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Story Publication logo April 19, 2024

Inside the Kenyan Cult That Starved Itself to Death


A run down sign with a forest in the background

An investigation looks into what led people to join Paul Mackenzie's church.


During COVID-19 a preacher lured thousands of people into a remote forest. Then he told them to stop eating

It started with one family. Then another arrived, then another. Soon there were enough of them to begin clearing a section of the forest, cutting down the moringa and acacia trees, and uprooting thick shrubs. The forest, known as Shakahola, bordered a village of the same name in south-eastern Kenya, not far from the coast. The villagers were puzzled. Not only had these strangers occupied their ancestral land without permission, they were venturing into parts of the forest that were deemed uninhabitable. Shakahola forest, on the edge of the vast Tsavo National Park, teems with dangerous animals: lions and leopards, hyenas and elephants. Locals sometimes dipped into it to gather wood, to make charcoal or to graze their livestock. But no one from Shakahola dared live there.

Yet these mysterious visitors continued to arrive throughout late 2019. By early 2020, as the pandemic ravaged Kenya, shutting down schools and leading to severe restrictions on travel and socialising, their numbers grew to around 2,000. Every week, Changawa Mangi, one of Shakahola’s elders, saw groups of women and children come to town to buy maize for milling into flour. But he found it difficult to learn much about the newcomers. “We didn’t know who they were. We asked them, but they refused to say more than that they were farmers,” Mangi told me. There were signs, though, that they had begun to regard the forest as their permanent home: locals saw them raising chickens and building mud houses.

In January 2023 — three and a half years after the forest-dwellers first appeared — the shopkeepers in Shakahola noticed something strange: the children who usually accompanied their mothers into town were no longer tagging along. Within weeks, the women themselves stopped appearing.

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Then, in February, some herders who had been grazing their cattle returned to town with an alarming story. They had seen a few women lying on the forest floor. This in itself was unusual: every Kenyan knows that such a posture can attract the attention of scavenging animals. The women were skeletal and the group could hear them moaning for help. When the herders drew closer, they were stopped by a band of men armed with machetes. “If you are here to herd, do that. Don’t bother with things that don’t involve you,” the men reportedly warned them.

A few days later, another group of herders found five emaciated boys, aged between 10 and 13, stumbling through the forest. This time, the herders managed to bring them into town. What the boys had to say shocked Shakahola’s residents. They claimed that they had been forced to starve themselves in the forest. Many people had already died — most from starvation, but others had been strangled or bludgeoned. Their bodies had been crammed into shallow, mass graves.

Mangi, the elder, and a few other horrified locals decided to investigate. They soon found the starving women, their bellies swollen with hunger. Once again, the men with the machetes appeared. They torched the villagers’ motorbikes, warning that they would do much worse if they didn’t leave. Mangi and the others ran back to Shakahola and filed a report with the police.

On April 14th 2023 — after weeks of bureaucratic delays — a group of police officers, pathologists, grave-diggers, human-rights activists, journalists and locals (including Mangi) descended on Shakahola forest. It had recently rained and the red soil was slippery, making the road impassable for their 4x4s. The group had to walk the last few kilometres in the heat, their eyes locked nervously on the ground. They were terrified of stepping on snakes, scorpions — or something more gruesome.

In the bushes, the group began finding bodies that had not yet been buried. Meanwhile, the five boys who had fled from the forest pointed out graves, now sprouting with vegetables. Many of them contained a number of corpses — one held 12. Some bodies had decayed so much that all that was left were bones. “When you saw a suspicious spot, you’d poke a long stick into the ground,” recalled Alex Kalama, a journalist who was present. “After two metres, a strong stench would waft up.”

A few people in the settlement were still alive. Some were inexplicably naked; others were lying on the ground or tied to trees with ropes. Many of these starving people refused the rescuers’ help, telling the group that they were on their way to heaven. Mangi remembered one woman asking him to leave her because she “wanted to meet Christ.” Mathias Shipeta, an employee of HAKI Africa, an NGO that promotes human rights, said that he started telling the victims he had been sent by Jesus to persuade them to accept his assistance.

Over the next two days, 67 adults and 27 children were taken back to town in ambulances, police vehicles, cars driven by journalists and aid workers, and the arms of rescuers. They were very weak — one woman died on Mangi’s back. Later he wondered whether the people in the forest had been “brainwashed” into killing themselves. Then he paused, his voice growing quiet. “But they were all very educated. You can’t say they don’t know the Bible. They had so many Bibles in their houses — and money.”

