Prayers then murder: Inside Shakahola’s holy betrayal

Ongoing exhumation at a mass grave inside Shakahola Forest on Friday last week.

Ongoing exhumation at a mass grave inside Shakahola Forest on Friday last week.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

Tulipoianza hii kazi, tulidhania watu watapungua...Lakini ondoeni hofu… hofu na mashaka ni ya nini… kwani hamumuamini yeye aliyewaita? Hamtambui ya kwamba ana uwezo na nguvu? Shaka ni la nini? Kwanini unaogopa kufa na kuteswa? Nimewaambia mara ngapi kufa ni sawa na kuenda kulala usingizi? Hata wakati unakufa wewe hautajua unakufa…Wewe utausikia usingizi mtamu… Na kule kwingine, yesu atakungojea…”

(When we started this work, we thought that the number of people would decrease... However, have no fear ... why are you afraid and in doubt? Don’t you believe in him who called you? Don’t you realise that he is able? Why the doubt? Why are you afraid of dying and being tortured? How many times have I told you that dying is a good thing? It is like going to sleep… Even when you die, you won’t know you’re dying ... you’ll fall deep asleep, and on the other side, Jesus will be waiting for you...)

This is an excerpt from a sermon by Paul Nthenge Mackenzie’s titled “Kanisa Jangwani” (Church in the Wilderness) delivered on August 11, 2019, two years after launching a YouTube channel.

Mackenzie Paul

Shakahola cult leader Paul Mackenzie (in pink) is pictured with some of his followers at the Shanzu Law Courts in Mombasa County on May 2, 2023. 

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

Exactly three years later, in August 2022, the first case of death was officially reported at his Shakahola forest “Bethlehem” and officers at Malindi Police Station were notified.

It marked the first missed opportunity by authorities to nip his murderous cult in the bud. Nation has spoken to investigators, survivors, and Mr Mackenzie’s former associates to piece together the goings-on at Shakahola, how he ran the cult and how a series of missteps led to a tragic deaths of hundreds of victims, most of whom were children.

Mr Mackenzie walked into Shakahola in 2019 with a dream of establishing his own Bethlehem away from Babel (as he would often refer to the outside world).

Bodies exhumed at Shakahola Forest

Bodies exhumed at Shakahola Forest loaded onto a Police vehicle on Saturday May 13, bringing the total number of Bodies exhumed to 201.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

“I got a revelation that the time to call it quits had come,” Mr Mackenzie told Nation in March this year. He was talking about the closure of his church in Malindi and his move to Shakahola. “I just prayed by myself and with those who chose to believe,” he added.

He had planned to build a community where his followers would live in peace and harmony. Houses started popping up in the dense forest. To locals in surrounding villages, nothing was amiss. Soon, the shops at the nearby trading centre started recording booming with business because of the many visitors.

“When [Mr Mackenzie] arrived, he told us he was a farmer, but he never tilled the land. We started seeing strange people in the area, whom we were told were his followers,” said Mr. Mangi. At the time, Mr Mackenzie would allow his followers to freely roam the villages and visit the shopping centre. As early as December 2021, Nation understands, the followers were allowed to go shopping twice a month, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

They would walk in groups of 10 but were never allowed to use their mobile phone numbers for transactions. Shopkeepers said they would call their relatives back home and ask them to pay their bills through a till number provided by traders, and sometimes they would send motorcyclists to collect their merchandise. Mr Mangi said all was well until their numbers increased significantly, raising concern among locals, who reported the issue to their chief.

“In December 2021, he was summoned by both the chief and the assistant county commissioner. However, he was not arrested and continued with his activities,” said Mr Mangi.

Investigators told Nation in confidence that they first learned of Mr Mackenzie’s operations in Shakahola in August last year when a family from Western region reported at the Malindi Police Station about the death of their kin one in one of the village’s controlled by Mr Mackenzie’s cult.

shakahola bodies

Bodies exhumed from mass graves in Shakahola forest, Kilifi County are loaded into a vehicle during the operation on May 12, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit | Nation Media Group

“The family had come to Malindi to locate the woman but were directed to Shakahola, where they were told she had passed on and were even shown the grave. They later came here to report the death but when we asked them what they wanted us to do, they backed off, preferring not to go the exhumation route,” one of the investigators said.

Mr Mackenzie had dodged a bullet and he continued his radical teachings. However, accounts from survivors paint a picture of possible complicity within the local administration, amid allegations that police officers took bribes to look the other way.

“Twice, both in December last year and February this year, we saw police officers come in, have a chat with the ‘prophet’ and walk away without inspecting the villages. Both times, Mr Mackenzie was accompanied by his deputy, Mr Smart Deri Mwakalama, alongside Michael, who was the head of the enforcers and two other elders called Mrima and Charles,” Alex*, a 15-year-old survivor told Nation from a rescue centre in Malindi.

