Families face stigma over Makenzi as DNA tests delay funeral plans

Some of the family members of victims of Shakahola cult massacre during the Senate ad hoc committee investigation in Vihiga on June 24, 2023. [Brian Kisanji, Standard]

The Senate ad hoc committee investigating Shakahola deaths heard harrowing tales from families of victims of Pastor Paul Makenzi’s starvation cult, when they visited Vihiga over the weekend.

The sad stories ranged from those who have confirmed deaths of their loved ones to those still searching for their kin believed to have joined Makenzi in Shakahola forest, Kilifi county.

At least 20 Vihiga residents are said to have died in Shakahola.

Speaking during the committee hearing, the family of Enos Migada, who held a senior position in Makenzi’s Good Life International Church and is in custody, said they are planning the burial of seven kin.

Livingston Ongoro, said his son’s wife and six children went missing before they were recovered from a mass grave in Shakahola forest.

“The three children died in May together with their mother and were found this month in the forest,” said Ongoro.

The victims said the starvation cult has left many families desolate.

Some families have been nicknamed ‘Shakahola’ and ‘Makenzi’ by villagers.

This is the case of a family from Madzu village, who are awaiting DNA tests on five children whose bodies were exhumed from mass graves.

Their son Kevin Asena, 42, had threatened to starve to death before he was arrested by police together with his wife Miriam Okembo.

However, the couple’s five children are believed to be among the more than 330 bodies exhumed from Shakahola forest.

Asena’s father, Harun Ombajo, told the committee their wish is for the government to speed up the DNA test and offer counselling after they turned into a laughing stock in the village.

“At home I am called Mr Makenzi and Shakahola. People are mocking me because of what happened to my family, my family is stigmatised because of this cult,” said Ombajo.

Asena has been a member of Good News International Church for more than five years. The family believes the couple’s children aged between two and 15 years starved to death.

Positive identification

“He took the children with him, and we went and saw that all my five grandchildren are among those who had died as we await positive identification through DNA test,” said Ombajo.

He went to Kilifi last week to remove DNA sample and is awaiting the results to confirm if his five grandchildren are among the dead.

Ombajo appealed to the government to fast track the DNA verification process to end families agony.

“When we got the news two months ago, we were glad that our son was arrested as he was a risk to his own life and that of his wife, but we didn’t know the fate of the five children,” said Ombajo.

About 17km away in Bunyore, the family of Buyuka Indusu, 80, is in agony.

Indusu’s son Joseph Juma, 42, his wife and five children are among the victims of the starvation cult after they left their home to join pastor Makenzi. He told the committee that the local chief delivered the news of the death of his grandchildren and daughter-in-law.

“The chief came at my home and told me that the police in Kilifi had called and instructed that I to go and collect the bodies of my family,” said Indusu.

Indusu said it was sad to lose the six who left home in 2019 to join the controversial spiritual leader.

“In 2019, he left without saying where he was going. I would only come to learn of his death through the chief,” said Indusu.

Zadock Ambwayo narrated how he raised his son Befrida Mulama under the Pentecostal Assembly of God church, only to be swayed by Makenzi.

Mulama, who hailed from Emuhaya, moved to the Coast three years ago and held a senior post in the controversial church before he was joined by his wife and five children.

“He started going to the church when in Mombasa. When he came back home he was so cruel, asked his children not to go to school, among other radical actions,” said Ambwayo. He said Mulama he has not communicated with the family for a year now, raising fears of his whereabouts.

For Charles Adundo, 85, from Mungoma village, he hopes one day his two sons will return home after they were lured by controversial teachings of Makenzi.

Adundo said life has never been the same since early this year when his sons suddenly left home.

Erick Ongoro took his brother Denis Chore to Malindi early this year, and they are believed to be among Shakahola victims. Chore would later come back for his wife and two sons and they left for Malindi.

“One day, I came back home only to find my two sons missing. They had prepared lunch for me and told some people that they were headed to Shakahola in Kilifi,” said Adundo.

Chore is in custody after he was rescued on the brink of starvation by the Kenya Red Cross Society officials, but the whereabouts of his wife, two children and Ongoro are unknown.

Adundo said he raised his sons in the Friends Church (Quakers), but they joined Makenzi’s church a year ago. “I have been struggling to get bus fare that can enable me to travel to Kilifi and to know the whereabouts of my family, all I ask for is the help of the government,” he said.

The committee met the affected families, county government leaders, the religious leaders and security team.

The committee was led by host Senator Godfrey Osotsi, Shakila Mohammad (Nominated), Veronica Maina (Nominated), David Wakoli (Bungoma) and Abdul Haji (Garissa).

Senator Mohammad said they will audit the legal and registration framework of religious organizations in the country.