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Shakahola, Kenya, where the bodies were found. Google maps

Search underway for cultists linked to 73 bodies discovered in mass graves in Kenya

A number of people have been rescued and dozens of bodies unearthed in mass graves dug in shallow pits.

KENYAN PRESIDENT WILLIAM Ruto has vowed to crack down on “unacceptable” religious movements as police discovered more fatalities from a Christian cult that practised starvation, bringing the toll to 73.

A major search is under way in a forest near the coastal town of Malindi, where dozens of corpses were exhumed over the weekend, with authorities fearing more grisly discoveries could be made.

A full-scale investigation has been launched into the Good News International Church and its leader, named in court documents as Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who preached that death by starvation delivered followers to God. 

Police had previously named the suspect as Makenzie Nthenge. It is believed some of his devotees could still be hiding in the bush around Shakahola, which was raided by police earlier this month after a tip-off from a local non-profit organisation. 

Since then, a number of people have been rescued and dozens of bodies unearthed in mass graves dug in shallow pits.

“58 people (have been) confirmed dead and this is out of bodies exhumed and those who died on the way to the hospital,” said police chief Japhet Koome who visited the site on today.

The toll had stood at 51 and has since risen again to 73, according to Kenyan police. 

A 325-hectare (800-acre) area of woodland has been declared a crime scene as teams clad in overalls search for more burial sites and possible cult survivors.

Ruto, speaking in Kiambu county neighbouring Nairobi, said there was “no difference” between rogue pastors like Nthenge – who has been arrested and is awaiting trial – and terrorists.

“Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing.”

“I have instructed the agencies responsible to take up the matter and to get to the root cause and to the bottom of the activities of… people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology.”

‘Unfolding horror’ 

As authorities try to uncover the true scale of what is being dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”, questions have emerged about how the cult was able to operate undetected despite Nthenge attracting police attention six years earlier.

“The unfolding horror that is the Shakahola cult deaths should and must be a wake up call to the nation, more particularly the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and our community policing programme,” Amason Jeffah Kingi, the speaker of the senate, said in a statement.

“How did such a heinous crime, organised and executed over a considerable period of time, escape the radar of our intelligence system?”

He was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings (€675) before surrendering to police following the Shakahola raid.

Another 14 people are also in custody over the Shakahola deaths, according to Koome. The case is due to be heard on 2 May.

Fears for followers 

There are fears some members could be hiding from authorities in the surrounding bushland and at risk of death if not quickly found.

A number of people have already been rescued and taken to hospital in Malindi, on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

Hussein Khalid, a member of the rights group Haki Africa that tipped off the police to the actions of the church, said one of those rescued had refused to eat despite being in clear physical distress.

“The moment she was brought here, she absolutely refused to be administered with first aid and she closed her mouth firmly, basically refusing to be assisted, wanting to continue with her fasting until she dies,” he told AFP.

The Kenya Red Cross said 112 people had been reported missing to its support staff at Malindi.

The case has grabbed the nation’s attention, prompting the government to flag the need for tighter control of fringe denominations in a country with a history of self-declared pastors and movements that become immersed in crime.

Interior minister Kithure Kindiki, who has announced he would visit the site on Tuesday, described the case as “the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship.”

But attempts to regulate religion in the majority-Christian country have been fiercely opposed in the past as attempts to undermine constitutional guarantees for a division between church and state.


A taxi driver turned pastor, who allegedly preached that starvation brought salvation, Paul Mackenzie Nthenge was under scrutiny years before 73 of his presumed followers were found dead in Kenya.

Police this month launched a wide-ranging investigation into the Good News International Church and its notorious leader after a tip-off led them to a forest where Nthenge preached.

They found 15 starving people – four of whom died – while the others were taken to hospital.

But it was not Nthenge’s first time in the crosshairs of law enforcement.

The discovery of dozens of bodies – most in mass graves – raised questions about how he was free to preach such dangerous teachings.

According to the church’s website, Nthenge founded the movement in 2003 and set up branches in Nairobi and along Kenya’s coast that attracted more than 3,000 devotees.

It aimed to “nurture the faithful holistically in all matters of Christian spirituality as we prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ through teaching and evangelism”, the website said.

Nthenge also launched a YouTube channel in 2017, warning followers against “demonic” practices like wearing wigs and using mobile money in videos posted to the social media platform.

Later that year, the televangelist was arrested on charges of “radicalisation” after urging children not to attend school because education was not recognised by the Bible.

Two years later, he closed the church and moved to the sleepy town of Shakahola, telling The Nation newspaper in an interview last month that he “got a revelation that the time to call it quits had come”.

“I just pray with myself and those who chose to believe,” he said.

He was arrested again in March, according to local media, after two children starved to death in the custody of their parents.

He was released on bail and told The Nation he was “shocked about the accusations.”

Less than three weeks later, a police raid in a forest near the coastal town of Malindi led investigators to exhume the woodland for mass graves.

As they come to grips with what has been dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”, Nthenge is once again in police custody after surrendering to the authorities. He is due in court on 2 May.

His re-emergence at the heart of the unfolding situation has raised questions about how a self-styled pastor with a history of extremism has managed to evade law enforcement despite his prominent profile.


 - © AFP 2023 

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