Alex was the one who showed homicide officers from the Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DCI) 32 grave sites from which over 90 bodies were exhumed. Mr Mackenzie reportedly had a well-established leadership structure within the cult. He had an intelligence unit that would ensure the villages were not infiltrated by outsiders. Alex said the intelligence and policing job was left to four men led by Michael.

Ruto: What is unfolding in Shakahola is akin to terrorism

“Enforcers armed with pangas would be posted on the road as one entered the forest to warn of strange arrivals,” he said. The enforcers were also very hostile to locals and at one time attacked and injured an administrator.

“In February this year, and following reports of deaths, we tried to access the villages but were chased by dogs and two of our motorcycles torched,” said a local official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

All this while, Mr Mackenzie oversaw many “harusi” (Kiswahili for wedding ceremonies), which was codename for the tens of burials he was conducting daily as his followers either starved to death, strangled their children, or were murdered by his enforcers.

Before the exodus to Shakahola in 2019, Mr Mackenzie would tell members of his Good News International Church through his televised sermons that they would go to the wilderness where Jesus was waiting for them there, Alex said.

Then, records seen by Nation from the Registrar of Societies show, Mr Mackenzie is listed as chairman of the ministry, while Mr Raphael Riziki Baya, whose occupation is listed as a DSTV installer, is the vice chairman. Mr Smart Deri Mwakalama, a hotelier, is listed as the secretary while Ms Lucia Wanjiku Kinuthia is the assistant secretary. Her occupation is not identified in the records. Mr Sebastian Kashero, an accountant, is the Treasurer, while Mr Alexander Muema Musango, identified as a businessman, is the assistant treasurer.

“Many families, mine included believed in the scriptures and were ready to leave everything behind to go meet Jesus,” Alex said . In December last year, Mr Mackenzie started using strange riddles in his teachings, said the teenager whose mother stopped attending her regular church in Makongeni, Nairobi, when she started listening to Mr Mackenzie’s televised sermons in 2017.

“She moved to Malindi in 2019 and, last year, she came back for me and we went to Shakahola together,” said Alex.

The teen says he started to doubt Mr Mackenzie upon reaching Shakahola.

“When my mother left Malindi, Mr Mackenzie said Jesus was waiting for us in the forest, but changed tune when had settled in Shakahola, insisting that we were to fast in order to meet Jesus.”

“It was on a Saturday in February this year when he summoned his devoted followers for an urgent meeting,” Alex said. Attendance to such meetings was mandatory. One by one, the adherents flocked to “Judea”, the designated meeting point.

“This is where the prayer meetings took place twice in a month and it had to be on a Saturday. Mr Mackenzie had named the villages after cities found in the Bible,” said Alex. “He told us that the moment to meet Jesus had come and we needed to now start starving.”

The message was clear. The end time was nigh, and Jesus was ready to receive his people. In what was to be their last meeting, the followers were instructed not to take any food or water until they died.

Interview with Shakahola cult leader Paul Mackenzie’s mother

“We were also instructed not to take a shower, brush our teeth and not to stay outdoors for too long. The instruction was also to stay away from cold and remain indoors, fasting until we died,” said Alex. Couples were told not engage in any sexual activity.

“All children under the age of 15 years were to start fasting in that month of February. Our parents were to start on March 15,” he says.

The youngest children were to die first, followed by those aged 16 and above, then women and men. The last person to meet Jesus would be Mr Mackenzie.

“He wanted men to be the last people to die to help with digging graves and burying the dead,” said Alex.

Thereafter, people started to die in their tens daily. Starvation, torture, beatings, and suffocation became the order of the day, as access to and out of the villages was restricted.

Pauline Amani* (16) from Tana River County is still recovering from the horrors of Shakahola four months since her father rescued her. She had left home in November 2022 with her grandmother to join their uncle and his family who had bought land and moved to the area.

Her testimony corroborates what the other minors Nation spoke to said.

“At first, everything was fine for about two weeks. I was playing with my cousins and we were being given biscuits and everything was fun,” she narrated.

The welcoming atmosphere would, however take a downturn, as the strict fasting began. No one was exempted; neither young, old, nor sick.

Kisumu man: I lost three sons to Shakahola cult

Everyone went 72 hours without food and water; even sleep was not allowed.

“If you slept, you were woken up to pray or read the Bible. We could only sleep a little before being woken up again to pray. I would get very hungry and thirsty but the enforcers would not give us water,” she recounts.

For three days and nights, people prayed for almost every hour and the supervisors would smoke out those who were slacking and punish them.

