In Tragedy’s Wake, Kenya Grapples With How To Combat Dangerous Cults

Over 400 died in the recent Shakahola Massacre, but regulating the world of American-inspired Pentecostal pastors is far from straightforward

In Tragedy’s Wake, Kenya Grapples With How To Combat Dangerous Cults
Workers carry exhumed bodies away from a mass grave in Shakahola, Kenya, in April 2023. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

In late June, Joseph Juma Buyuka died after a 10-day hunger strike at Kenya’s Shimo La Tewa Prison. No ordinary prisoner of conscience, Buyuka had been detained along with 64 fellow followers of the radical preacher Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, leader of Good News International Ministries, the doomsday cult behind over 400 confirmed deaths in what has become known as the Shakahola Massacre.

Buyuka was reportedly one of Mackenzie’s key lieutenants while they lived in the Shakahola Forest, a secluded area north of the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa. In one of the worst peacetime death tolls in modern African history, officials estimate that at least 800 victims starved themselves to death — with some of the 427 exhumed bodies showing signs of murder.

Authorities moved in on the rural encampment in April, after elders in nearby villages reported emaciated children arriving and begging for food, as wretched skeletal bodies began overwhelming the local morgue. Under Mackenzie’s spell, Shakahola victims, largely impoverished young people and desperate young families, had undergone a regime of extreme fasting in an attempt to hasten a meeting with Jesus.

Reportedly already too weak to walk when he was first arraigned at court, Buyuka and 64 others were being investigated for, among other things, murder and manslaughter, attempted suicide, religious radicalization and cruelty and neglect toward children.

The Shakahola Massacre is possibly the worst cult mass suicide since Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple saw 900 followers perish at “Jonestown” in Guyana in 1978. Both Jones and Mackenzie appear to have been inspired by the same obscure American preacher who died in the 1960s. An unalloyed tragedy in its own right, the events have many in Kenya as well as the wider African continent questioning the influence of rogue and radical preachers — and those from farther afield who have inspired them.

Mackenzie, who has denied culpability in the massacre, comes from the most extreme end of the evangelical Pentecostal-charismatic movement. In 2020, the World Christian Encyclopedia counted 644 million Pentecostals and charismatics worldwide, with 230 million of those on the African continent. One of the key factors in the rise of the movement, centered on the role of the Holy Spirit, is that it has no denominational hierarchy to provide oversight and vetting of pastors.

In the Pentecostal tradition, the only thing that pastors need to hold serious moral and spiritual authority is followers. The most charismatic, in both senses of the word, tend to rise to the top. On the one hand, this is a blessing, providing a more culturally and materially accessible form of faith to the developing world. But equally, this unfettered way of “doing church” has resulted in a new generation of extremist preachers.

Though undoubtedly a horrific outlier of Pentecostalism, Mackenzie is a self-taught pastor whose force of personality turned him into perhaps this century’s most prolific cult leader — and, as Buyuka’s recent death shows, one who still has a powerful hold over his followers from behind bars.

As authorities work their way through the bodies, the massacre is prompting serious questions about whether religious leaders ought to be subject to regulation and just where the boundaries of church and state lie. Kenya’s President William Ruto, himself an evangelical, launched a task force to look into enacting new laws to crack down on rogue churches and pastors, which led to the National Council of Churches fearing an attack on their religious freedom.

Weeks after the initial discovery of bodies in April, survivors were being found hiding under bushes, still refusing food and water. At the rescue center that housed them, many continued to deny themselves sustenance. It was then that the authorities charged “the 65” with attempted suicide — a misdemeanor punishable by two years’ imprisonment — and attempted to force-feed them.

In an August court appearance, Mackenzie held firm, telling journalists that those who want to see Jesus have to undergo trials while on earth.

“Go read John 12, which states that don’t be afraid of what befalls you,” he said. “However, be patient. This is in accordance with the preachings of Jesus Christ.” The only earthly sin he had committed, Mackenzie claimed, was eating — and the moment he stopped eating, he too would join his heavenly father. Mackenzie’s lawyer Wycliffe Makasembo stepped in to stop him from speaking further, advising journalists to not “quote any sentiments that my client has made, apart from Bible verses that he has mentioned.”

