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Faith Nyasuguta

The Kenyan cult leader, Paul Mackenzie, faces murder charges after more than 400 bodies were uncovered in shallow graves in a remote forest. 

Mackenzie, along with 29 others, pleaded not guilty to a range of charges, including acts of terror, child cruelty, torture, and murder. The gruesome discovery has exposed the dark underbelly of the Good News International Church, with survivors recounting harrowing tales of Mackenzie’s influence and the atrocities committed in the pursuit of a twisted ideology.

The court proceedings unfolded in the coastal town of Malindi, where Mackenzie and his alleged accomplices faced charges related to the deaths of 191 people. The accusations go beyond mere starvation, with police and prosecutors suggesting that some victims may have been strangled, suffocated, or beaten to death using blunt objects.

Survivors and victims’ families have provided chilling accounts of Mackenzie’s teachings, alleging that he urged followers to partake in extended fasting to “go see Jesus.” One survivor, Neema (not her real name), shared her traumatic experience of being part of the Good News International Church until its closure in 2019. 

When Mackenzie relocated to Shakahola, a forest about 70km west of Malindi, Neema followed him in 2022.

Shakahola, now under 24-hour police guard and declared a crime scene, became a nightmarish place for those held against their will. The forest, initially a place of worship, turned into a prison where followers were subjected to extreme conditions. 

In 2023, forensic teams exhumed hundreds of bodies from shallow graves in the forest /AFP/

Neema, two months pregnant with her fourth child, recounted the horrors of being held captive, enduring rape by guards, and the gradual deprivation of food and water.

“The preaching stopped,” Neema recalled. “They said we’re now done with teachings; we only wait to meet Jesus.” The once meager rations of half a cup of tea and a slice of bread in the morning disappeared entirely, pushing followers to forage for wild berries and drink water from the ground. 

Escape attempts were forbidden, but Neema, along with two friends, plotted their way out during a guard meal break.

The desperation to escape outweighed the risks, and they successfully fled to the main road, where a passing motorist took them to safety. 

However, hundreds were not as fortunate, especially children who were identified as the first group designated for fasting until they “went to sleep,” according to survivors. Women were to follow suit.

The forest’s plight came to light when village elder Changawa Mangi noticed Mackenzie’s increasingly large gatherings in Shakahola

Changawa Mangi /BBC/

Initially, the church’s presence boosted local businesses, but soon, Mackenzie’s followers stopped frequenting village shops. Concerns grew when three emaciated teenagers sought help from Mangi, revealing the dire conditions in the forest.

Despite efforts to alert authorities, including the police, the response was slow. Villagers attempting to intervene faced hostility from guards, escalating the need for police escort to gain access. 

The unfolding tragedy prompted high school teacher Francis Wanje to investigate his missing daughter and her family’s possible involvement in the forest. Wanje’s grim discoveries included rescuing his nine-year-old grandson, who described the starvation and death of siblings.

Francis Wanje /Courtesy/

As rescue efforts continued, Stephen Mwiti, a father of six, learned the fate of his children, who had been taken to the forest by his wife. 

The heart-wrenching news revealed that his children, Jacob, Lillian, and Angelina, had succumbed to starvation and were buried in a mass grave with seven others. The tragic toll extended to Hellen and Samwel, who were still alive at the time of rescue but faced the grim prospect of imminent death.

Stephen Mwiti was told by survivors that his children had starved to death /Reuters/

Neema and other survivors disclosed disturbing aspects of the cult’s beliefs, which included discouraging breastfeeding and rejecting modern medicine and vaccinations for children, all under the guise of preparing to “go to Jesus.” 

Mackenzie and his alleged associates have been in police custody since April, facing a litany of charges. While Mackenzie denies ordering people to fast explicitly, the investigation continues, with only 39 of the bodies identified through DNA testing.

As the quest for justice unfolds, survivors grapple with the traumatic aftermath. For victims’ families like Mr. Mwiti, justice cannot bring back their lost loved ones, leaving scars that will last a lifetime. 

The case sheds light on the dangers of cult influence, the vulnerability of followers, and the imperative for society to remain vigilant against such heinous practices.


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Faith Nyasuguta

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