In the run-up to last year’s Kenyan general election, Ida Odinga, wife of presidential candidate Raila Odinga, had expressed concerns over the “mushrooming” of churches in the country. A torrent of criticism followed and she was forced to withdraw her statement. A year later, the country’s civil society has thrown its weight behind Ms. Ida’s proposal after mass graves were discovered at the ranch of a self-styled pastor suspected of running a religious cult in Malindi.
More than 90 corpses, mostly of children, were exhumed after a tip-off led the police to a property in the Shakahola forest, where over a dozen emaciated people told investigators that they were starving “to meet Jesus.” There are fears that the incident is just the tip of the iceberg, with more than 300 people reported missing in Malindi. As the horror unfolds, the arrest of suspected cult leader Paul Mackenzie Nthenge has put the spotlight on the religious group he led — the Good News International Church.
In the predominantly Christian country, over the years, self-styled pastors have exploited religion to control people. Some used religion for financial gains, but a few operated with darker agendas. One such group, known as the Good News International Church, was established in August 2003 by taxi driver-turned-pastor Paul Mackenzie, with its headquarters in Malindi. According to its website, the organisation intended to “nurture the faithful” in Christian spirituality for the “second coming of Jesus Christ”.
The church built its base via the ‘End Time Messages’ programme on a dedicated TV station and used social media to spread its messages. Most of the blog content, published in 2014, centres on the end of the world, Judgement Day prophecies, and salvation.
A look at the church’s YouTube channel reveals its true nature. Other than warning followers against ‘diabolical’ mobile phone-based money transfer services and ‘satanic’ forces in power, the group stood against imparting school education to children. It discouraged women from seeking medical treatment and told them not to wear ‘demonic’ wigs. “Why can’t women be content with the natural hair given to them by God,” a clip shows. It also features an exorcism.
The group asked followers to avoid medical treatment when sick. It even called upon members to quit their jobs. Over time, the televangelist with ‘prophetic powers’ and the ability to speak to God amassed a cult following.
However, his controversial sermons caught the attention of the police. Mackenzie’s first brush with the law came in 2017 when he was arrested for advocating against school education for children. Two years later, he was held for disobedience of the law and distribution of unexamined films with radicalisation-like content. After his release, Mackenzie said he was closing down the church. He sold the television channel and moved to the forests of Shakahola in 2019.
The Shakahola horror
Soon, Mackenzie started leading cult members to his Malindi ranch, nestled in the forest, where he allegedly convinced them that the world was going to end. He preached that the only way to meet God was to fast until death. Though he claimed to have closed the church, Mackenzie continued uploading video sermons for his 7,000-odd subscribers on YouTube.
It was an activist’s tip-off that finally led the police to the 800-acre ranch. The subsequent searches led investigators to uncover the scale of the ‘Shakahola forest massacre’. During the raids, investigators unearthed dozens of decomposed bodies buried in shallow graves marked with a cross. Some were left exposed in the open air. A few people were found alive but starving inside mud huts scattered on the ranch. The incident sent shockwaves across Kenya. It has come to light that Mackenzie was arrested in March in connection with the death of two children. Their parents had allegedly starved the two kids on the pastor’s advice.
Authorities suspect the pastor and his group were involved in murder and radicalisation, but Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki awaits more followers of the group to come forward to tell the world the real story of “how a fellow Kenyan decided to hurt so many people, heartlessly, hiding under the Holy Scriptures”.