THE same day that the bodies were found, a short, stocky man called Paul Nthenge Mackenzie was arrested at his home in Malindi, a seaside resort town roughly 70km from Shakahola. Mackenzie, who was 47 years old at the time, was best known as the charismatic leader of a fringe church called Good News International (GNI). Now he is in jail, awaiting trial on charges of murder, manslaughter and torture for having preached to his followers that fasting to death would lead to their spiritual salvation (he denies all allegations). So far, the bodies of 429 people — including nearly 200 children — have been recovered from the forest. Roughly 600 other members of GNI are missing and may have died, too.

The cult Mackenzie led had roots in conventional evangelical Christianity. Roughly 20% of Kenya’s population of 55m are evangelicals. After the country became independent from Britain in 1963, established Christian denominations — such as the Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian churches — continued to be popular. But in the 1980s and 1990s, amid an economic downturn and soaring unemployment, many Kenyans were won over by the preaching of American evangelicals such as Billy Graham and Benny Hinn, whose sermons promising salvation and prosperity were broadcast on Kenyan TV and radio. The country’s president, Daniel arap Moi, was happy to encourage the growth of evangelical churches, as leaders of the traditional denominations tended to criticise his corrupt, autocratic rule. Evangelical preachers, in turn, were appreciative and tended to support the government — some even declared that Moi was anointed by God. Many of these starving people refused the rescuers’ help, telling the group that they were on their way to heaven

By the 1990s there were hundreds of new evangelical churches in Kenya, many of whose preachers exerted influence on local affairs. Pius Muiru, the leader of a movement called the Maximum Miracle Centre, even ran for president in 2007 (though he won just 0.1% of the vote). Other evangelicals later made similar forays into politics. In 2022 William Ruto became the country’s first evangelical president, promising that his administration would promote Christian values. His wife has used her platform to organise evangelical crusades, during which people witness “miracles” and get baptised en masse (she recently invited Hinn to Kenya).

The prominence of evangelicalism in Kenyan public life means that churches with more extreme, even dangerous, views generally receive little scrutiny from the government or the press. Although fringe evangelical churches may share basic characteristics with more mainstream ones — such as a literal interpretation of the Bible, and a belief in the impending return of Jesus Christ and the subsequent ascension of his followers into heaven — they are often distinguished by their total reliance on a single preacher, who, through the force of his charisma, seeks to impose his dogma onto every aspect of his congregants’ lives. At its height, GNI had around 3,000 members in Kenya, and Mackenzie’s TV and YouTube channels attracted millions of viewers. Even so, the increasingly radical ideas he put forward on these platforms caused little concern to the authorities.

Mackenzie was born in 1976 in Lunga Lunga, a town near Kenya’s border with Tanzania, the fifth of ten children. His family were members of the Africa Brotherhood Church, an evangelical movement founded in the 1940s by anti-colonialist Africans. As a teenager, Mackenzie became the choirmaster and a Sunday school teacher.

After secondary school, Mackenzie sold flour out of a handcart in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city. A few years later, he moved to Malindi, where he ran a taxi service. By 2002 Mackenzie had married his first wife, Agnes Mongeli, and left the local Africa Brotherhood Church, where he had been preaching, after a dispute with its leaders. He joined a Baptist congregation and started to find his voice as a preacher, claiming that an imminent apocalypse had been revealed to him by God. One evening in 2003, he told congregants he had received a vision that the head of their church had to die before the Lord could return. This did not go down well with the leadership, and Mackenzie was expelled.

Undeterred, Mackenzie soon started a new church with a married couple from his old congregation, David Kahindi and Ruth Kadzo. They called it the House of the Lord, and held services in the couple’s front garden in Malindi. Naomi, one of Kahindi’s and Kadzo’s daughters, attested that the entire family embraced Mackenzie. At the time, they thought he “was a man with a good heart,” she told me.

Once again, though, Mackenzie’s sermons alienated others in the church. He began to fixate on the sinfulness of medicine and education. According to Kadzo, he urged her to stop taking medicine for her stomach ulcers. “Die so that you can go to heaven,” he reportedly said. The family was confused by his extreme views. As Kahindi put it, “Mackenzie was just an ordinary guy. I don’t know where he got these things from.”

