He Told Followers to Starve to Meet Jesus. Why Did So Many Do It?
SHAKAHOLA, Kenya — Delirious from hunger, a believer who had brought his family to live with a Christian doomsday cult in a remote wilderness in southeastern Kenya sent a distraught text to his younger sister this month. While he begged her for help to escape, he was still in the grip of the preacher who had lured him there, promising salvation through death by starvation.
“Answer me quickly, because I don’t have much time. Sister, End Times is here and people are being crucified,” Solomon Muendo, a former street hawker, told his sister. “Repent so that you’re not left behind, Amen.”
Muendo, 35, has been living in the Shakahola Forest since 2021, when, like hundreds of other believers, he abandoned his home and moved there with his wife and two young children.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
They were following the call of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a former taxi driver turned televangelist who, declaring that the world was about to end, marketed Shakahola to his followers as an evangelical Christian sanctuary from the fast-approaching apocalypse.
Instead of a haven, however, the 800-acre property, a sun-scorched wasteland of scrub and spindly trees, is now a gruesome crime scene, scattered with the shallow graves of believers who starved themselves to death — or, as Mackenzie would have it, crucified themselves so that they could meet Jesus.
As of this past week, 179 bodies have been exhumed and moved to a hospital mortuary in the coastal town of Malindi, around 100 miles east of Shakahola, for identification and autopsy. The government’s chief pathologists reported that while starvation caused many deaths, some of the bodies showed signs of death by asphyxiation, strangulation or bludgeoning. Some had had organs removed, a police affidavit said.
Hundreds more people are still missing, perhaps buried in undiscovered graves. Others are wandering the property without food like Muendo — whose wife and children are missing, his sister said.
The horrific scale of what the Kenyan news media called the “Shakahola Massacre” has left the government struggling to explain how, in a country that counts itself among Africa’s most modern and stable nations, law enforcement had for so long missed the macabre goings-on in an expanse of land located between two popular tourist destinations, Tsavo National Park and the Indian Ocean coast.
That so many people disregarded the most basic human instinct to survive and chose instead to die through fasting has raised sensitive questions about the limits of religious freedom, a right that is enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution.
Evangelical Christianity — and freelance preachers — have surged in popularity across Africa, part of a religious boom on the continent that stands in stark contrast to the rapid secularization of former colonial powers like Britain, which governed Kenya until 1963. About half of Kenyans are evangelicals, a far higher proportion than in the United States.
Unlike Roman Catholic or Anglican churches, which are governed by hierarchies and rules, many evangelical churches are run by independent preachers who have no oversight.
Kenya’s president, William Ruto — a fervent believer whose wife is an evangelical preacher — has been wary of imposing restrictions on religious activities, though last week he asked a group of church leaders and legal experts to propose ways to regulate Kenya’s chaotic faith sector.
For Victor Kaudo, a rights activist in Malindi who visited Shakahola in March, the freedom granted preachers like Mackenzie has gone too far. Tipped off by defectors from the cult, Kaudo found emaciated believers who, though in the throes of death, cursed him as “an enemy of Jesus” when he tried to help.
A starving woman, her head shaved on orders from the cult leadership, flailed angrily on the ground as Kaudo approached offering sustenance, a video he recorded showed.
“I wanted these starving people to survive, but they wanted to die and meet Jesus,” Kaudo recalled. “What do we do? Does freedom of worship supersede the right to life?”
Mackenzie has told investigators that he never ordered his followers not to eat and merely preached about the End Times agonies prophesied in the Book of Revelation, the final chapter of the New Testament. He was arrested in April, set free and then quickly rearrested. He is under investigation over accusations of murder, terrorism and other crimes. His lawyer declined to comment.
Appearing briefly before a court in Mombasa this month, Mackenzie, 50, wearing a pink jacket, cut a jaunty figure as he waved imperiously from inside a metal cage to get the magistrate’s attention. The magistrate ignored him and extended his detention.
‘A Normal Church at the Beginning’
Mackenzie’s journey from destitute taxi driver to cult leader with his own television channel began in 2002 in a stone courtyard opposite a Catholic primary school in Malindi. The property belonged to Ruth Kahindi, who had met Mackenzie at a nearby Baptist church and invited him to preach at her home.
Together they formed their own church, Good News International, using Kahindi’s home as its base.
“It was a normal church at the beginning,” recalled Kahindi’s daughter Naomi, who remembers Mackenzie as a powerful speaker who initially stuck to the standard evangelical message of salvation through faith in Christ alone and the Bible as the ultimate spiritual authority.
After years of close partnership, Ruth Kahindi split with Mackenzie around 2008, the daughter said, after he grew increasingly apocalyptic in his preaching.
There were also quarrels over cash, Kahindi’s daughter said, adding that Mackenzie was suspected of pocketing tithes.
In response, the daughter said, “he started accusing my mother of witchcraft.”
Barred from using Ruth Kahindi’s home for preaching, Mackenzie, no longer a pauper, built himself a big concrete prayer hall on a plot of land he had purchased in Furunzi on the outskirts of Malindi and declared this the new home of Good News International Church. Word spread of his warnings of the coming Battle of Armageddon.
