Inside Kilifi's 'Bethlehem' where cult members starved to death 'in the name of God'

Shakahola: Village where ‘cult’ lured followers to deadly fasting

For the past three weeks, an eerie silence has engulfed Shakahola village in Kilifi County.

The once vibrant hamlet is hauntingly empty, with rows of abandoned mud houses with makuti-thatched roofs standing like ghostly sentinels.

The bush-lined pathways too are quiet, as if the entire population of the village vanished into thin air, leaving behind only a few household items — such as bibles — scattered as evidence of their hasty departure.

In stark contrast to the usual sense of good neighbourliness, the atmosphere around the village is tense and unsettling.

In some of the houses, dirty dishes have been gathering cobwebs, an indication of the ‘last meal’ adherents of the controversial pastor Paul Mackenzie’s Good News International Church had before launching into a deadly fast.

Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s homestead

Police officers at Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s homestead at Chakama Ranch in Malindi, Kilifi County, which was deserted following his arrest in this photo taken on Monday. 

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Here, where the suspected cult thrived on doomsday predictions, 15 emaciated people were rescued by police officers last Thursday.

Four died while being rushed to Malindi Hospital, bringing the toll to six, after two children were reportedly starved by their parents, who are followers of the pastor.

But even in death, the suspected cult had robbed them of their last vestiges of liberty: their names.

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: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

To date, the bodies remain 'unidentified’, as there were no identification documents on them.

The story of the suspected cult started unravelling three weeks ago, shining the spotlight on its controversial pastor and the mix of animism and Christian beliefs he reportedly preached.

The sect members lived in dread of an impending catastrophe, another pointer to the claim that their leader controlled “every aspect of members’ life”.


A police officer who accompanied the Nation to the village described it as the site where “radicalisation of the Christian faith” happens.

Before the Nation team embarked on the journey to Shakahola, we were warned of a hostile group armed with machetes.

It was further claimed that the remnants of the sect had vowed to guard their leader’s “hallowed grounds”.

Though centred around Kilifi, the group’s adherents were spread as far as Western and Nyanza, and other parts of the coastal region.

After a one-hour drive from Malindi, we stopped at Langobaya Police Station, which lacks a car, though it serves an expansive area that stretches more than 50 kilometres to the now infamous Shakahola village.

For the officers at Langobaya to travel to the scene of crime, a vehicle has to be dispatched from Malindi Police Station, some 70 kilometers away.

Pastor Mackenzie's house is tucked in area surrounded by thorny bushes and shrubs.

The Nation learnt that the preacher's homestead sits on a 10-acre parcel in an area he has christened Bethlehem.

 Chakama Ranch

Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s homestead at Chakama Ranch in Malindi, Kilifi County.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

All houses here are mud-walled and thatched with makuti, including Pastor Mackenzie's.

A check around the homestead revealed that two minors had locked themselves inside one of the rooms.

Another person said to be the preacher’s daughter, took off to the forest on our arrival.

Pastor Mackenzie’s house has five separate rooms, with the main room locked from outside.

“We left two bodies here but they were later picked up by an ambulance team from the hospital. Those that we rescued appeared weak, emaciated and with sunken eyeballs. Some were dehydrated and vomiting blood. We tried to give them water but our efforts were futile. Some did not make it. Others disappeared into the forest,” said the officer who had accompanied Nation.

Our efforts to trace the alleged followers of the said preacher were futile, with reports indicating that they feared being arrested.

Some 100 metres from Pastor Mackenzie’s house is a large dam, which has since dried up.

Here, we also found visitors on a mission to trace their kin.

“My mother, Pamela Muhonja, and my sister, Maureen Imiza, who travelled from Bungoma with her two-year-old daughter, are missing. I came here to look for them, as they are not among those that died, were rescued or arrested," says Rodgers Mwibo, who was accompanied by his uncle Bernard Khaminywa.

Mr Khaminywa says he cannot understand why their kin followed a preacher they have no knowledge of.

