Shakahola cult: 'My wife was opposed to family planning and children going to school'

Kenya cult

Stephen Mwiti (in a cap) with his family in Malindi in an undated photo.

Photo credit: Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • Mwiti’s wife and five children are missing and he fears they perished in the massacre and are buried in graves dotting the vast forest.
  • Mwiti was told that his infant son died two days after he was born in Shakahola. 

When Stephen Mwiti met Joan Bahati, his wife of 10 years, she was a loving and meek woman who never raised her voice against him. That changed when Bahati started watching cult leader Paul Mackenzie preach on his TV channel.

Initially, Bahati was interested in the word of God, but she later became a fanatic follower of Mackenzie, and joined the Good News International Church, where she was initiated into the cult.

In the past seven years, Mwiti and Bahati have been at loggerheads as she became radicalised and opposed to family planning and taking their children to school. 

Eight months ago, Bahati dropped a bombshell on Mwiti; she was moving with their five children, aged between one and nine, to 'Bethlehem', referring to the 800-acre land from where Mackenzie operated in Shakahola village, Kilifi County.

Mwiti is now one of the hundreds of families affected by the religious cult that exemplifies religion gone rogue. They are all missing loved ones, who are thought to have joined Mackenzie and are feared dead, with homicide detectives having exhumed 90 bodies at the expansive land in Shakahola, by Tuesday, April 25.

The dead allegedly starved, but police have said some might be victims of murder.

Mwiti’s wife and five children are missing and he fears they died in the massacre and are buried in graves dotting the vast land. The children are aged between one and nine years. 

He narrated how he tried to convince his wife to abandon Mackenzie’s teachings to no avail.

“I used to take children to hospital and school because she said they were taught these things are earthly and they should shun them. When I washed their uniforms she would never touch them,” he said, adding that as an avowed believer of the cult, she was also opposed to family planning.

“I decided to resist because of the children since I knew they were going to suffer if I let them go,” Mwiti added.

After Bahati and the children left for Shakahola, Mwiti would send them food and money. However, when Bahati's phone went off a month ago, Mwiti suspected that something was amiss. He tried to rescue them, but faced hostilities from a gang that used to guard the ranch.

“I took five of my friends and we stormed the forest. We were almost killed but we managed to get to ‘Bethlehem’ and I met Mackenzie. I asked him where my family was but he did not give me satisfactory answers. I was told they were somewhere deeper in the forest, but I could not get there. At his place, I saw about 100 people, most of them children and women,” he recounted.

When Mackenzie was arrested on April 14, after four of his followers died, Mwiti approached survivors and showed them photos of his children and wife.

“I was told my children must have died some time in November, and my wife a month ago, when her phone went off. As for the newborn baby, he was breastfed for a day and then suffocated. They said he had ascended to heaven and that they would meet him there,” said Mwiti.

And as the remains of the victims are moved to the mortuary in body bags, Mwiti awaits the process of identification that will prove he lost his entire family to the cult. The process is likely to take a while.

“If it turns out that my family was wiped out, I don’t know where to start. I will have to get another wife and start a new family,” he said.

Back in Meru at Akumbone, Tigania West, where Mwiti was born 45 years ago, gloom hung over the village after his father Joseph Nkarichia was told that his son’s family was missing.

Nkarichia's worry is that he has no grandchildren. The 71-year-old regrets that when he heard about the marital problems his son was undergoing, he did not take any step to help.

“He went to the coast over 20 years ago and I have never seen Bahati or my grandchildren. I had planned to go for the children when I heard that my son was not on good terms with his wife so that they would come and keep me company but I don't really know what stopped me… perhaps it's this devil they call Mackenzie,” said the old man.

“How can a man massacre all those people in the name of religion and still walk free? Can't the government protect us from these cults? Given a chance I can strangle him like a chicken,” he added in frustration, his eyes teary.

Nkarichia has a reason to be bitter. After his wife died in 1989 leaving him with three children, he struggled to raise them. He decided not to get another wife until his last born was older than 10 years. He remarried, but his second wife left him.

“I am lonely. The only thing I'll do now is to get Mwiti another wife and convince him to come back home. I'm getting old and you never know what might happen tomorrow. But I know God is with us,” he said, adding: “What I don’t want is to be faced with the burden of burying a family I have never seen. If they are dead, I will ask Mwiti to bury them there and come back home. We start a new life. He is my only hope.”