Out on Shakahola’s 800 acres of ochre fields, where authorities and families are still sifting through mounds of upturned dirt for remains, Mackenzie’s biblical justifications are of little concern.

A pathologist working on the case said that the victims’ remains showed signs of extreme starvation. Some appeared to have been murdered, with signs of smothering and blunt force trauma. Investigators say that autopsies have raised suspicions of organ harvesting among the deceased, while Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki said there are fears that some of the scores of dead children may have been victims of sexual abuse.

An estimated 400 followers remain missing. Many of them had moved to the forest from around the country and, in a few cases, internationally, lured by Mackenzie’s radical online preaching. Their families’ trauma has been compounded by the incapacity of regional authorities to process the sheer number of bodies. Complex and lengthy identification processes, such as DNA testing, are placing a burden on relatives, most of whom have limited resources and need to travel to the remote region to give samples.

In the beginning, one former congregant told a local reporter, Mackenzie’s sermons “were normal,” but from 2010 “his ‘End Times’ messages began.” It is unclear precisely what led to Mackenzie’s radicalization during this period but he found many followers willing to move with him in that direction. Directed to retreat from the world to prepare for the end of days, Mackenzie’s ministry pulled children out of school, entering followers into church-arranged marriages and disconnecting them from their communities.

Julius M. Gathogo, a theology professor at Kenyatta University, told New Lines that although Mackenzie had a stint as a televangelist, he was “virtually unknown” to most Kenyans before the Shakahola massacre came to light. Before founding his Good News International Ministry in 2003, Mackenzie had worked as a nighttime taxi driver in the capital of Nairobi.

During this time, Gathogo said, Mackenzie was “arrested four times for his controversial sermons, but acquitted after every time due to lack of evidence.” In one such incident in October 2017, police rescued 93 children from his care and the preacher was charged with promoting radicalization. “The pastor has brainwashed residents” against schools and hospitals, one local official later told reporters, explaining that Mackenzie was teaching children an extreme form of Christianity in an unregistered church school. But again, Mackenzie was acquitted. A year later, residents in a town near the massacre site demolished one of his churches, protesting what they decried as false Christian teachings.

Mackenzie’s increasingly public pronouncements saw him lock horns with a prominent local member of Parliament in the region of Malindi, Aisha Jumwa, now the government’s secretary of public service and gender. Jumwa denounced the teachings that saw children leaving their allegedly “satanic” education and accused Mackenzie of bribing security agencies to turn a blind eye to his bizarre activities.

“It is absurd that despite having been arrested about three times and charged,” she said at the time during a public rally, “the pastor is still scot-free and continues with his work of radicalizing schoolchildren.”

Mackenzie, who preaches rejection of secular institutions, nevertheless replied that critics needed to go to court. “I am not afraid to serve my God,” he said. In spite of the legal system’s insistence of a lack of evidence, damning indictments of Mackenzie’s preaching continued to emerge in public forums. One video surfaced on social media showing children aged 6 to 17 renouncing their secular education, declaring it ungodly.

In 2019, the preacher was again arrested for inciting his congregants against the new government identity card, called the “huduma namba” (service number). “Mackenzie called it satanic and likened it to the number of the beast, seen in the Book of Revelation,” Gathogo said. By getting involved in a significant national issue, Gathogo said that Mackenzie “publicized himself for the wrong reasons.”

If the huduma namba helped bring Mackenzie to prominence, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated his doomsday message and further radicalized his followers. For many among them, it was confirmation that the world was coming to an end and that Mackenzie was the prophet of the End Times. More and more followers began to quit their jobs and move to the forest, where some bought plots of land for $80 — about the price of a sheep, though the land was probably worth around 40 times this — in sections with names such as Galilee and Bethlehem.