“She told me two years ago that she was going to see Pastor Mackenzie in Malindi. We were in communication until December last year, after which we never heard from her again. She had informed us that the pastor was selling land to her and even requested that I send her some money for roofing her house," says Mr Mwibo, adding that they travelled to Malindi after reading the expose in the Saturday Nation.

“My mother went to a different church back in western Kenya. Then she started following Pastor Mackenzie’s sermons on his TV station before she travelled to Kilifi County," notes Mr Mwibo.

Ms Grace Daudi was here too, looking for her 60-year-old mother Agnes Salim Abdallah, whom she had entrusted with the role of looking after her two children.


A Bible lies on the ground at Pastor Paul Mackenzie’s homestead.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

“I am a former member of Pastor Mackenzie's church, but when he closed his Malindi church and moved to Shakahola, I left. But my mother came to the village and bought two acres for Sh50,000. We have looked for her everywhere but she is not among those who were rescued recently," says Ms Daudi.

Mr James Kamau’s wife Brenda Achieng fled with their two children.

"When I questioned her faith and threatened to sue her for child support, she ran away with the children. I happen to have married one of those believers and my experience with her was really hard. She did not take any medicine when she fell ill, nor would she permit me to give any to our children.

He went on: “She forbade my older son from going to school. May God deliver them from this snare of deception masquerading as Christian faith," says Mr Kamau.

Security sources said the majority of the sect’s adherents changed their names once they settled in Shakahola and burned their personal belongings, including identification documents.

The followers also destroyed their cell phones, he added.

With the houses deserted relatives of adherents are at a loss on their whereabouts. 

The agony is further heightened by the fact that no one seems to know whether they are alive or dead.

According to some followers of the church who did not want to be named, once one arrived in Shakahola village, a piece of land was sold to them at Sh25,000 per acre.

There are suspicions that once the owner died, the land and the already-built mud house would be sold to another person.

Mr Gerald Thoya, who was born and raised in Langoboya location, says it is hard to tell who owns the 800-acre Chakama ranch, on which Shakahola village stands.

"Leaders of Chakama Ranch took a loan to acquire the land, but were unable to pay for it. Then Former President Mwai Kibaki and former area MP Lucas Baya Maitha intervened and the government settled the loan. Then people divided the ranch and some parts were converted into a land-buying scheme. Owners sold the land at throwaway prices and many outsiders who are now followers of Mackenzie, including himself, bought it,” explains Mr Thoya.

The Nation established that the suspected cult’s meetings are held under a specific tree.

Here, members conduct prayers once a month and it has to be on a Saturday.

Members, we learnt, would sit on one side and the church leaders at the front.

Dimly lit huts

The fasting, after “radicalisation”, would happen in community homes or small dimly lit huts that are locked both from the inside and the outside.

Inside the house we found pieces of tissue paper, blankets, bedsheets and mattresses.

On Monday, a Malindi Court cancelled Sh10,000 police bond issued to Pastor Mackenzie, who was arraigned following the deaths of two children believed to have been starved by their parents.

Mackenzie, who is now listed as the first of 14 respondents, is accused of giving skewed religious teachings in Kilifi’s Shakahola village.

According to the charge sheet, the 14 suspects are further accused of manslaughter, conspiracy to murder, suicide pacts, aiding suicide, abduction and assault.

"One of the suspects asked the court to release him so that he could go back to Shakahola to continue with his fast. This confirms that the activities are still taking place at the said area and unless the suspects, especially Mackenzie, remains in custody, there is a likelihood of interference with witnesses and more unlawful activity may take place," said Malindi Chief Magistrate Elizabeth Usui.

DCI maps out graves of Kilifi 'cult' followers ahead of exhumation

She further directed that Mackenzie be detained until the police conclude investigations.

“The investigating officer has on oath stated and I have looked at the affidavit, which further reports and touches on the issues being investigated by police, and found compelling reasons to allow police to continue holding suspects for more days upon completion of investigations," the magistrate said.