Shakahola exhumation
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Religious dissent can be a force for good

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The exhumation exercise in Shakahola forest on June 5, 2024.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Forensic detectives are in their second week of searching for the remains of sect members killed in the Shakahola cult massacre.

It is a hopeless task: the forest they are searching is 4,000 acres, dense and difficult to navigate.

There is also some evidence that in the last days, the sect moved bodies out of shallow graves which were typically located near homesteads, deeper into the forest. And there are numerous places to hide bodies.

Officially, 182 children were among the dead. But there is evidence of many children born in the forest, without medical attention and whose birth was not registered.

Because sect members had rejected modern medicine, they were not using birth control devices.

So typically, a sect woman of 30 years would have five or more children. Families were separated – there are many women who ran off to the forest settlement and left their husbands upcountry. Similarly, many men were in the settlement without their wives.

One village elder from Shakahola who interacted with the fanatics described the situation there as “Sodom and Gomorrah”, there was lots of sexual activity and therefore many undocumented children could have been born.

They will probably never be accounted for, their bodies never found, and those responsible for their death never held to account.

I have spent six months on the Shakahola story now. Two things deeply trouble me. First, I would have thought that if anybody tortured and killed children, we would, as a nation, turn hell itself upside down looking for him or her, to ensure that they face justice.

Supernatural intervention

I thought the defence of our young offspring is a communal task. But I sense Kenyans struggle to care about anyone who isn’t a member of their immediate family.

Additionally, many people are totally dehumanised by the love of money; they don’t care whether children live or die, so long as they make money. And this includes some people in authority and whose direct responsibility is to protect children. 

In this respect, I think Langobaya Police Station, the station closest to Shakahola, should be thoroughly investigated.

Every decision and task undertaken in respect of the sect settlement between 2019 and May 2023 should be evaluated with a view to bringing charges against those who might have been corrupt or negligent.

Secondly, Christianity has gone totally rogue and I say this as a Christian and a person who lives among good people of faith.

In the words of Stephen Mwiti whose six children died in the massacre: “The church ceased being about God. It has become about making money and is infiltrated by con men.”

The formal, regulated churches are good and nourish the souls and guide humanity. But these serve only a minority of the people.

The majority, being good Africans who want supernatural intervention to manage existence, want miracles and guaranteed certainty in a chaotic world. They are willing to pay for miracles and for physical encounters with Jesus and there are hordes of con men prepared to provide that.

Most gullible customers

I laugh along with my relatives about people they know who are being made complete fools of by con men preachers, down to staged encounters with Jesus, using white sheets and flashing lights in the forest at night when it is pitch dark and as scary as the physical universe gets.

All these encounters involve ‘Our Saviour’ sternly admonishing the trembling supplicant to give money to the ‘Servant of the Lord’ (Nthumba ya Murungu in the local dialect).

Millions of shillings are being vacuumed out of the peasantry and into the pockets of this con clergy which is more like the mafia, only rather than using guns and violence to extort, they use spiritual blackmail, intimidation and manipulation.

Nobody wants to give the State the power to dictate how and what the people can worship (although in some cultures, this protection is being stretched to the limits).

And since religion also tends to be rigid and dogmatic, the freedom to dissent and challenge religious authority must be protected.

You only need to remember the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Spanish Inquisition and the dictatorship of the church in the Middle Ages to see the extremes that formal religion can go to if left completely unchallenged. Religious dissent can be a force for good.

But when religion consists in teaching the people that the government is Lucifer, that education is a cult run by the Illuminati, modern medicine is evil and folk should force fast their children so that they can die and go and meet Jesus quickly, does society look away in the name of protecting religious freedoms?

Sadly, the first victim of these cults and con games is the good, honest, charitable, holy church. Because it is dragged into the sewer by the con men, the miracle salesmen, the purveyors of ‘holy oil’, the salesmen of ‘anointing salts’ and merchants of ‘holy towels’.

It is impossible not to despair when we realise that the biggest and most gullible customers of ‘holy oil’ and ‘holy towels’ are powerful politicians. 

Mr Mathiu, a media consultant at Steward-Africa, is a former Editor-in-Chief of Nation Media Group. [email protected]