How a Kenyan cult leader got hundreds of people to die by starvation
Kenya is in grief right now because mass graves with the bodies of hundreds of people, including children, were found on a ranch deep in Kenya’s Shakahola Forest.
Hundreds more are still missing.
Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s preaching, it is said, convinced the people who went to his Good News International Church that the end of the world was coming and that they should starve themselves to death.
Kenyan President William Ruto has said that the large number of deaths is “like terrorism.” But it wasn’t the first time the priest had run into the law. Could someone have stopped it? How did one man get hundreds of people to follow him down this path?
His lawyer, George Kariuki, says that Mackenzie could be charged with “possible terrorism.”
Mackenzie went to court on Tuesday, where Kariuki told CNN, “he was released without any conditions and then re-arrested on possible terrorism charges.”
He also said that his client was taken to Shanzu Court in Mombasa later. CNN stations Citizen TV and NTV say that the religious leader showed up with six other suspects. He was wearing a pink and black jacket.
Relatives of his followers say that Paul Mackenzie, the leader of a cult in Kenya, lived with hundreds of people in makeshift homes made of polythene sheets and thatch in a remote forest camp that he split into areas with biblical names like Jerusalem and Judea.
According to his relatives and a top police investigator, he told them the world as they knew it would end on April 15 and Satan would rule for 1,000 years. They said that he told them to kill themselves and their children by starvation so that they could meet Jesus in heaven before that date.
Mackenzie said in a video released on YouTube in March, “I heard the voice of Christ telling me that the nine years of work I gave you to preach end-time messages are over.” “I listened to the voice that told me the job was done.”
A few weeks later, his group became the centre of national horror when more than 100 bodies, mostly children, were found in mass graves in the Shakahola forest in southeast Kenya, where his Good News International Church was located.
Mackenzie, who is 50 years old, is in police custody, but he hasn’t had to plead guilty to any of the charges against him yet because the mass graves are still being dug up. Two lawyers who work for him refused to say anything.
In court papers seen by AFP, Mackenzie is accused of murder, kidnapping, and cruelty to children, among other crimes, in addition to the terrorism charges that prosecutors plan to file.
The former cab driver turned himself in on April 14 after police got a tip and went into Shakahola forest, where they found about 30 mass graves.
Prosecutors say in court papers that Mackenzie and his aide have a “history of business investments” together, including a TV station that was used to send “radicalised messages” to followers.
Odero told the court in his filing that he wanted to “strongly disassociate” himself from Mackenzie and that he did not agree with what Mackenzie taught.
People have asked how Mackenzie, who calls himself a pastor but has a history of extremism, managed to stay out of trouble with the law despite his high profile and earlier legal problems.
Mackenzie planned to starve out a large number of cult members in three stages: first, the children, then the women and young men, and finally the rest of the men and himself, according to six people and a detective, who did not want to be named because the details are private.
The investigator also said that Mackenzie denied telling anyone not to eat, and the cult head said that he had been eating himself.
Four people who lost loved ones to starvation said that Mackenzie was a tyrant whose extreme beliefs had cut off his followers from their families and society.
They said that he told them they couldn’t send their kids to school or go to the hospital when they were sick because those places were evil. Women were told to cut their hair short and not wear any makeup.
Mackenzie said in one of his online lectures from March that education is bad. “Children are taught about lesbianism and homosexuality in school.”
Rebecca Mbetsa looked for her daughter Mercy Chai’s body in the hospital mortuary in Malindi, a vacation town near the forest. She had two pictures of Mercy Chai, who was 31 years old. Before Chai joined Mackenzie’s group, she was in the first picture with long curls, while in the second, she had short hair.
Mbetsa said, “There was a time when she was sick and she wouldn’t go to the hospital because she said her faith wouldn’t let her.”
So far, 109 people have died. 101 of them were found in mass graves, and eight people who were found living later died. Authorities say that the number could go up because more than 400 people are still missing in the area.
The tragedy has become political, with Kenyan President William Ruto saying that the government will set up a judicial commission of inquiry to find out why Mackenzie’s claimed actions were not found earlier.
Mid-March, weeks before the mass graves were found, a local man told police that his brother and sister-in-law had starved their children to death in the forest on Mackenzie’s orders. This was the first time that the followers’ situation became known.
The papers show that when the police went to the forest, they found two of the couple’s sons buried in shallow graves. They saved a third son who was very weak and had lost a lot of weight.
Mackenzie was arrested, and police asked a Malindi court to keep him in custody while they looked into a murder. However, a judge set bail for him at 10,000 shillings (about $73), and Mackenzie was released.
After he was set free, Mackenzie went back to the forest and moved the date of the end of the world, which he had said would happen in August, to April 15.
Stephen Mwiti, who joined the cult two years ago and worries that his wife and six children died in the mass starvation, said that another former member of the group told him about the moment Mackenzie returned to the forest camp.
“As soon as he got back, he called a meeting and said the world was ending and that we, the chosen ones, needed to move forward before the world ended and problems came,” Mwiti said, referring to the story of the former cult member who had been kicked out for drinking water when he was supposed to be fasting to death.
“I’ll be the last one, Mackenzie, because I’m your boss. I’ll shut the door, and you picked ones will go ahead of me. Then we’ll all meet Christ,” Mwiti said. Reuters was not able to confirm the story on its own.
On April 13, police went back to the forest after getting a tip and found 15 malnourished people sitting around. Four of them were so weak that they died before they could get to the hospital, police said.
The next day, Mackenzie was taken into custody again, and this time the cops looked through the forest in a more organised way. They started digging up mass graves on April 21.
Mackenzie grew up in a rural area of Kenya called Kwale County. According to Japheth Charo, a fellow taxi driver, he went to Malindi, a coastal town in the nearby county of Kilifi, in the early 1990s. There, he worked as a taxi driver.
Charo said that Mackenzie was very rude to the police and that he once went to court to fight a fine for a small traffic violation.
“He hated losing,” Charo said. “He never gave an inch.”
Mackenzie became more religious over time. He went to a Baptist church for a few years before leaving the taxi business to start his own church in Malindi in 2003, according to Charo, who said he and his family went to Mackenzie’s church for two years until his lectures became scary.
“He started attacking people of other faiths, like Muslims and Catholics,” he said. “His sermons became more and more extreme.”
According to court papers from March 2017, when police searched Mackenzie’s home in the Malindi neighbourhood of Furunzi, they found 43 children living there who were not in school.
He was accused of teaching at a place that wasn’t licenced, but he kept teaching after making a deal.
The government told Mackenzie’s church to close down in 2019, cops said, so he moved to the Shakahola forest, which is about an hour and a half away by car.
Charo said last month that he was shocked when he heard that mass graves had been found in the forest.
“Perhaps the same thing would have happened to me if I had stayed in that church longer,” he said. “But thank God, my family and I left on time.”