Another act of God appeared to be the final death knell for many in the community. One victim, whose husband had bought a small plot of land and moved the family to the massacre site in 2020, said that they used to eat and drink but things changed when drought set in. Since October 2020, season after season of failed rains in East Africa have created the worst drought in 40 years. Mackenzie began telling his followers that they needed to “fast to meet Jesus.”

Though Mackenzie’s was clearly a fringe group, Kenya has proven fertile ground for new religious movements, many of which have emerged from Pentecostalism. In one of the most devout countries on earth, more than 85% of Kenyans identify as Christian. In the 21st century, Gathogo explained, the Afro-Pentecostal movement has become one of the dominant religious movements in the country — with about one-third of the population, or some 15 to 20 million people, adhering to it. In order to keep up, Gathogo notes, more traditional denominations such as Catholicism and Anglicanism are engaging in Pentecostal-style practices, such as faith healing and speaking in tongues.

“The British colonial government did not encourage Pentecostalism before 1963 when colonialism ended,” Gathogo said, which helps explain the first wave of the movement as something more localized and authentic. A key part of the appeal of this strand of evangelical faith is “its ability to easily resonate with indigenous cultures,” he added.

“This is in terms of their vibrant modes of worship,” Gathogo said, “their noisiness, their forms of hospitality appear to reach the lowest in society.” Pointing to the singing and dancing that gets worshippers inside the tent, he noted that these are part of indigenous African religiosity. “Hence, postcolonial Africa has to dance with the rhythms of Pentecostalism, which are influential across the social-religious divides.”

Here, the lines between church and state are often blurred. At political rallies, Gathogo said, it is common to see performances from Pentecostal gospel artists. They are “influencing political events” by putting on a good show and appealing to the deep Christian beliefs, flecked with African spirituality, that flow through the country.

In this regard, Good News International was very much a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“Paul Mackenzie’s religio-cultic outfit initially poses as an African Pentecostal church, that displays communality, hospitality and care for the lowly and needy in society, and vibrant drama-dancing-singing outfits,” Gathogo said. Looking like other African-Pentecostal churches, “Mackenzie’s Good News International Ministries impresses you with evangelical faith that takes the Bible seriously and believes in Jesus Christ as savior and lord.”

Kapya John Kaoma, an expert on U.S. influence in East African churches, told New Lines that the second wave of American evangelical missionaries in the 2000s made a significant contribution to faith in the region. U.S.-funded groups opened schools and imported Christian television. Through this, both local and international fundamentalists found opportunities to set up shop in places where the regulation of education was weak.

One particular offshoot of Pentecostalism, the American-founded New Apostolic Reformation, “dumped” traditional pastors “in favor of this new group of people who felt they were neglected by the demands of the academy,” Kaoma said. Disreputable institutions offered theology doctorates “within three months.”

The new breed of pastors began pulling members away from mainline Christian denominations. “They are highly focused on the people who are in need of help, those who are economically disadvantaged, those who are sick or unemployed,” he said. Their particular pulling power was healing and miracles. “As long as you’re charismatic enough, you are able to control a group of people,” Kaoma added, “and whatever you tell them to do, they do.”

In the George W. Bush era, hardcore American evangelical groups were encouraged to push their ideology on USAID-funded programs in Africa. Kaoma said that, in turn, these groups began to “monopolize” print media, radio and, eventually, television. Mainstream Pentecostal churches began using American talking points, including vehemently anti-LGBT and anti-abortion views, opening the door for extremist preachers such as Mackenzie to push ever more radical ideas.

While indigenous African churches had their own theology, which wasn’t necessarily opposed to these outside views, many local leaders, who had historically focused on healing, were invigorated by taking on “the modernity of the American Christian right, which they could watch on television,” Kaoma said. The prosperity gospel, that most American of ideas, also became a powerful force.

Pastoral networks, not to mention sympathetic political figures, benefited greatly from this “health and wealth” brand of Christianity. As the saying goes, if a preacher can name it, he can claim it. Kaoma added that among many Christians in Africa, word from the West is highly revered. “Anything that is associated with whiteness in Africa has legitimacy,” he said. “When Mackenzie is reading a book or citing something written by a white person, that has power.”

