Beware of snake oil merchants

Mackenzie Paul

Shakahola cult leader Paul Mackenzie (in pink) is pictured with some of his followers at the Shanzu Law Courts in Mombasa County on May 2, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

Those people who have a talent for swaying the views of millions towards some preconceived end and influencing behaviour are endlessly fascinating.

They seem to be adept at changing lies into gospel truth and utter banality into profundity. The first batch is to be feared when they turn into demagogues on whose lips many gullible folks hang, while the second is not much of a threat until they start talking to God in tongues and proclaiming end-time prophecies.

These musings were prompted by the sickening discovery of piles of bodies in unmarked graves in Shakahola village. Up to now, rational people cannot comprehend how a preacher of a breakaway Christian sect can convince hundreds to starve themselves and their children to death on the promise that by so doing, they will meet Jesus.

What kind of dark magic did Pastor Mackenzie use to manipulate the minds of people? What kind of monster would order the suffocation of helpless babies?

Matters of faith are difficult to decode in the best of times, but this one defies all reason. And yet, despite the universal outrage, very little can be done to the man for the simple reason that nobody can prove the people who died did not meet Jesus.

A great deal has been spoken about cultism and there would be no point in repeating them here. The important thing is that it belongs to the realm of the occult, matters that are beyond rational explanation.

During the last electoral campaign rallies, I accidentally got caught in one on the roadside because its conveners had been denied public grounds in which to address the huge crowd that had gathered, some of them out of curiosity, others having been bussed from nearby towns.

As I sat in the car for almost 15 minutes fuming at the waste of time, I could not help but hear what the candidate was telling the enthusiastic crowd. Most of the enthusiasm was, of course, fired by the Sh3,000 bank notes nestling in their pockets, and the promise of another payday tomorrow. However, what interested me more was hearing the candidate rattle off one campaign promise after another, one blatant lie after another and several slurs against his main opponent, which all sounded familiar.

It was like listening to a stuck record; the candidate was saying nothing new and doing so in the same hectoring tone complete with familiar slogans and pledges. It appears the man had discovered a secret: repeat as often as you can a simplistic idea, spice it up with catchy slogans, demonise your opponent, and sound as if you mean everything you say even if you know it is all hogwash.

A fascinating thing is that the tactic did work; one could tell by the rapt attention paid by even those who wavered. Apparently, the candidate had found a way to reach the hearts of his audience while they willingly suspended their thinking.

Art of communication

There is something about the expert use of rhetoric that is absolutely uplifting especially if you, personally, are deficient in the art of communication.

What differentiates a good communicator from an ordinary one? That is a question that students of rhetoric have been grappling with for a long time. It is not charisma alone though that helps, nor is it the stridency of tone or suavity of delivery. Therefore, it must be the message— stuff that the listeners want to hear.

Adolf Hitler was a consummate communicator whose oratory led to the Holocaust. He persuaded a whole nation to hate Jews, other minorities and social deviants, assuring them that the Aryan race must remain pure because it is superior to all others. The result was a bloodlust that remains unmatched to this day.

Closer to our times, two individuals helped shape their countries’ destiny through oratory—Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. Dr King is famous for spearheading the civil rights movement in the United States and denouncing the entrenched racism, which has dehumanised the black race since the days of slavery.

Unfortunately, the uneasy relations between White and Black America persist to this day. On the other hand, Mandela was responsible for ending the Apartheid system in South Africa. It was his speech during his 1963 trial that set in motion the events that would eventually lead to the country’s emancipation.

The space is too limited to explore the many ways in which the minds of entire groups and individuals can be controlled, and since this subject strays into the scientifically unproved area of brainwashing, perhaps it would not be profitable to speculate on whether it exists or not.

However, if it doesn’t, how does one explain a phenomenon like the Jonestown massacre of 1978 during which more than 900 cult followers were persuaded to drink cyanide?

This simply means superior oratorical skills can be used for good or for evil. It is also possible for a person suffering from narcissistic personality disorder to control the mind of his or her victim, which, unfortunately, happens all the time in relationships. However, that is a subject for another day.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]