Imagine the last moments of Shakahola cult followers

It is hard to regulate spiritual matters, but this tragedy is a wake-up call

In Summary

• Given a deadline to die, faithful ditched families, careers, businesses and property 

• What followed is a tragedy whose scale is still unfolding as many starved to death

Illustration of a man dying of hunger near the Good News International Church
Illustration of a man dying of hunger near the Good News International Church

The man crawled into the shade, presumably to get away from the harsh afternoon sun. It was a bush only the height of an average man but, under the circumstances, this would have to do.

Perhaps crawling on his belly provided some relief from the sharp hunger pangs. Relieved from the piercing rays of the sun, the man stretched out his arms in front and rested his head. The hunger, thirst and fatigue quickly drove him to sleep.

There, in a strange land far from home, the yet-to-be-identified man breathed his last. He was found that way, lying on his belly, when word got round that members of a cult were starving to death at Shakahola in Kilifi county.

In the same thicket were the bodies of two other men. They, too, had taken shelter from the hot sun. At least that's what it looked like. One of the men was in a trouser but had no shirt. Instead, he had a woman's lesso around his shoulders. The other man was also shirtless, his lower body dressed in white, knee-length pants. They were both barefooted.

A short distance away within the large compound were the bodies of two other men. Those two were not under a thicket, suggesting they stopped to rest when the sun was not too hot, possibly at night. One of the men had wrapped his arms wrapped around his bare chest as though shielding himself from chilly weather. He, too, seems to have slept and never woken up.

The other man, clean-shaven head and dressed only in shorts, might have died differently. His upper body was twisted as though in pain. Was he overcome with hunger and thirst as he fasted to death? Had he been poisoned? As he lay dying in the red dust, did he pray someone would rescue him? Did he regret going to that wilderness? Was he happy he was heading to heaven as promised by their cult leader?

They were radicalised by a man who reportedly told them that their mission on earth had come to an end
Pr Paul Mackenzie


If the men had doubts about the choices that got them to Shakahola, their leader's words were a sharp reminder of what they had to do. Men and women left behind families, careers, businesses and property to be in that religious compound. Men, women and their children went to Shakahola to join like-minded believers. Their leader, Pastor Paul Mackenzie, lectured them and roared, "You must die by August!"

Survivors have told the media why August is an important month. Cult leader Mackenzie predicts that the world will be darkened by terrible disasters and that his followers would be better off dead. The area Criminal Investigations Officer Charles Kamau confirms the claims. "They were radicalised by a man who reportedly told them that their mission on earth had come to an end," he told reporters.

Fasting is part of almost every religion. In ordinary circumstances, people fast for a few days while taking fluids for sustenance. Cult members were fasting without food and water because the intention was to die. Humans can survive for as little as eight days without food and water, according to research published by the National Library of Medicine. If a starving person has access to water, he or she can live for two months without food.

Scientific American magazine reports that patients in a vegetative state withdrawn from life support have been known to live on for 10 to 14 days. "In situations of voluntary refusal of food and water, death typically ensues in a similar time frame, although the early use of ice chips or sips of water to reduce thirst may delay this slightly," Dr Alan Lieberson, a medical practitioner, is quoted as saying in the magazine.

The dead at Shakahola may have starved for one to two weeks before they died. Police, however, suspect some of the victims may have been murdered. Speaking at the site on Monday, Inspector-General of Police Japheth Koome said all the corpses will be examined for poisoning and strangulation.

Among Mackenzie's congregation were farmers, police officers, students, teachers and small-scale entrepreneurs. They gave up homes, promising careers and families to join a man who made it clear they should die. He did not need them. They watched fellow cult members die one by one, emaciated corpses dumped in shallow graves dug in the bush. Bodies of a man, woman and several children were found in one pit.

The Shakahola saga is Kenya's worst case of cult-related mass killings. As of the writing of this article, more bodies were being uncovered. The world's worst cult killing, famously known as the Jonestown incident, occurred in Guyana in November 1978. In total, 918 people died through poisoning and shooting. 30 per cent of the dead were minors. 

Uganda had a bad episode of cult deaths in March 2000, when 700 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were killed en-masse when their church burnt to the ground. Cult leaders convinced followers that the world would end at the turn of the millennium.

With regards to the Shakahola incident, there had been red flags about Pr Paul Mackenzie stretching back to 2003. He has on numerous occasions been accused of false teachings, incitement and encouraging parents not to take children to school. One of his churches was burnt down in 2018 by angry members of the public in Magarini, Kilifi county. For a man claiming to be a messenger of God, death seems to follow Mackenzie like an ominous shadow. Two of his three wives are dead.

As of now, there are no restrictions on anybody starting a church. You and I can bring together 10 people, meet every Sunday and call ourselves a church. That's why we have thousands of small churches everywhere
Nairobi Pastor


There are now calls for stronger government oversight over religious organisations. The government attempted to implement tough regulations on religious organisations in 2016, but withdrew the proposed law in the face of public pressure. Critics accused the state of wanting to limit religious freedom.

"As of now, there are no restrictions on anybody starting a church," says a pastor in Nairobi, who requested anonymity due to the ongoing developments in Kilifi. "You and I can bring together 10 people, meet every Sunday and call ourselves a church. That's why we have thousands of small churches everywhere," the cleric says.

The pastor adds that mainstream Christian denominations have rules on how their churches are managed, but those are internal guidelines. There is no overall institution that supervises churches. The National Council of Churches of Kenya, for instance, has no powers of enforcement.

Speaking of NCCK, secretary general Chris Kinyanjui says the government no longer coordinates with the council before registering new churches. Preachers are not vetted. The ease of registering splinter churches has contributed to the mushrooming of entities that exploit the flock.

It is difficult for any government to strictly regulate spiritual matters, but the unfolding tragedy at Shakahola may just convince Kenyans that religious institutions must be monitored. It is worth remembering the words of Jesus Christ, who warned of false prophets.

"On that last day, many will call me Lord. They will say, 'Lord, Lord, by the power of your name, we spoke for God. And by your name, we forced out demons and did many miracles.' Then I will tell those people clearly, 'Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you,'" Jesus said.

Image: OZONE
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