This may help to explain why investigators believe that Mackenzie’s radical turn came about when he became a devotee of William Branham, an American doomsday preacher prominent in the 1940s and ’50s who, until Shakahola, was most notable for influencing Jim Jones.

Branham emerged from a small postwar movement called the New Order of the Latter Rain, which took on the established Pentecostal authority, itself not even 50 years old at the time. Latter Rain leaders wanted to practice the powers gifted by the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples — such as casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead — and, critically, they wanted to do it on demand rather than waiting for these gifts to be bestowed upon them.

The effect of Latter Rain on present-day Christianity cannot be understated, with direct descendants of the movement influential on many events, including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and on prominent Brazilian and Korean megapreachers, among other personalities. Those influenced include mass murderers, such as Mackenzie. Though Branham is rejected by the vast majority of the Latter Rain movement’s modern-day disciples and is not a popular figure in Kenya, according to Gathogo, his works managed to captivate this small group as it moved toward the most tragic of ends.

Called “the Message,” Branham’s sermons and books were churned out from his Indiana headquarters and distributed globally. He adopted a doctrine central to early Latter Rain preachers called “atomic power,” which could be achieved through 40 days of fasting and prayer. In one 1961 revival sermon, Branham conceded that some of his followers had put their lives in danger from the extreme practice. Pregnant women, he said, “lose their mind” and “go into insane institutions from that.”

In an interview with New Lines, Douglas Weaver, a religious studies professor at Baylor University, said that Branham was a leading divine healer in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s who also launched “crusades” overseas. Branham began calling himself “the second John the Baptist,” after the prophet who foreshadowed Christ, and predicting the second coming, which saw him become a favorite of doomsday preachers. The rogue preacher had so many “nutty doctrines,” Weaver said, that by the 1960s, Pentecostals in the U.S. began to shy away from him. Yet the fact that Branham’s ministry has continued to hold sway is an example of how some fundamentalist publications “are considered to be infallible interpretations of the Bible.”

Weaver said that anybody who reads Branham and “wants to be what I would call an authoritarian prophet” can appeal to the preacher’s legacy and say that God continues to speak through them as we reach the End Times. In a 1965 sermon shortly before his death in a car accident, Branham delivered a sermon in which he warned listeners that “no one wants to die” but that some among them would have to “die in martyrdom.”

Though Branham was “eccentric,” Weaver said, his sermons were variations of the idea that “we’re in the end days and you need to have a prophet.” Followers see him as an “infallible authority” who talks about the end, with generic prophecies about wars and other apocalyptic events. “He made pronouncements that people are simply supposed to follow,” Weaver said, “so it could become cultic.” Chief among them was that, if you believed his message, you would be raptured: that is, transported from Earth to heaven on the second coming of Christ. “You can take Branham’s theology and go as far off the deep end as you want,” Weaver added.

In Kenya and well beyond its borders, esoteric belief systems and new religious movements emerging from Pentecostal thought highlight the movement’s lack of institutional oversight. The advent of social media also offers perverse incentives. Kenya is “awash with online recruitments where targets are incentivized to go to the extreme,” Gathogo said. Believers are enticed with “promises for a better life, for a job” and told that they may find a spouse.

Gathogo explained that, in East and Central Africa, “failure to offer sound theological training” and “poor vetting in Afro-Pentecostal leadership” have seen warlords and drug runners like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army establish theocratic enclaves with extremist beliefs. Unscrupulous pastors are offering “breakthroughs in all dimensions of life,” Gathogo said, including visas for overseas work, or offering exhausted mothers ways to get their teenagers to behave. “A church where the founder cannot be disciplined by a higher authority or by established structures,” he said, “cannot be trusted.” After all, “we are all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”

There exists a spiritual marketplace of people seeking solace and support in pastors who offer solutions. Preachers like Mackenzie “take advantage of that,” Kaoma said. Any success becomes the leader’s success. Once followers find work, or love, they will often attribute that to the church, and donate money in kind, oiling the wheels of the pastor.

