Kenyan evangelical pastor Paul Mackenzie (also spelt Makenzi) convinced hundreds of his followers to starve themselves to death in hopes of meeting Jesus and escaping the apocalypse.
Signs of the bigger tragedy emerged in March when the police arrested Mackenzie, who founded the Good News International Ministries in 2003. Two children had been found in a shallow grave in Shakahola, a village in Kenya’s Kilifi county. The police believed the children were starved and then suffocated to death by their mother, one of Mackenzie’s congregants.
In April, the police received a tip-off that led to them finding 15 emaciated people in the Shakahola forest. Four of them died before they could reach the hospital. In the weeks that followed, more dead bodies were found in the forest, sending shockwaves across the world.
As of Monday, May 22, 240 people were confirmed dead – a large number of them children. Two days later, the authorities reported that up to 613 cult members were still missing. Many of the dead bodies recovered from the forest had decomposed, making it hard to identify them.
The March incident wasn’t the first time Mackenzie would be on the radar of law enforcement agencies or public discourse.
In 2017, he and his wife, Joyce Mwikamba, were charged with promoting extremism and refusing to enrol their children in school as required by law. The couple was operating an unlicensed school at their church. The same year, the police rescued 73 children who had become radicalised, dropped out of school, abandoned their homes, and enrolled in the church’s education programme. They believed that formal education was satanic and that the world would end in 2024.
The court had discharged him regarding one of the 2017 charges after he entered into a plea bargain. He was acquitted of other charges too.
Despite pushback from residents of Kilifi and his prosecution, Mackenzie continued his controversial preaching. “It is absurd that despite having been arrested about three times and charged, the pastor is still scot-free and continues with his work of radicalising school children,” lawmaker Aisha Jumwa protested in 2018.
Mackenzie was charged to court again in 2019 for distributing films intended to convince children that school was bad for them and incite them against people who followed other religions. Parents whose children went missing soon found out they had joined his cult after watching his television programme. Some of them burned their school certificates, convinced that they were useless.
In Nov. 2019, Mackenzie said he planned to close his ministry and TV station by the end of that month because he was done delivering his message. Still, he continued to preach. His YouTube channel, which focuses on end times, has over 8,400 subscribers. Many of his videos have a few hundred or a few thousand views, but some have been watched over 200,000 times. The last video was uploaded on March 1, 2023, about a 15-year-old girl who “exposed” the secrets and agendas of an underground Freemason movement.
Mackenzie, who was a cab driver before his vision in 2003, also preached against public hospitals, national identification numbers, and the state.
After the announcement in 2019, the cleric asked his members to follow him to an 800-acre property in the Shakahola forest, where they would “wait for the Lord’s return”. He charged for everything, his unregistered school, his divine-healing powers, and plots of this 800-acre property he did not legally own. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 gave some credence to Mackenzie’s claims about the end of the world, and more people migrated to his “holy land”.
“We are about to win the battle. Let no one turn back. The journey is about to be accomplished,” he wrote on his social media platforms.
Last January, Mackenzie announced a plan that involved mass suicide. The children were supposed to die first, followed by women, and then men.
Mackenzie is back in court. In addition to radicalising children, the government has now charged him with terrorism and child trafficking. The case has also moved beyond the local magistrate court to the high court in Mombasa. The pastor could be facing charges of murder as well.
Though his case is shocking, he is not the only religious leader suspected of having brainwashed his followers in Kenya to the point of death.
Another pastor, Ezekiel Odero of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, was arrested in April and is also facing mass killing charges, though his lawyers have called it a witch-hunt. The police observed that an unusually high number of bodies were sent to a local morgue from the church.
A former fisherman, Odero was known to sell items that could cure various illnesses, including HIV. He enjoys widespread following both offline and online.
Though hundreds of his devotees starved to death as they hoped for salvation, Mackenzie has attempted no such thing himself. Initially, he claimed he would go without food, too, after all his followers had died and he had fulfilled his purpose of helping them to meet Jesus. But now, as he awaits trial in custody, he continues to nourish himself.
“He eats and drinks,” his lawyer George Kariuki told CNN earlier this month. “He is healthy. I have met him personally. There have been rumours that he has refused to eat, and that is not true.”
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