I met Mackenzie in Kawangware, suspected co-mastermind in starvation cult says

Suspected cult member Zablon Mwana wa Yesu sits handcuffed in a police vehicle on Monday April 24.

What you need to know:

  • The cult's followers were drawn mostly from Nyanza, Western and parts of the Coast.
  • Foreigners included Tanzanians from Lungalunga and Ugandans.

“Mnachopigana nacho hamkijui. Na kitawaramba. Nimewaambia, kitawaramba.” That was the parting shot of Mr Paul Mackenzie, leader of the Good Life International Church, fired in grim warning as he left the Malindi Law Courts last week, where he and 14 others were arraigned on suspicion of leading a doomsday cult.

The English translation of his dark words in Kiswahili is: “You don’t know the magnitude of what you are fighting. You will soon face the consequences.”

Pastor Paul Mackenzie

Good News International Church Pastor Paul Mackenzie (centre) with six other followers before the Malindi Law Courts in this photo taken on April 17, 2023. 

Photo credit: File | Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

The cult in Kilifi’s Shakahola village where 75 bodies have so far been exhumed in multiple graves had a relatively uneventful existence until the tragedy that consumed tens of its members. The total number of deaths attributed to the cult now stands at 83, including the eight victims who were rescued alive, but died in hospital after a police raid lifted the lid on the horrors at the church.

Yesterday, police rescued nine more people inside Shakahola Forest, including a man suspected to be one of the masterminds and leaders working with Mr Mackenzie.

shakahola mastermind Pastor Zablon Wa Yesu police

A man who identified himself as "Pastor Zablon Wa Yesu" (centre) is escorted by police in Shakahola, Kilifi County, on March 24, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

He identified himself as Pastor Zablon Mwana wa Yesu from Butere, Kakamega County. Also in police custody are Mr Daniel Makori from Amabuko in Nyamira and Mr Lucas Owino from Gem in Siaya. They painted Mr Mackenzie as a man with vast biblical knowledge.

“I met Mackenzie in a church at Kawangware in Nairobi and I was convinced he is the chosen one to lead us to meet Jesus. Who are you to change our beliefs? Don’t we have the right to believe in what we want to?” Zablon asked.

But now, given the rising number of bodies being exhumed in different burial sites, police believe some of the church members might have started murdering their colleagues after news of their activities began spreading.

The group, Nation learnt yesterday, moved from Malindi, where Mr Mackenzie ran his controversial church, to Shakahola.

The bodies found near his home are thought to have died weeks before.

shakahola mass graves bodies

Some of the 26 bodies that were exhumed from a mass grave site at the Shakahola Village in Kilifi County on April 24, 2023. 

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

The bodies were all badly decomposed, with Inspector-General of Police Japhet Koome saying the only way to conclusively determine their identities is through DNA tests. Toxicological tests are also under way, he said.

“It is true investigations will further probe the murder angle. We have a strong team on the ground and we want to be very thorough. We are also investigating reports that he (Mackenzie) owned this huge parcel of land,” Mr Koome said.

IG Japhet Koome (right) and Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI) Amin Mohammed in Shakahola

IG Japhet Koome (right) and Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI) Amin Mohammed in Shakahola village on May 24, 2023.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

Foreign followers

The cult's followers are drawn mostly from Nyanza, Western and parts of the coastal regions of Kenya. Foreigners included Tanzanians from Lungalunga and Ugandans.

Followers of the doomsday cult, who lived mostly in solitude, told Nation Mr Mackenzie had a powerful grip on them. The movement was noticed in 2022.

“[Mr Mackenzie] has a criminal record dating back to 2017. Police got interested in his activities, arrested and presented him before the courts. There are many others we are interested in and believe they are involved in similar crimes. All those culpable will face the law,” Mr Koome stated yesterday at the crime scene.

But what turned ordinary members of society into murderous cult leaders is still not clear. A former member said the conversion into cultism was gradual.

The element of fear related to brainwashing was frequently used — threats of dire consequences if one failed to do as one was told. People who joined the cult had different needs.