Pauline told Nation Mr MacKenzie would come once in a while to preach on Sundays and some days in the week, while other pastors managed most sessions.

Mr MacKenzie would encourage them to “persevere in their hunger with the promise that Jesus would soon reward them.”

Children who proved stubborn were threatened that they would be thrown in the bush and sometimes they would be beaten.

“If you cried a lot, you would be tied and dragged into the bush and abandoned there for up to two days, then another child would be sent to set you free and walk you back to camp. We were so afraid of crying because of the snakes that would crawl by as you slept,” she said.

Food after the fast, Pauline said, was strictly rationed and would only be given once that day. It was too light for the stomach to sustain them for days since the fast would resume immediately after the timed break.

It was just some watery porridge without sugar accompanied by a plate of rice or a small portions of ugali with beans, and sometimes vegetables. You were then allowed to sleep a little, and in the evening ordered to go back to fasting, she narrated.

Pauline’s grandmother would not allow her to make phone calls and, when allowed, she would be told what to say, all this while under the watchful eyes of one of the camp’s supervisors.

By then, Mr Mackenzie had selected four people whom he designated as “reporters”. According to Alex, their role was to go round the village and reinforce what he had said in the meeting and talk about the visions he received from God.

Children began to die en masse, with Mr Mackenzie’s “reporters” moving around the villages announcing the daily “weddings” schedule, in reference to burials.

“In Shakahola, a burial was taken to be a wedding ceremony because one was uniting with the lord,” Alex said. “I remember in March when we attended the burials of 11 children who had all died in one day. Mr Mackenzie told the villagers that the devil was angry and crying because they had all gone directly to heaven,” said Alex. This was meant to encourage members to “shame the devil and let more of their children die and meet Jesus.”

“Thereafter, the number kept on increasing as days went by, with a further burial having a record 31 children, ” he said.

“He was giving us the numbers of those who died while walking to the grave sites. There was no specific land for the followers as we were urged to live together as one family, hence, graves were dug anywhere and not in people’s homesteads,” explains Alex.

After his arrest and release on bond in mid-March, it is said Mr Mackenzie came back a hostile man who now tasked his enforcers to be strict with the followers.

Journalists' experience covering the Shakahola massacre

This was to ensure that they fasted without fail, the bodies buried as soon as they died. The intelligence and security operations was upped to keep off any outsiders from the village.

“We were now all instructed to stay indoors and those who defied were tied up and locked in their houses. All the mobile phones were taken away by the enforcers and the beatings and tortures increased,” said Alex.

“It reached a point when children were restricted from going to the main road or shopping centre to look for food and water. My friends and I were fasting but surviving secretly on water,” he said, adding:

“Our parents started to doubt us. They took us to Mr Mackenzie and told him of our breaking the fast. He instructed that we start afresh in March. This time, the children who were uncooperative had their hands and legs tied with ropes and a guard was placed to look after them as they starved.”

But two siblings managed to escape, bringing the cult activities to light, but there was still no adequate response from the authorities.

“We thought the escape would help expose everything that was going on, but that did not happen. I was rescued around March 26 and, when I informed police officers of the happenings, they did not take it with the seriousness it deserved,” Alex said.

He added: “If they had acted at that time, so many children would be alive today. I had left a number of them who were yet to start fasting. I feel bad because I even lost my best friend.”

The investigators admit that there was an intelligence lapse after Mr Mackenzie was released in March as they waited for instructions from Nairobi on how to proceed with the matter.

“The arrest of Mr Mackenzie in March had offered us a glimpse into his operations. When we rescued a few people from the village we escalated this to Nairobi, but it took a month to act on it. It is within this month that the cult leaders and his gang went on a murderous spree. Many lives would have been saved if the security agencies acted quickly,” another investigator told Nation.

It is also believed that Mr Mackenzie’s wife Rhoda Maweu played a “human resource and administration”role in the cult’s activities. She, together with Ms Mary Kahindi (Mr Smart Mwakalama’s wife) have been identified as key figures within the church’s operations.

Investigators tied Ms Maweu to her husband’s activities following scrutiny of his phone records, which showed several incriminating messages and calls between the two.

“It was evident that Rhoda held an administrative role in the church and had played a vital role in recruiting new members into the fold.”

“She also assigned roles to the cults enforcers and was involved in making financial decisions on behalf of the church through the mobile money transfer transactions connected to her phone,” an investigator told Nation.

Alex also confirmed Rhoda’s role in the church, saying, she was among the people who encouraged members to starve, alleging that the couple might have also lost one of their children who was buried in the forest.

Reporting by Allan Olingo, Paul Wafula, Farhiya Hussein, Stephen Oduor and Brian Obuya