Of sects and doomsday cults

Legio Maria members at a church service in Nairobi on March 11, 1984.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Kenya has a long history with religious zealots who have led gullible members down treacherous paths in the multi-billion faith industry

They may not match the Malindi cult by doomsday perversion and standards, but religious zealots have long been with us, whipping their members into fasting sessions and fanaticism based on apocalypse and pseudo-prophecy. In the name of God, and without questioning, they have been the untouchables. In their prayer sessions and often on TV, the lame walk and the blind see.

They have healed cancer patients, conjured up ‘miracle babies’, purified dirty water, and sold magic anointing oils to the gullible. Conmen, tricksters, pseudo-theologians, cultural purists and charlatans have found space and followers, too, taking advantage of the unregulated and untaxed multi-billion-shilling faith industry. “Religion,” said Karl Marx, “is the opium of the masses.” And the religious craze has come in various forms.

Before the excesses of the Paul Mackenzie’s Good News International Church were excavated, Kenyans were fixated on Yesu wa Bungoma – and had always joked about the disappearance of Bungoma’s “Jehovah” Wanyonyi, the black ‘messiah’. Beneath all these is the fact that Kenya has become a site of uncontrolled heretical sects, mainly radical branches of mainstream churches and evangelical teachings and practices.

In 1977, a sect emerged in Mahiga location Nyeri that would not allow its followers to remove jiggers, fleas or lice from their bodies, arguing that these were creatures of God, just like humans. The followers came to the attention of local chief, GG Gakaria, after they stopped taking their livestock for dipping, arguing that “destroying ticks is a sin”. 

These sects are not only targeting the subalterns but also operate in urban areas. Between 2002 and 2004, Kenyans were taken through the Miracle Babies racket, engineered by ‘Archbishop’ Gilbert Deya and his wife ‘Pastor’ Mary. More than 20 years later, Deya’s case is still pending in court after he was deported from the UK, where he had started a massive ministry with an estimated membership of 34,000 followers there.

Mary was jailed for three years after she was found guilty of stealing babies at Kenyatta National Hospital and selling them in a child smuggling syndicate. To date, nobody knows how many babies the ‘church’ sold and to where. Again, how a “church” operated a human trafficking syndicate without raising eyebrows is a mystery.

Kenyans’ dalliance with such sects goes back to the breakaway Revivalists movement made up of a new generation of theologians who started aggressive Christian teachings in colonial Kenya. In the 1950s, they were known for opposing the Mau Mau in Central Kenya. They tacitly got the government’s support as they grew their Tukutendereza movement, which had originated from the Buganda teachings of William Nagenda.

The Revivalists would inspire and later plant the seeds of alternative radical theology. In 1957 in western Kenya, Mathew Ajuoga established his Church of Christ in Africa, locally known as Johera, a breakaway from the Anglican church. Next door was the Catholic breakaway, Legio Maria, which had installed its own Pope.

Another radical sect that emerged was the Dini ya Msambwa led by Bungoma’s Elijah Masinde, and unlike the pro-colonial Revivalists of Central Kenya, this was opposed to colonial rule and had started between 1935 and 1945 around Mt Elgon. The group preached a theology based on the Old Testament, triggering a wave of disorder.

Its leader was arrested and incarcerated at Mathari Mental Hospital after a government psychiatrist claimed that Masinde suffered from schizophrenia. He was later exiled amidst accusations of causing “mass hysteria” among the Babukusu of Western Kenya.

After Independence, there were attempts to control the teachings of these churches – thanks to Charles Njonjo, Kenya’s Attorney-General from 1963 to 1979, who took it upon himself to maintain the purity of the Anglican and Catholic faiths.

On April 27, 1973, Njonjo banned Jehovah’s Witness and six societies, declaring them “dangerous to the good government”. He told Parliament that the sect was “subversive and anti-government”. Njonjo accused Jehovah’s Witness of telling its followers “not to vote in any elections and also not to join the ruling party”. Others banned included Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, International Bible Students’ Association, Zion Watchtower Tract Society, Millennial Dawnists, Russellites and Standfasters. Though he later lifted Jehovah’s Witnesses’s ban on August 20, 1973, Njonjo had sent a warning.

