'I got A- in KCSE, but my mother, a Mackenzie follower, disapproved of my university education'


Sheila Kawira a student at Kenyatta University during an interview at her home in Riaki, Meru on May 9, 2023. 

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The teachings, she says, focused on giving up worldly possessions, education, jobs, and technology, and destroying government documents "because they are part of the evil Babylonian system".

"I could have been one of the victims of the Shakahola cult had it not been for Kaaga Girls' High School Principal Eunice Maeke's decision to drive all the way to our house to take me back to school in 2019."

These are the words of Sheila Kawira, 20, from Riaki, Meru, now a student of clinical medicine at Kenyatta University.

Her mother, Doris Kendi, left her job as a county government early childhood school teacher in 2020 after following Paul Mackenzie's teachings. 

A handout photo showing Doris Kendi (right), a mother of three who is missing with two of her children after joining the Shakahola cult. Her husband Fredrick Kirimi is in police custody.

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

However, Kawira defied her parents and continued with her education.

The family now fears that Kendi and her two children, aged 10 and two, may be among the victims of forced starvation in Shakahola.

Kawira's step-father, Fredrick Kirimi, is believed to be among 25 people arrested as accomplices of the rogue pastor after they saw him being chased into a police van on television. 

A screengrab showing some of the suspects arrested over the Shakahola deaths. On the left is Fredrick Kirimi who joined the Kilifi-based cult alongside his wife Doris Kendi and their two children.

Photo credit: Courtesy

It all started in early 2019 when, according to Kawira, her parents discovered Mackenzie's Times TV.

"My mother was a good Christian who brought us up in the church. In 2019, we were attending the Pentecostal church, but my step-father was not.

"Then they both started watching Times TV and my father said he could relate to Mackenzie's teachings," says Kawira. 

By August 2019, her parents were so radicalised that they refused to participate in the national census.

"When the census started, my mother fled with us into the bush. We spent about three nights in the bush to avoid the enumerators. My mother was not even worried she had a baby with her," she says. 

Kawira adds that Mackenzie crowned his televised teachings in 2019 with a 21-day physical conference in Meru town, where her parents were fully initiated into the cult.

"When we arrived at the conference on the first day, I was surprised that Mackenzie knew my mother by name.

"People asked him about his arrest in 2017 for brainwashing. He said his calling was to wash away the sins of his followers. I left after three days because I found the teachings inconsistent with my faith," says Kawira. 

The teachings, she says, focused on giving up worldly possessions, education, jobs, technology, and destroying government documents "because they are part of the evil Babylonian system". 

Kawira is overcome with emotions during the interview. 

Photo credit: David Muchui | Nation Media Group

"I wondered why Mackenzie was selling us his teachings on disks and expecting donations when he did not want us to work to earn money. Where would we get the money from? He made no sense to me, although he was very convincing," says Kawira.

Through her mother's prodding and preaching, Kawira was almost convinced that education was sinful, and she dropped out of Form Four in the third term.

"After staying home for two weeks, the principal demanded to know why I was not in school yet I had a scholarship. I gave the excuse that I did not have any personal items. She offered to buy them for me and came to pick me up at home. My mother told me that if I went back to school, she would leave me. We have been at loggerheads ever since," says Kawira.

True to her mother's words, her parents refused to support her university education, despite her stellar grade of A minus in the KCSE exam, saying they would not allow her to drag them back to "Babylon". 

Sheila Kawira (SecondLeft) with her aunt Penina Nculubi, Grandmother Catherine Kaungu, Uncle Douglas Mutembei and Pastor Julius Kabira at their home in Riaki, Meru on May 9, 2023. The family is in shock after their kin Doris Kendi, her husband and two children joined Paul Mackenzie's cult

"I was able to go to university with the support of Igembe South MP John Paul Mwirigi. I was living with my grandmother after we fell out with my parents," she says.

Kawira, who has postponed her studies due to financial difficulties and mental health problems caused by the experience, needs well-wishers to support her university education.

According to Penina Nculubi, a sister of the now missing Kendi, her sister's condition worsened in 2020 when she tried to recruit her and her mother into the cult.

"When I visited her at her home in Chugu, I found that she had quit her job and her son was not in school. I tried to persuade her to leave the cult, to no avail. I discovered that she was in it with her husband. She would write sermons and send them to me, but I ignored them," says Nculubi.

She observes that Mackenzie had instructed his followers to spend 2021 converting more people and 2022 preparing to go to 'Jerusalem' to meet Jesus in Shakahola. Part of the preparation involved selling their property.

Nculubi says that in March this year, Kendi called her and asked if she could buy some of her house furniture.

"She wanted to sell me her sofa set for Sh16,000 but I did not have the money.

She claimed that a neighbour who was moving had given her another set of sofas. We later found out that she had gone to Malindi," she says.

Douglas Mutembei, a brother of Kendi, says Kirimi was left behind, ostensibly to sell the family land, before he also travelled to Malindi a week later.

"We heard that he was unable to sell the land. We were shocked to see Kirimi on television as one of the suspects in the Shakahola killings," he says.

The family is counting on the support of the Igembe South MP to send representatives to Malindi to search for their missing relatives.

Kendi's mother, Catherine Kaungu, has appealed to the government for help in finding her daughter and grandchildren, alive or dead.