Although bitterly estranged from Kahindi, he took with him one of her daughters, Mary, who had married one of Mackenzie’s most fervent followers, Smart Mwakalama, a former hotel cleaner.
Mwakalama is now also under arrest. His wife, Mary, and their six children have all vanished and are feared to be among the dead buried in Shakahola.
Mackenzie, said Mary’s sister Naomi, “is a demon” who has “ruined too many lives.”
Among those caught in the ruins is Priscilla Riziki, an impoverished villager who introduced her oldest daughter, Lorine, to Mackenzie’s preaching a decade ago. Wracked by guilt and grief, she visits the Malindi morgue each day to search for her daughter and three grandchildren, all of whom moved to Mackenzie’s retreat in 2021.
“My only hope now is to just see my daughter — either dead or alive,” Riziki said.
A mob of angry residents, some of them disconsolate relatives of missing cult members, ransacked Mackenzie’s former church last week, tearing down its pink front gate and smashing the surrounding wall.
“People are very angry and blame Mackenzie, but I blame the government,” said Damaris Muteti, a member of a rival evangelical church and itinerant preacher, surveying the wreckage.
“Mackenzie is a good man, but the Devil used him,” she said. “Something went wrong.”
Selling Land He Didn’t Own
A peanut seller named Titus Katana, who joined the Good News church in 2015 and rose to become deputy pastor, said he initially had great admiration for Mackenzie and his preaching. “He changed because of his false prophecies” about the end of the world, Katana said. “His main interest became making money, not preaching to the world.”
By 2017, he recalled, Mackenzie had started telling worshippers not to see doctors or send their children to school. He set up his own unregistered, fee-paying school at his church. He also claimed divine healing powers, for which he also charged.
“He told me he had received a revelation from God” about education and medicine being sinful, Katana recalled. “Everything bad started with this.”
Mackenzie had by this time expanded his reach far beyond the Kenyan coast thanks to his establishment of Times TV, a gospel channel that beamed his increasingly fiery sermons over the internet and across Africa. Among those missing in Shakahola are a Nigerian citizen and a Kenyan flight attendant.
Elizabeth Syombua, the sister of the man now starving in the wilderness, said she and her brother had been entranced by Mackenzie’s television broadcasts. “You get addicted to what he says,” she said, recalling how she used to rush home from work at a Mombasa sewing factory so that she could join her brother to watch.
“He is like an evil spirit with this strange power to lure people into his trap,” she said.
Mackenzie’s growing popularity, however, also attracted the attention of authorities.
He was arrested in October 2017 on four charges, including radicalization and promoting extremist beliefs, crimes that had previously been leveled mostly at Muslims responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Kenya. Mackenzie pleaded not guilty and was acquitted.
He was detained again in 2019 and released on bail. He escalated his confrontation with the government, denouncing its introduction of national identification numbers for citizens as “the mark of the beast” — and yet another sign of approaching apocalypse.
Threatened with further prosecution, Mackenzie stunned his followers in 2019 by announcing that he was closing down the church, selling off its property and retreating to Shakahola Forest. He invited followers to join him and purchase small plots on what he said would be a new Holy Land.
Children Would Be the First to Perish
Katana, his former deputy preacher, said he had bought 1 acre for 3,000 Kenyan shillings, then worth around $30 — a low price but still a boon for Mackenzie, who did not legally own the land he was selling.
The arrival of the COVID pandemic in Kenya in 2020 increased the appeal of Mackenzie’s land offer and, for many, vindicated his long-standing message that the world was coming to an end.
Increasingly obsessed with the coming apocalypse, Mackenzie, according to Katana, issued “new instructions” in January to the hundreds of people who had moved to Shakahola, which the televangelist divided into districts with biblical names like Jericho and Jerusalem.
Mackenzie, casting himself as a Christ-like figure, lived in a section he called Galilee — after the area of Palestine where Jesus lived most of his life.
The instructions, Katana said, featured a methodical plan for mass suicide through starvation. The first to perish were to be children, who were “to fast in the sun so they would die faster,” Katana said, recalling the pastor’s words. In March and April, it would be the turn of women, followed by men.
Mackenzie, according to Katana, said that he would stay alive to help lead his followers to “meet Jesus” through starvation but that once this work was done, he too would starve himself to death before what he said was the imminent end of the world.
In a video post online in March, Mackenzie said that he had “heard the voice of Christ telling me that ‘the work I gave you to preach End Time messages for nine years has come to an end.’”
Katana said he had by this time broken with Mackenzie and wasn’t in Shakahola when the suicide program started but heard about it from believers who were. He went to the police to report that “kids are dying” in the forest.
“They never took any action until it was too late,” he said.
In April, Muendo, the former hawker who moved to Shakahola in 2021 with his family, telephoned his sister in Mombasa and told her that “we are starting a fast so that we can go to see Christ in Golgotha,” a reference to the site of Jesus’s crucifixion in the Bible.
“I told him, ‘I’m praying for you, but we need you, so don’t crucify yourself,’” the sister, Syombua, said.
Muendo, according to his sister, asked her to understand that he had no choice but “to go through to the end.”
The sister said, “He was happy, because he thought he would be dying soon for Jesus.”
As for Mackenzie, she added, “he is a murderer.”
c.2023 The New York Times Company