/ 5 May 2023

People tried to stop deadly Kenya cult led by Pastor Mackenzie

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Shallow graves: More than 100 bodies have been exhumed at Shakahola and autopsies on 40 of the bodies found that the causes of death were starvation, strangulation and suffocation. Photo: Yauyoshi Chiba/AFP

Kazungu Mvera, a human rights activist in Malindi, Kenya, says it was in late 2017 when she first heard of Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, the preacher who is making international headlines for allegedly advising his followers to starve to death.

Back then, Mvera was told that “Pastor Mackenzie” was discouraging children from going to school and that his adult followers were burning their school certificates, in line with his teaching that education was evil. 

When she heard that the preacher was holding up to 100 children at his premises, she joined other residents in calling for an end to his church.

She searched for his social media pages and commented on his posts to call him out. At least once, the preacher responded, saying she was a liar. But Mvera received other messages of support such as the one from a woman who said her daughter was one of Mackenzie’s followers and had gone missing.

“We made so much noise that the area member of parliament intervened,” Mvera remembers. 

The church was closed and Mackenzie was arrested. But then the police then released him.

 “They would arrest, and let him go, arrest and let him go,” Mvera says. 

In May 2019, Mackenzie was again arrested and charged with inciting children against education. He was released by the court on a $1 000 bail. He told journalists he would retire from his preaching career.

Locals drove him out of his first base in Migingo. He set up further away in Madumbuni, but that area’s residents set his church on fire.

Mackenzie then moved to Shakahola, the forested area that is now littered with shallow mass graves from which bodies of his followers are being exhumed and piled in a refrigerated shipping container.

A Shakahola resident, one of at least 16 people hired as gravediggers, remembers when Mackenzie first moved into the area. 

He said that in the beginning Mackenzie’s followers would come to the nearby town and could be seen shopping with children. Then “they just disappeared”. He said he wanted to go into the forest and ask after them but abandoned the idea when he was told that some of the preacher’s followers were armed.

In March, the police learnt that two boys in Mackenzie’s commune had died of starvation. They arrested and charged him. A judge set his bail at $80 and he walked free.

Just weeks later, on April 13, the police were tipped off that more people in the commune were starving to death. They raided the place and found more than a dozen emaciated people and what appeared to be a shallow grave.

Two weeks later, the police and gravediggers had exhumed at least 90 bodies from graves in Shakahola forest. The eventual death toll is expected to exceed 100 people in what is the largest mass death linked to a cult in Kenya’s recorded history.

It is a national tragedy. For Mvera, who tried to fight Mackenzie back in 2017, it is also personal. Her cousin joined the cult and is still missing. Among the dead are her cousin’s five-year-old and one-year-old sons. Only her eldest, an emaciated eight-year-old boy, was rescued.

“This could have been prevented,” said the gravedigger. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.