What is unusual in the case of the Shakahola Massacre, Kaoma noted, is that preachers like Mackenzie tend to hold the most sway in urban areas, where cost-of-living pressures and isolation from traditional communities are common. In rural areas, African-initiated religious movements, which are tied to health and community, are usually much more persuasive. The fact that Mackenzie took many followers with urban concerns and moved them to isolation in the forest, where they became willing to die for their newfound beliefs, might have contributed to the deadly success of his movement.

In this blurring of urban and rural religious divides, Mackenzie’s movement is far from alone. Shakahola is the latest and most high-profile example of extreme African Pentecostal movements in rural communities exercising undue influence over their parishioners. In 2014, South African “professor” Lesego Daniel encouraged his congregation to drink poisonous chemicals as a form of communion, claiming that he had the gift of turning “petrol into pineapple.” Two years later, his protege, pastor Lethebo Rabalago, gained infamy as the “Prophet of Doom” after he was found guilty of assault for spraying churchgoers with Doom-brand insecticide to help cast out demons that presented in the form of AIDS. Earlier this year, a Ghanaian pastor ordered church members to strip naked so that the Holy Spirit could move freely through them.

The rise of extremist preachers spanning the continent has amplified the voices of some religious leaders. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame championed a law that recently came into effect requiring pastors to have a theology degree before they can start their own congregations. It is said to have resulted in the closure of some 6,000 churches.

In the wake of Shakahola, Kenya’s President Ruto launched a task force to review the legal and regulatory framework governing religious organizations, asking the public to submit their proposal on changes required to curtail religious extremist organizations. The 17-member committee is currently reviewing the public submissions. “The operation on criminals hiding behind religion is not a war against any faith or institution,” Kindiki, the interior secretary, said at its establishment. “Crime knows no religion.”

The task force’s key responsibilities are identifying gaps that have allowed extremist religious organizations to set up shop in Kenya, as well as putting together a legal framework that prevents radical religious groups from operating in the country. This could include education standards for pastors — going against the grain of churches and movements emerging from Pentecostalism, which have traditionally flourished in poor communities where formal training can be hard to come by.

“As far as I’m concerned, it is necessary,” Gathogo said. Yet for some, the government drawing the line on what can and can’t be preached is a fraught development. Opponents of new regulations say that “churches should be left to reveal themselves,” he added. Others have argued that the massacre was a one-off affair and that the state should have intervened in the case earlier but that, in general, churches should be left to self-regulate in order to gain communities’ respect.

Reconciling deeply spiritual matters with political concerns is difficult in a country so steeped in faith. Many argue that the separation of church and state is a colonial idea that doesn’t reflect the values of a modern African state. There is also the very real chance that “outlawed” preachers would attract followings by virtue of being subversive.

Those arguing for regulation, such as Gathogo, are urging Parliament to take their time on consulting and drafting an appropriate law, as rushing will see it fail in both the court of public opinion and the supreme court, where there is a risk that it will be deemed unconstitutional.

But no matter what laws are brought into place, whether they can effectively come to grips with a changing culture of faith is another issue entirely. Gathogo noted that Mackenzie is representative of the rise of new religious movements in 21st-century Africa.

“They interpret the Bible from an extremist position, and even avoid theological training, as they claim that the Holy Spirit is sufficient trainer,” he said. “They reject decency and eventually end up as con artists.”

Among this strain of preachers, “The leader is elevated to a deity, his word is law, and people are psyched to fear him,” he added.

If successful, Kenya’s laws may be looked at around the world as a way of reining in rogue operators, but they open up a legal and ethical minefield, not to mention the risk of turning pastors such as Mackenzie into martyrs.

For Gathogo, bringing in new standards for religious leaders speaks to broader issues of governance on the continent, where preachers are stepping in to fill the void left by states unable to meet people’s material needs, let alone their spiritual ones.

“Africa does not need strong men,” Gathogo said, “but strong institutions.”

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