It seems, according to Kenyan detectives, that these ideas were at least partly inspired by the teachings of other radical preachers — including William Branham, an American evangelical known for his doomsday theology and for mentoring Jim Jones, the cult leader who instigated the murder-suicide of more than 900 followers at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Mackenzie’s teachings drew heavily from Branham’s Latter Rain message, in which the preacher, among other things, encouraged fasting as a way of achieving “atomic power.”

Neither Kahindi nor Kadzo supported Mackenzie’s increasingly fanatical views, so Mackenzie removed them from the church’s leadership in 2006. Most of the Kahindi family left the church. Their daughter Mary, however, was married to Mackenzie’s deputy, Smart Mwakalama, and the couple remained among Mackenzie’s strongest supporters. (They are now charged with murder and other crimes but deny the allegations.)

Mackenzie moved the church to a property he had bought nearby and rebranded it as Good News International Church. When Mongeli, his wife, died in childbirth in 2009, his teachings became even stricter and more idiosyncratic. (There is speculation among some who knew Mackenzie at the time about whether he prevented his wife from going to the hospital. According to Kadzo, Mongeli disagreed with her husband that their children should be denied schooling or health care.) Members of GNI were now told that having jobs, complying with governmental edicts, applying beauty products, plaiting their hair and even wearing underwear were sinful acts.

Fathima Badurdeen, a sociologist at the Technical University of Mombasa who has studied the history of religious extremism in Kenya’s coastal region, told me that many members of the church would have been unfazed by Mackenzie’s bizarre demands. Almost half the population of Kilifi County, where Malindi is the largest town, are poor, and drug use and unemployment are both rampant. “Some of these people were lonely, some had financial problems, some had abusive husbands, some were trapped in alcohol and drug abuse. This charismatic preacher had filled a void for them,” she explained.

In his most popular sermons, Mackenzie mixed historical distortions, anti-colonial sentiments, conspiracies about the crumbling world order (which he believed was dominated by the Catholic church and America), and references to the social and political problems plaguing Malindi. The resulting message was often nonsensical. In one Sunday sermon, Mackenzie explained that the sinfulness of education dated back to the Roman era: “When the Roman Empire collapsed and died, the Englishman came and said, ‘Me, I’ll teach you English culture using English.’ So today you see someone speaking in English thinking that they’ve reached heaven.”

The first British settlement in Africa came more than 1,000 years after the fall of Rome, but still, Mackenzie’s messages roused his congregation. Watching clips of Mackenzie’s sermons on YouTube, I could see that he was a captivating preacher, his voice ebbing and flowing from a soft whisper into an urgent crescendo. In a sermon from 2010 – called, disconcertingly, “Thirst and Hunger Volume 1” – Mackenzie claimed that “the Devil put the spirit of questioning God, the Antichrist spirit, into humans using education.” He continued, bellowing: “The world lies to you that education will bring you good jobs and wealth, but where are these jobs? Instead all the university graduates bring is pregnancies and drug addictions. Then the children all die of AIDS because of the Devil’s lies.”

GNI soon had seven branches within Kenya and over 1,000 followers from across Africa, from Uganda to Nigeria. Titus Katana, a 41-year-old groundnut vendor who served as a deputy pastor at GNI between 2015 and 2019, attributed much of Mackenzie’s popularity to the fact that he was perceived as a “humble man”. Some of the former GNI members I spoke to agreed with this assessment, saying that Mackenzie was more compassionate when he was away from the pulpit.

It wasn’t until May 2015, when Mackenzie started his church’s television station, Times tv, that some members of GNI began to distrust him. “That’s when he changed,” his younger brother Robert, who had been a member of GNI at the time, told me. Whereas Mackenzie had previously spoken generally about the evils of education, he now exhorted his followers to remove their children from schools that used the government curriculum and enroll them instead in a school he had started. “Paul wouldn’t force you. He would try and convince me to remove them [but] not force me,” Robert said. (Ultimately, Robert refused to withdraw his children from their school.)

Even so, more than a hundred children were withdrawn from school. Some were enrolled in Mackenzie’s alternative, while others stopped attending school completely– including the six children of Smart Mwakalama, Mackenzie’s second-in-command, and Mary Kahindi. In 2017 Mwakalama’s mother, Constance Sidi, furious that her grandchildren were not receiving a proper education, reported Mackenzie to the police. Mackenzie and his second wife Joyce Mwikamba were arrested and charged with running an unregistered school and radicalising its pupils. (Kenyan law allows for prison sentences of up to 30 years for promoting an “extreme belief system” that might lead to violence or “political, religious or social change”.) The children who had been enrolled in the GNI school were removed from their parents and taken into state care for a few months while the situation was investigated. Mackenzie and Mwikamba were found guilty of running an unregistered school and fined a mere 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($150); they were acquitted on the charge of radicalisation.