“I wanted to join the kingdom of Jesus. I was to start fasting in June. I only believe in Jesus and not God,” Zablon told detectives.

Most of the sites visited by the Nation team on the vast land remained deserted, with torn books and bibles, clothing, personal care items and utensils strewn all over. There were also unused condoms in some houses.

Bible Paul Mackenzie'shakahola

A Bible lies on the ground at the homestead of a follower of Paul Mackenzie's Good News International Church on April 17, 2023. 

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Kenyans who suspected that their missing relatives were either dead or rescued continued streaming to the crime scene, hoping to find their loved ones.

For such families, the pain of not knowing the fates of their relatives was too great and they wanted answers quickly. None was forthcoming.

Grieving strangers tearfully moved to comfort one another in hugs and uneasy embraces as tension continued to grow in the usually quiet village.

Ms Joyce Makori, whose husband was rescued and is among the latest suspects to be arrested, buried her head in her hands.

The horror of what she had seen earlier in the day was reflected on her face. After being told of the initial 11 bodies that were exhumed in the morning, it was time to let what she had just seen and heard percolate in its rawness.

shakahola mass graves

Shallow graves at Shakahola village in Kilifi County, on a piece of land owned by cult leader Paul Mackenzie, as pictured during exhumations on April 23, 2022. Police are digging up the bodies of Mackenzie's followers, said to have starved themselves to death on his instructions.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

“My husband refused to leave the forest and even instructed our daughter, who is in Form Three, to quit school. I am relieved he is alive,’” Ms Makori told the Nation.

Mr Steve Mwaniki from Kitui County is unable to contain the emotions boiling inside his chest. For the past three days, he has been looking for his sister, her husband and a grandson. Mr Mwaniki’s family continues camping at the site where a heavy downpour forced detectives to suspend the exhumations.

“We are desperate and grieving. The bodies are in bad shape. We don’t know whether our relatives are among the dead. We need answers although we know it could take some time,” Mr Mwaniki said.

Authorities also confirmed finding seven bodies in one grave yesterday, the highest from one site since the operation began last week.

The bodies had been arranged systematically and were wrapped in bedsheets in the shallow graves.

Director of Criminal Investigations Mohammed Amin arrived at the village in the afternoon while Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji said his office would ask for more time to conduct investigations, with possible charges of terrorism and religious radicalisation.

“The penal code is not enough,” Mr Haji stated. Mr Mackenzie, who is in police custody, is being investigated for influencing his followers to starve to death. The 14 suspects are further accused of manslaughter, conspiracy to murder, suicide pacts, aiding suicide, abduction and assault.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki is expected at the site today. President William Ruto said Mr Mackenzie belongs in prison as "what is being witnessed in Shakahola is akin to terrorism". The President spoke shortly after the police revised the body count from the mass graves in the village in Kilifi County upwards to 50. The number is now past 80, with exhumations still being conducted.

"Mr Mackenzie, who acts as a pastor, is in fact a terrible criminal. Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing," the Head of State said, adding that the cult leader and others like him should be in jail.

Leaders yesterday continued raising questions on Kenya's state of security, intelligence gathering and community policing.

Senate Speaker Amazon Kingi said the "harshest punishment possible must be meted [out on] those responsible for the deaths of these innocent souls".

In a statement, Mr Kingi questioned how the crimes went on undetected for ages.

"How did such a heinous crime, organised and executed over a considerable period of time, escape the radar of our intelligence system? How did evil of such an astounding magnitude take place without being detected? How did this ‘pastor’ gather so many people, indoctrinated, brainwashed and starved them to death in the name of fasting and then buried them in a forest without being detected?" asked Mr Kingi.

National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang'ula faulted security agencies in Malindi for the mass deaths.

"We want officers in charge of security in that area to tell the truth about what they know because people cannot die like that when there are officers paid to offer security," he said.

The Red Cross revealed that 112 people have been reported as missing at the tracing desk.

“We have set up tracing and counselling desks at the Malindi Sub-county Hospital for the Shakahola response,” the agency said on Twitter yesterday.