The horror and trauma of reporting on Shakahola: A journalist's account

Journalists' experience covering the Shakahola massacre

What you need to know:

  • When we arrived at Shakahola, hidden in plain sight was an establishment where people, men and women, young and old, were starved to death to help them 'meet the messiah'. They were then buried in shallow graves.

When my colleagues and I left the office two weeks ago for the Shakahola assignment, there was no indication that it would be as horrific, enormous and terrifying as it turned out to be.

I had covered other assignments before and this one seemed like any other normal assignment. 

Farhiya Hussein (right) on assignment in Shakahola.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

In many ways I thought it would be a case of visiting the scene, talking to the victims, updating my editors in Nairobi, filing the story and returning to Mombasa. I was wrong. Instead, it took unprecedented, unforeseen and unimaginable turns. 

I didn't make it home that night. My family were expecting me at dusk for, breaking of the fast and Idd celebrations to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadhan. I didn't show up. 

Mombasa-based NMG journalist Farhiya Hussein on assignment. 

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

For a whole week, I watched as lifeless bodies were exhumed and loaded into police vans. It became a big story, making local and international headlines.

I know that people are buried, usually six feet under. I know they are sometimes exhumed by court order -- but I had never seen bodies being dug out from shallow graves. This was my first to witness, not one body, not two... but dozens.

Normally we follow the story.

For this story, we got a tip-off that 'Pastor' Mackenzie would be brought before a magistrate in Malindi, about 100km from Mombasa. And on the same day, there would be an exhumation in Shakahola. We wanted to cover both. Like any reporter, I did not want to be scooped. 

None of us had been to Shakahola before. But the direction was the least of our worries. We were preoccupied with thoughts about our safety.

We had been warned before the trip about the presence of suspected Mackenzie supporters armed with machetes. We were told that the village was heavily guarded, and this word of caution made my blood run cold for a minute.

The road ahead looked torturous. Both the terrain and the mental anguish weighed heavily. The uncertainties that lay ahead were filled with fear. So we asked for a police escort to solve one problem. As for the terrain, we all hoped that the D-max was an off-road vehicle and that our driver, Dominic Magara, was a man we could trust. He'd been doing this for a long time, longer than me. He knew and understood the risks better than I did. 

Farhiya Hussein (third right) on assignment in Shakahola.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

The further we got from Malindi, the more worried I became. We were worried about whether the roads would be passable. It had rained the day before and it was drizzling as we drove through the lonely thicket. 

But each encounter brought a new challenge and a new worry. After just a few kilometres, the signal on our mobile phones began to weaken. We were slowly but surely losing contact.

"What if we get attacked? How would we call for help? What if there was an emergency back home and our families were trying to reach us?" I thought.

Then an eerie silence fell over us. 

I struggled with the thoughts of asking Magara, our driver, to turn back, while at the same time wanting to tell the horror story that had not been told to the world.

For a minute I was lost in thought. I realised we were going somewhere dark and strange. I was the only female journalist on board, and my male colleagues kept reassuring me that nothing would go wrong - even when there were telltale signs that everything that could go wrong was starting to go wrong.

But that was not all: I am a Muslim, in the middle of the holy month of Ramadhan. Now there was work, religion, inner struggles and so much more. 

Farhiya Hussein (left) on assignment in Shakahola.

Photo credit: Wachira Mwangi | Nation Media Group

I had to find time to pray. I had to find time to check the news. And I had to constantly remind myself that I was okay. In between, I had to intensify my silent prayers.

But the biggest test was missing Idd-ul-Fitr, the most important holiday for Muslims, when families gather to mark the end of Ramadhan.

My colleagues survived on meals provided by the policemen. They were served soup on plastic bottles cut in half because we had no plates. We had become a family, united by a course for humanity. But I knew it wasn't for nothing.

I spoke to my family and told them I'd see them soon. They called me whenever they saw the updates on the news and wanted to know if I was safe, which I assured them I was.

I have learnt a lot in the time I have been covering this story. I also know that I have made a difference in the world. I am grateful for my supportive family and colleagues who check in with me regularly. I can't help but hope that whoever is responsible for these deaths will be brought to justice. And most importantly, I know that journalism, like theology, is a calling.