Soon afterwards, Mwikamba died. (According to a report by a Kenyan Senate inquiry into the events at Shakahola, the circumstances of her death are unknown and therefore considered “suspicious”.) Mwikamba’s relatives took custody of her four children with Mackenzie, as they were eager for the kids to go to school. Mackenzie then quickly remarried for a third time, to Rhoda Mumbua, a member of GNI’s congregation. Mackenzie ordered that the children be the first to fast to death. The women and unmarried men would go next, then the rest of the men. Mackenzie said that he would be last, for he had to preside over the congregation’s funerals

In 2019 the Kenyan government launched a digital ID system, called Huduma Nambawhich gave each citizen a unique identifying number to help them obtain government services. Mackenzie considered this to be the “mark of the beast” mentioned in the Book of Revelation. According to the report by the Kenyan Senate, this rhetoric was inspired by the Jesus Christians (also known as A Voice in the Desert), a fringe evangelical group founded by a couple living in Australia named Dave and Cherry McKay. (In an open letter to the Kenyan Senate written in November 2023, the McKays said they had never had any contact with Mackenzie and referred to what happened in Shakahola forest as “atrocities” that were unrelated to their beliefs.) In one sermon, the McKays claimed that the world was controlled by a cabal who wished to put the “mark of the beast on society”. They also preached that true Christian worship involves rejecting all earthly possessions, moving to an isolated community and serving a single church leader.

Influenced by the McKays, Mackenzie advised his followers not to register for Huduma numbers. He was arrested for a second time. This seemed to trigger an epiphany: for GNI to exist as he imagined it, he needed to move the church beyond the reach of the state. After his release from jail, Mackenzie invited a preacher from the Jesus Christians to address the GNI congregation in Nairobi. I watched a recording of the sermon, from May 2019, in which the preacher – a tall, white man with long brown hair – declared that “the Huduma Card is getting us closer to the mark of the beast.” He then told the assembled believers that the time had come for them to leave their lives, jobs and possessions behind and follow Jesus. “Are you ready to die for Jesus?” he asked. (In their open letter to the Kenyan Senate, the McKays acknowledged that the preacher had visited the church but denied that his sermon urged listeners to follow Mackenzie to the “promised land”.)

According to DCI Magazine, a publication circulated by Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Mackenzie informed his closest allies in December 2019 that, at Jesus’s behest, he was going to the forest outside Malindi to pray. He reportedly quoted a verse from the Book of Revelation, in which a woman was advised to flee “into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.” Mackenzie said that he hoped to create a place for his followers, where they could cleanse themselves and worship away from the evils of the world. After their own 1,260 days far from civilisation, they would leave their earthly bodies behind and ascend to heaven.

MOST of the GNI congregation were, at first, unaware of the extent of Mackenzie’s edict. They were unwilling to join him in the forest for more prosaic reasons, such as the latent dangers and lack of modern comforts. On conversion crusades around Kenya, Mackenzie tried to convince people to follow him with assurances that they would receive free housing and meals. He also claimed that land was available at knock-down prices – an attractive proposition to the many members of GNI who did not own property. Yet even with these grand promises, few were tempted to move. Only his most ardent followers, like Smart Mwakalama and Mary Kahindi, initially joined him in the forest. According to Naomi, before Mary left Malindi, she told her that “if we don’t see each other again, you should know I’ve gone to heaven.”

Then COVID-19 descended. After the first cases in Kenya were announced in March 2020, dozens of people phoned Mackenzie, desperate to join him. He felt vindicated. In one sermon, he claimed that his predictions had come true: “Didn’t I tell you? All the schools of the world will be closed?” A wave of people, moved by Mackenzie’s apparent gift of prophecy, arrived in the forest. Another followed in mid-2020, as the pandemic wore on and it became apparent that the world’s scientists were tirelessly searching for a vaccine – something that Mackenzie, in his diatribes against Western medicine, had condemned.

