Why did 73 Kenyan cult members starve to death?

Some of the exhumed bodies of victims of the religious cult are laid out in the village of Shakahola, near the coastal city of Malindi, Kenya on April 23, 2023 [AP Photo]

Paul Mackenzie, the cult’s leader, has been arrested twice previously after the deaths of children due to starvation.

Nairobi, Kenya – Since last week, police in Kenya have exhumed at least 73 bodies of people believed to have starved to death, from shallow graves in the country’s coastal region.

At the heart of the “massacre” is Pastor Paul Mackenzie, a controversial preacher at Good News International Church who indoctrinated his followers, asking them to abandon “earthly life” and meet at his 325-hectare (800-acre) farm in a village called Shakahola in Kilifi county for a fast “to meet Jesus”.

Here is all you need to know about the developing situation in the East African country.

What happened?

Mackenzie, a televangelist, founded his church in the coastal town of Malindi in 2003. Since then, he has constantly been at loggerheads with authorities after allegations that he was asking children to quit formal education.

In 2019, he closed the church and moved to Shakahola with a few of his members.

Mackenzie, who has often posited that he has prophetic powers and has seen apparitions of Jesus, said he got a revelation to do so.

He instructed his followers to quit their jobs, drop out of formal schools, stop feeding on “worldly food”, and not seek medical treatment in hospitals when sick. They met on Saturdays under a tree from 9am to 5pm for “life lessons”.

Police say he told them that the fast would count only if they gathered together, and offered them his farm as a fasting venue. They were not to mingle with anyone from the “outside” world if they wanted to go to heaven and were to destroy all documents given by the government, including national IDs and birth certificates, he allegedly said.

The government-authorised rescue began on April 13 after two children were reported to have starved and suffocated to death by their parents on Mackenzie’s advice on March 16 and 17.

On March 23, Mackenzie was arraigned in court and was released on 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($74) cash bail. He had been arrested before in 2019, also relating to the deaths of children, but was released on bond. Both cases are still in court.

Investigations by the police led them to Shakahola where 16 emaciated people were found, four of whom died before reaching the hospital.

At least 73 bodies have been exhumed since the search began; 27 people were rescued and admitted to the hospital for severe malnutrition; 39 known members of the cult are still missing though there could be more people as residents said about 300 people lived in the Shakahola farm.

The search is still ongoing, not just for bodies but also for survivors of the cult, some of whom are still refusing to eat. The followers say they were told to starve to avoid apocalyptic damnation.

There have been unverified reports that some of the cult members who were captured trying to escape the fast were killed and buried – one of the bodies recovered from the graves was of a healthy-looking person, whose body was not emaciated.

What have the reactions been so far?

President William Ruto on Monday said the cult leader belongs in prison as “what is being witnessed in Shakahola is akin to terrorism”.

Other leaders have either visited the scene or issued statements, with some raising questions on Kenya’s state of security, intelligence gathering and community policing.

In a statement, Amason Kingi, head of the Senate and a former Kilifi governor, asked, “How [did] such a heinous crime, organised and executed over a considerable period of time, escape the radar of our intelligence system? How did evil of such an astounding magnitude take place without being detected? How did this ‘pastor’ gather so many people, indoctrinate, brainwash and starve them to death in the name of fasting and then bury them in a forest without being detected?”

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki termed the incident a “massacre”, warning that the cult leaders would be subjected to severe punishments in accordance with the law.

“While the state remains respectful of religious freedom, this horrendous blight on our conscience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrators of the atrocity on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation [including self-regulation] of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward,” Kindiki stated.

Civil societies and religious leaders have also condemned the incident terming it as “extremism” aimed at taking advantage of people.

Anthony Muheria, the archbishop of Nyeri Catholic Archdiocese in central Kenya, said it was an “act of extremism” where the scripture was being used to deceive followers.

“Religion cannot be and should not be the cause of people losing lives through radical extremism that people have to do exceptional things to gain blessings from God,” he said.

What happens next?

The pastor surrendered to the police on April 14 and is still in custody pending investigations. He has since refused to eat. Neither he nor any of his representatives have spoken to the police this time.

“I am shocked about the accusations placed before me,” he had said after being released on bail last month. “I closed my Good News International church in Malindi in August 2019 and it’s important for people to accept that. I even sold the equipment there and the chairs as well.”

“If a person used to worship with me then, they should do it on their own now and not by my name,” he added. “Follow Christ and not pastor Mackenzie.”

He blamed the media for always misquoting him and taking his words out of context.

“The other time I made a sermon on earthly education being evil and I was taken to court for telling children not to go to school. This was not the case. It is a prophecy and it depends on how you take it. I can preach but I do not force the teachings on anyone,” he said.



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