It is traumatising: Shakahola exhumation team asks for more pay, counselling

Shakahola cult

Bodies being exhumed at Shakahola Forest on May 12, 2023. 

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

It is 6am and the temperature in Shakahola township is approaching 27 degrees Celsius, but Harry* is not that bothered.

For the last one month, waking up at dawn and getting ready to head to Shakahola forest has become routine. He is one of the locals contracted by the government to help in the exhumation of bodies inside the forest.

In an exclusive interview, Harry reveals his first-hand experience. 

shakahola bodies

Bodies exhumed from mass graves in Shakahola forest, Kilifi County on May 12, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

“It is the first time for us locals to be part of such a traumatic exhumation exercise. We have never witnessed something like this,” says Harry.

Their day begins with a debrief from Homicide Director Martin Nyuguto, who is in charge of the exhumation operation.

Divided into three groups of 10 each, they are then dispatched to different sites where the graves have been previously marked. They have a daily target of exhuming at least 20 grave sites. He adds that they have been trained to carry out the job by forensic experts.

“Some parts are hard to dig, so we strategise. Other days, we hit the target early since you find one grave site with more than 10 bodies in it,” explains Harry.

He says they are paid Sh1,000 per day, which in his view is not commensurate with the work they are doing. They also want the government to fully employ them, saying that the team deserves decent-paying jobs.

“We ask that when any money comes out of the exercise, it should be given to our chairman. That way, it becomes easier for us to get hold of the funds donated,” says another digger. 

Bodies exhumed from Shakahola Forest are loaded into a  police van on May 16, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

The one month they have been at the crime scene has turned out to be a traumatic experience for them.

“At night, I find it hard to sleep. I see the bodies we have retrieved during the day in my dreams. We want counselling when the exercise is completed, but we are apprehensive that this might not happen,” says Harry.

He says Red Cross has offered them counselling as they conducti the exhumation, but they see it as unnecessary since the exercise is still ongoing.

So, how were they selected for the job? They say they had knowledge of where the grave sites might be located.

“We were friends with some of Mackenzie’s followers back then when they were still visiting the shopping centres, but when we got a tip that children were dying and being buried inside the forest, we mobilised ourselves and tried accessing the area. Unfortunately, our motorcycles were burnt down by the crooks in the cult,” says Tim*.

Yesterday, eight bodies were exhumed bringing the total deaths to 235. At the same time, four people— three female and one male adult—were rescued, with one of the females in critical condition. This brings the total number of those rescued to 89. There were no arrests.

Today, the Senate Ad hoc committee on the Shakahola incidence is expected to conduct a series of meetings in the area. It is trying to establish whether there were any security breaches in the area, which led to the deaths.