Thousands of people ended up living in the forest with Mackenzie, whom they referred to as Papa or Mtumishi (“servant [of God]”). From what information I’ve been able to gather from around 40 sources – Shakahola locals, relatives of victims and survivors, police officers and NGO workers in the area – Mackenzie’s followers seem to have lived a simple and circumscribed existence. (Very few of those who survived their spell in the forest have agreed to talk to journalists.) Every person or family had a farm, sold to them by Mackenzie on the cheap – around $15 an acre – from the big plot of land he had moved into at the end of 2019 (it is unclear whether Mackenzie, or even the Shakahola elders, ever owned the land in the first place). They grew vegetables for sustenance; other necessities were bought in Shakahola. During the dry months, they walked or cycled to a nearby river to fetch water.

Mackenzie’s followers lived in thatched houses in villages named after places in the Bible: Bethlehem, Galilee, Samaria, Capernaum, Emmaus, Nazareth. Mackenzie himself lived in a village called Judea, in a large compound containing three houses and a gazebo, where he would hold meetings with church officials. Also living in the villages were armed thugs, who helped Mackenzie exert control over his congregation. Some villages were kilometres apart, and the residents didn’t see each other often: the combined threat of wild animals and men with guns kept people confined to their homes. Instead, they would gather twice a month under a tree in their village to be led in prayer by their designated preacher. On rare occasions, everyone would gather in Judea to hear Mackenzie speak.

“When my mother saw me she was shocked by how thin I was. She said if I had waited a few days I would have died.”

One of the most eerie aspects of the forest community was the erasure of all traces of past lives: upon arrival, Mackenzie’s followers destroyed their national id cards, insurance cards and education certificates. They would also smash their phones or have them confiscated by church officials, as contact with people in the world beyond was forbidden, though some flouted this rule. Each believer was assigned a new identity; sometimes they chose this for themselves, sometimes the name was given by church elders. (The name changes seem arbitrary: one person switched from Collins to Baron, for instance.)

At the start, those who lived in the forest felt that Mackenzie’s promises had been fulfilled. Here they could worship the way they wanted, away from the family members who criticised them, away from the government. Those who had been poor found that, for perhaps the first time, all their needs were met.

At the end of 2022, Mackenzie proclaimed that the world would end in August 2023 — roughly three and a half years, or the biblically ordained 1,260 days, since the first GNI group entered the forest. To prepare to meet Jesus in heaven, they had to leave their earthly bodies, first by reducing the amount they ate, then by shunning food completely. Mackenzie ordered that the children be the first to fast to death. The women and unmarried men would go next, then the rest of the men. Mackenzie said that he would be last, for he had to preside over the congregation’s funerals.

Badurdeen, the scholar studying religious extremism, told me that it was unlikely that GNI members would have abandoned their faith in Mackenzie, even at this extreme juncture. “Once a charismatic leader takes over you, you’ll give up everything for this leader. You’ll feel that this is God come back to Earth,” she said. “You as an outsider, you think they are foolish, but if you [have been] in a cult you’ll understand how deeply they believe.”

Constance Sidi, Smart Mwakalama’s mother, visited her six grandchildren in the forest around the time the fasting began. The experience was unsettling. “I was the only one who ate,” she told me, distraught. “My grandchildren were there, looking at the food longingly, but their father said they couldn’t eat, they were fasting.” That was the last time she saw her grandchildren.

WHEN I first met Salema Masha, a small 30-year-old woman with a soft voice, she insisted on speaking to me on the side of a quiet road in Malindi. As a survivor of Shakahola forest, she did not want to be seen talking to a journalist. Some of Mackenzie’s thugs now lived in town, and she feared that they’d threaten her if they saw us together.

Masha had entered the forest at the beginning of 2020 with her husband and four children, none of whom had ever attended school. Although both she and her husband were long-time members of GNI, she would often disobey Mackenzie’s order not to have dealings with the outside world by visiting her mother, who lived in Shakahola. In 2022 Masha even gave birth to her fifth child at her mother’s house.

Masha had followed the rest of Mackenzie’s edicts for years, and her desire to go to heaven trumped most of her doubts about fasting. Yet once the fasting began in earnest, during the first few weeks of 2023, her morale immediately began to decline. Because the villagers were kept from seeing each other, Masha became anxious to know whether other families were making their children fast; she remembers asking her husband, who held a senior position in GNI, if he had seen people dying.

