes in order to drive here and marked over 80 grace sites.

 Thirty-four survivors have been found. On Wednesday, Haki Afica rescued a middle-aged woman looking extremely frail” with sunken eyes. But she did not want to be helped.

“When we tried to administer first aid to give her sips of water with glucose with a spoon, she completely refused. She sealed her mouth shut and she was signifying that she doesn’t want any help,”  said Mr Hussein Khalid of Haki Africa, adding that the woman was now being treated in hospital.

On Monday, police arrested a man identified as Pastor Zablon wa Yesu. He was found reading a Bible in the bushes on Monday.

According to police, Zablon said he was not fasting “because he needed the energy to perform God’s work.”

Police sources suspect Zablon was among those who aided in the burial of those forced to fast to death. As of now five men believed to be Mackenzie’s aide have been arrested.

“Police officers are still investigating their involvement in the mass killings,” said the source.

On Wednesday, two children were rescued in a hut locked from inside and one of them had a head injury.

‘’I was beaten by one of Makenzi’s aides when I drank water,’’ he disclosed.

Victor Kaudo from the Malindi Community Human Rights Centre, which is helping exhume the bodies, is among those who rescued the kids.

“And this kid we believe to be six years of age. But his sister and brother were already dead and they had been buried the previous day before we got there,” he said.

Beyond the forest itself, there is a shock in the country over how dozens of people could have willingly starved themselves to death.

Bodies exhumed by police officers at Shakahola in Malindi, Kilifi County. The bodies belong to the followers of Pastor Mackenzie of the Good News International Church. PHOTO: MARION KITHI

Kenya is a profoundly religious country with 85 percent of the population identifying as Christian.

President William Ruto, who is a devout Christian, described Pastor Makenzi as someone who did “not belong to any religion”.

Speaking on Monday, Ruto described the killings as an act of terrorism. 

“What we are seeing in Kilifi, in Shakahola, is akin to terrorists. There is no difference between Makenzi who pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal,” Ruto said while addressing a passing out parade of cadets at the Ruiru Prisons College. 

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki has called what happened a “massacre” and wants Mackenzie to be charged with genocide.

Labour and Social Protection Cabinet Secretary Florence Bore was quoted by our sister paper, The Standard, that children were the most affected by the cult’s activities and that they form part of the prosecution’s case. They were aged between three and eight years. 

She said 11 children have so far been rescued, and have narrated the horrid experience they underwent while in the hands of their parents, and Makenzi’s alleged disciples.

“So far 11 children have been rescued. What they have told the detectives is shocking and will be part of the witnesses to be used by the prosecution to prove a case against Mackenzie. They were ordered not to take even water. Those who disobeyed were beaten and locked in rooms for days without food or water to drink,” she said. 

Coast Regional Coordinator Rodah Onyancha said the discovery of the bodies of the five kids raised the death toll to 95. She said one woman was rescued from the forest.

“The bodies were found in a shallow grave at Makenzi’s compound. We also rescued one person from the forest,” she said in Shakahola on Wednesday.

Homicide detectives backed by officers from other security agencies stormed Mackenzie’s compound after they completed the work at a neighbouring homestead called “Bethlehem”.

 This after a five-day similar exercise in a neighbouring homestead that Makenzi’s followers have also christened “Nazareth”.

 Senate Speaker Amason Kingi asked how “evil of such an astounding magnitude could take place without being detected”.

Theologian and psychologist Dr James Kipsang Barngetuny told the BBC that there was a problem in Kenya with the “mushrooming” of lots of small churches, which are not properly regulated.

He said that unscrupulous leaders are able to brainwash people and take advantage of their desire to find a solution to their problems.

Families of the victims are beginning to come to the grave sites to tell the authorities about relatives who are missing.

Christian Nyambane from Kakamega has been communicating with his sister who is believed to be still stuck inside the forest waiting to be rescued.

“She called me yesterday and she was weak. She said she has three days to live,” said Nyambane.

He has reported the matter to the security officers who are yet to locate her.


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