The discovery of mass graves in Kenya over the past two weeks revealed how a Christian pastor convinced his followers to starve themselves to death. Here’s a brief guide to a horror story that’s making global headlines.
Tell me what happened…
Around mid-April, the police raided the premises of a pastor named Paul Nthenge Mackenzie. They were told that two children were starved and suffocated to death by their parents on Mackenzie’s advice in March (we explain why in the next bit). So far, 109 bodies have been recovered from shallow graves in the Shakahola forest—which was home to Mackenzie’s Good News International Church—and also from land the pastor owned. The sheer number of casualties is shocking: “The death toll, already one of the worst in the recent history of cult-related tragedies, is expected to rise further as the Kenyan Red Cross says more than 300 people are missing.”
The horror story: The vast majority of the 109 bodies recovered from the mass grave sites were of children. Women are next—while the number of men is the lowest. According to the police, the children “were allegedly starved to death on instructions issued by Paul Mackenzie that they observe fasting till death in order to meet their maker.” In one case, the police were looking for three siblings after receiving a complaint from the father:
It was quite unfortunate because we only rescued one whom we found in a house, tied with a rope. And this kid we believe to be six years of age. But his sister and brother were already dead and they had been buried the previous day before we got there.
But, but, but: Not everyone died of hunger:
The preliminary reports we are getting is that some of the victims may not have died of starvation. There were other methods used, including hurting them, just by physical and preliminary observations.
And yet, many of the 29 survivors did not want to be rescued. For example, this 20-something woman:
When we tried to administer first aid to give her sips of water with glucose with a spoon, she completely refused. She sealed her mouth shut and she was signifying that she doesn't want any help.
Quote to note: Kenya’s interior minister called the tragedy a “massacre”—claiming that it exposed the “clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship.” President William Ruto said: “Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing.”
So this is a Christian cult?
Kenya is a predominantly Christian country—and in recent decades, there has been a boom in churches founded by self-styled pastors. The Good News International Church was established in August 2003 by taxi driver-turned-pastor Paul Mackenzie. As with many apocalyptic cults, it was obsessed with the end of the world:
According to its website, the organisation intended to “nurture the faithful” in Christian spirituality for the “second coming of Jesus Christ”. The church built its base via the ‘End Time Messages’ programme on a dedicated TV station and used social media to spread its messages. Most of the blog content, published in 2014, centres on the end of the world, Judgement Day prophecies, and salvation.
The starvation gospel: Mackenzie convinced his followers that the world was going to end on April 15. The only way to save their souls—and get a direct and early ticket to heaven—was to starve themselves to death:
Police say he told them that the fast would count only if they gathered together, and offered them his farm as a fasting venue. They were not to mingle with anyone from the “outside” world if they wanted to go to heaven and were to destroy all documents given by the government, including national IDs and birth certificates, he allegedly said.
As for the rest: Mackenzie’s ‘gospel’ has all the elements that you’d expect from any ‘end of days’ cult:
- Kooky conspiracy theory: Mackenzie believed that there is a "New World Order"—which is “a plot by global elites to bring about an authoritarian world government, replacing nation states.”
- Patriarchal control over women: Mackenzie discouraged women from wearing ‘demonic’ wigs—“Suddenly he decreed that female worshippers could not wear make-up. He ordered us to bring forward our earrings, necklaces and other adornments he considered ungodly and he set them on fire.”
- Satan and demons: All sorts of things were just plain evil—including school education and modern medicine.
- Mackenzie’s online videos feature exorcisms: “And there are frequent warnings of an omnipotent satanic force that has supposedly infiltrated the highest echelons of power around the world.”
Is this kind of thing common in Kenya?
These kinds of Christian cults are an epidemic in Kenya—and go largely unregulated. There are more than 4,000 registered churches in a country with a population of around 50 million people. Most preach “prosperity gospel”—urging members to donate to the church to become rich. And all of them exercise absolute control over adults—and therefore their children: "Members are expected to sacrifice what they love most to prove loyalty to the organisation."
Targeting the poor: Lack of education, poverty and easy access to brainwashing sermons online have made cults attractive to many in Kenya:
Anyone who is vulnerable, say a jobless person, or someone going through family issues, a divorce, or somebody who is suffering from a long-term illness, they tend to get vulnerable to these people. A person like Mackenzie taps into that vulnerability by promising things, for example spiritual healing.
Isolating members from the rest of their family was also common and a way to maintain control over followers. “[Psychologist Isabel] Zattu said Mr Mackenzie appeared to have deliberately moved his church to a more isolated site.”
Not just Mackenzie: Spurred into action by the gruesome discovery in Shakahola forest, the police have rushed to raid and arrest a number of other ‘starvation cult’ pastors. They arrested a popular televangelist Ezekiel Odero—who will also be charged with the killings of his followers. Authorities have uncovered an unknown number of bodies at his New Life International Church premises—and rescued 100 people. Also arrested on the weekend: a 62-year-old woman suspected to be the spiritual leader of a group that had confined 31 people to a house for “fasting.”
Point to note: Kenya hardly has a monopoly on mass cult suicides or killings. In 2000, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda burned nearly 800 followers alive in a locked church after its prediction that the world would end didn’t come true. In 1997, 39 members of Heaven's Gate committed suicide in California to coincide with the passage of Comet Hale-Bopp.
The bottomline: The greatest irony of this tragedy is that Kenya is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history. Four successive rainy seasons have failed—triggering a terrible food crisis.
Al Jazeera, New York Times and The Hindu have detailed overviews of the tragedy. BBC News has more on Mackenzie’s views and horror stories of eyewitnesses. News.com.au has the best reporting on cults in Kenya. Deutsche Welle reports on Odero’s arrest—while the Nation profiles Mackenzie. Reuters looks at the shocking number of children who became his victims.