During short stretches of fasting — such as during sleep — the body relies on stored glucose for energy. After a day of fasting, however, the liver and the kidneys begin to make their own glucose to keep the brain active; after three days, the body starts breaking down fat for energy. The more body fat a person has, the longer they can last without food. But once a person’s fat begins to deplete, the physical signs of starvation emerge: hair loss, bruising, lower body temperature, constipation, dry skin, fatigue and the loss of sexual desire. Women stop getting their period. Then, as a person’s fat becomes exhausted — which, depending on their age and health, can take a few weeks or longer — the body begins to break down muscle for energy. At this point, the immune system becomes grievously weakened. The kidneys and liver stop working. The heart shuts down. And then you die.

In the forest, an event called a “wedding” would be held after someone succumbed to starvation. It would be attended by only a few GNI leaders, family members and thugs. A team of gravediggers would excavate a shallow grave; women would cook food for them to eat; and those gathered would sing with joy, celebrating the dead person’s ascent to heaven. When the event was over, vegetables would be planted on the grave and all evidence of the deceased’s existence would be burned. No one was allowed to mourn.

Masha became increasingly distressed by her children’s cries of pain and hunger. She decided, a week into fasting, that she could not let them die. When she told her husband that she wanted to leave the forest, she was surprised that he was willing to let them go, though he said that “he would stay and continue with the journey to heaven.”

The officer suspected that most of the people that were later found strangled or clubbed to death had been killed in the period between Mackenzie’s initial arrest in March and his re-arrest in April. “People would have been saved as most of them died during that delay”

In February, Masha made plans to flee with her children and a neighbour. Escape attempts were risky: those caught by Mackenzie’s thugs had been beaten, tied up and forced to fast. A number had been asphyxiated or strangled. But because of her husband’s prominence within the church, no one tried to restrain Masha, though some cajoled her to stay. She remembers one of the other worshippers assuring her, “You’ve been on this journey for a long time. You’re almost there.” (Masha’s neighbour, who was not as well-connected within the church, was prevented from leaving. Her fate remains unknown.)

Masha and her five children, all sick and weak, stumbled through the forest’s undergrowth for hours to get to her mother’s house in Shakahola. “If my mother hadn’t been nearby I wouldn’t have gotten the courage to try and escape,” she admitted. “When my mother saw me she was shocked by how thin I was. She said if I had waited a few days I would have died.”

Salema Masha’s escape from Shakahola forest occurred shortly after the herders’ rescue of the five emaciated boys in February 2023. It was also around this time that Francis Wanje, a teacher from Mombasa, filed a missing-persons report with the assistance of HAKI Africa at Shakahola’s police station for his daughter, Emily, and her family. For the first time, the police became involved. (Previous attempts to alert them had failed to achieve anything. They lacked resources — the force was understaffed and didn’t even have a car — and they were outnumbered by Mackenzie’s thugs.) Emily and her husband fled from investigating officers into the forest, but the police were able to save one of Wanje’s grandchildren, who told them that his siblings had been starved and then suffocated to death by their mother.

With evidence mounting, on March 22nd 2023 the police arrested Mackenzie at his house in Malindi. But the following day, for unknown reasons, he was released on bail of 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($75). Mackenzie returned to his hideout, where he spent a further few weeks living among his flock.

Around the time of Mackenzie’s arrest, a team of pathologists from Nairobi were ordered to travel to Shakahola to conduct exhumations. Police were told to wait to search for bodies until the pathologists arrived – but it took three weeks for the team to get there. A police officer, who requested anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to the press, told me that the pathologists had been stranded in the capital because they hadn’t been provided with the funds to travel. The officer suspected that most of the people who were later found strangled or clubbed to death had been killed in the period between Mackenzie’s initial arrest in March and his re-arrest in April. “People would have been saved as most of them died during that delay,” the officer said.

On April 14th the pathologists finally arrived, and a team of rescuers accompanied them into the forest. Many of the first responders remain haunted as much by the images of what was left behind as the countless rotting bodies. Hundreds of worshippers had apparently run into the surrounding national park, strewing Bibles, clothes and shoes in their panic. The pantries in the houses of senior church officials and Mackenzie’s thugs were filled to the brim with eggs, rice, beans and sugar; in some, the food on the table was still warm. In Mackenzie’s own home they found litres of milk in the kitchen. A weekly revolving menu was discovered in another room: it featured bread, ugali (a cornmeal dish), spaghetti, rice and chapati. Clearly, none of the church leaders or Mackenzie’s thugs had fasted — though some of them, it later emerged, had starved their own children. (Neither Mackenzie’s third wife, Rhoda, nor their child had been forced to fast.)

