Inside the Kenyan Cult That Starved Itself to Death

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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.
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.

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