In 1978, a sect emerged in Wundanyi, Taita Taveta, whose members refused medical attention, believing that only God could cure them. At one point, the Wundanyi District Officer, Raphael Kiwara, forced a sickly woman to the hospital after prayers proved fruitless. The sect was by then operating in the Mwafunja Werugha Location. A radical Akorino sect with similar teachings emerged in Kericho in 1982 and came to public attention after the death of a twoyear-old baby in Sorget Location.

The parents had refused to take the baby to hospital, believing she could recover through prayer. Ten members of the sect were arrested, and according to Musa Wamasakami, the local DO, “even at the time of the arrest the Akorino followers were still praying over the dead body, hoping that the child would come back to life”.

When one of the first Kenyan TV evangelists, Bishop Evans Mrima, died in 1989, his Gospel Outreach Church members in Ngara were reluctant to bury him, expecting his resurrection. For ten days, they prayed for a miracle, fasted and held on to hope.

Even on the day of his burial, Mrima’s grave was temporarily left open, and worshippers were given a chance to do last-minute resurrection prayers. Mrima, who hailed from Kaloleni, Kilifi, was a pioneer lunchtime evangelist in Nairobi and had purchased the former Shan Cinema in Ngara. According to media reports, his church was once accused of radicalising students of Precious Blood Secondary in Riruta, discouraging them from taking their examinations. The girls were reported to have turned “hysterical and unruly” during prayers, and 25 were expelled from the hostels to become day scholars. The headmistress at the time told the media that the girls were wailing and becoming a nuisance to other students. They were arguing that everything in life was pre-determined and that the headmistress would be punished for “harassing the children of God”.

In 1985, in North Imenti, and also in Embu, a group known as Kabonokia indoctrinated its members to reject modernism. They would not use vehicles, go to hospitals or spray their coffee with pesticides. Some Kabonokia members were arrested for opposing the national census and failing to carry identity cards.

In 1987, another sect mushroomed in Nakuru that advocated plucking out of fingernails and toenails. Said to have been a splinter of Seventh Day Adventists, the group was asking members to carry this out as part of a “second circumcision”. The group came into the limelight when Mbogoini Division District Officer Ndumba Mbogoini vowed to crack down on its members.

In the same year, the government banned The Evangelistic Gospel Church of Holy Morning Star, which had indoctrinated its members to wait for a miracle on September 9, 1987, the day they were set “to have a conversation with God”. They were to sacrifice two spotless lambs, one black and the other white. They believed the smoke offering would induce thunder, lightning and a heavy downpour after it reached heaven. In 1990, a quasi-political anti-Christ sect, Tent of the Living God, emerged in Nairobi and Mt Kenya regions.Led by Ngonya wa Gakonya, the group advocated wearing of dreadlocks and prayed while facing Mount Kenya. Maina Njenga’s Mungiki sect would later appropriate their teaching practices, later metamorphing from a sect into a gang of extortionists. Due to its prowess in youth mobilisation, the Mungiki sect was used by politicians to rally support. Today, the ban on Mungiki has seen the emergence of new outfits in Central Kenya that follow Kikuyu traditional teachings. The most prominent is Gwata Ndai, which advocates female circumcision. Its members are easily identified by their green, black, and white regalia.

Kenyans thought they had been spared mass doomsday cult deaths, where believers sell their property in preparation for exit to heaven, until the Shakahora incident. However, signs of doomsday cults existed.

In 2006, for instance, a doomsday cult was reported in Nakuru. Known as House of Yahweh, the members believed that the world was ending and had dug bunkers, where they were taking cover in readiness for a ‘nuclear war’. The sect followed Armageddon teachings of the Texas-based House of Yahweh, led by Yisryl Hawkins, who died in 2021. In preparation for the heavenly journey, members discarded their names and chose Hebrew ones.

But rather than tackle the Christian indoctrination and extremism, the government in 1994 focused on the diversionary rise of “devil worshipping”. President Daniel arap Moi appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the cult of devil worship in Kenya, chaired by Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Nyeri Catholic Diocese. The Commission reported finding evidence of devil worshipping and identified tattoos, scars and other bodily marks as symbolic of the practice. Other symbols included “swastika, goat head, human skulls and figure 666”.

Unfortunately, any effort to regulate religion has always earned a pushback from politicians – especially those who use the gullible masses as the bedrock of their politics.