That same day, Mackenzie was arrested for the final time. In the only interview he has conducted since, he denied that he had run GNI from within Shakahola forest. He insisted that he had just been working as a farmer and that reports of bodies were rumours from “people on social media who lived in Nairobi.” (The internet did indeed teem with speculation. Some people suggested that GNI was part of an organ-trafficking ring, while others reckoned Mackenzie was a conman attempting to seize the worshippers’ property and money. Neither of these theories appears to be true.)

A year after the bodies were first discovered in the forest, the mortuary at Malindi’s hospital, which can hold 1,200 bodies, is still filled to capacity. Exhumations were halted in July 2023 partly because there was nowhere to store newly discovered corpses, and partly because pathologists were overwhelmed by the number of bodies they had to identify. Only 34 of the dead have been both conclusively identified and released to their families. This includes the remains of Emily Wanje and her son Seth, whose funeral was held this month alongside that of Emily’s mother-in-law and her brother-in-law. Relatives of missing GNI members continue to pour into Malindi from across Africa, in the hope that they will find evidence that their family members are still alive.

Some families know both the agony of the victims and the shame of the perpetrators. Constance Sidi’s son, Smart Mwakalama, is charged with the murder of his six children. Sidi still mourns their loss,yet she hasn’t abandoned her son and her daughter-in-law, Mary Kahindi, who are both now in prison. (Mwakalama still calls his mother after every court appearance.) Naomi, Mary’s sister, also hasn’t given up on her family: she told me that, were Mary ever to be released, she’d welcome her home. Even so, she flitted between anger and sorrow, belief and scepticism, as she spoke to me. “Mary keeps on saying the children are alive, which pisses me off. Where are they?” she asked. Naomi admitted that she couldn’t help but feel some shaka — Swahili for doubt — about her sister’s story. She paused to make a joke: “This Mackenzie has brought us a lot of shaka  shaka in Shakahola.”

Naomi admitted that she couldn’t help but feel some shaka — Swahili for doubt — about her sister’s story. She paused to make a joke: “This Mackenzie has brought us a lot of shaka  shaka in Shakahola”

As Shakahola and the victims’ families continue to reckon with the tragedy, the case against Mackenzie, along with 94 of his associates, is proceeding slowly; the trial will begin on April 25th but is likely to take months to conclude. Most of those rescued from the forest still have faith in Mackenzie’s teachings and refuse to testify against him. Badurdeen, the expert in religious extremism, told me this was not unusual: “You need a long process to take the person out of what they believed in.”

The prosecution lacks adult witnesses who saw the alleged murders first-hand and therefore depends on hearsay evidence from those once associated with the church. Mackenzie reportedly feels optimistic about his chances: Robert, his brother, told me that Mackenzie had called him on one occasion, confident that the case would collapse because of insufficient evidence. In the interim, Mackenzie has been writing letters to his followers, in which he urges them to continue fasting. (In February, he finally followed his own orders, instigating a temporary hunger strike with the 94 other Shakahola suspects in protest of their treatment in prison; all ended up being hospitalised.)

The pervasiveness of evangelicalism in Kenya means there is little appetite for curbing the excesses of charismatic church leaders. (The government promised a year ago to pass legislation allowing it to monitor religious organisations but there has been little progress.) In my reporting, I heard stories of preachers using rhetoric that echoed Mackenzie’s own. One such man is a GNI member who had fled from the forest to escape arrest. I heard that he has carried on preaching to people in Malindi that fasting is the best way to reach heaven — just as Mackenzie had.

I gained some insight into the continued appeal of preachers such as Mackenzie from Salema Masha, one of the Shakahola survivors. She now lives with an aunt in a slum in Malindi and makes a living selling vegetables, though her income is only 500 Kenyan shillings ($3) a day — barely enough to take care of herself and her baby. Her other four children were taken in by the state; they recently started school for the first time. She’s been told they’ll be returned to her only when she’s able to support them. That seems like a remote possibility. “I’m so tired,” she said. “Life is tough.”

I asked her what would help make her life more bearable. She looked at her baby before responding.“I want a piece of land. If someone gave me some money to buy land, that’d be good. I’d farm and build a house and have a home of my own.” What she described was the life that Mackenzie offered to her and thousands of others in Shakahola forest — before the fasting began. 


teal halftone illustration of praying hands




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