In the middle of the Shakahola forest not far from Kenya’s coast, piles of fresh earth topped with crucifixes await the attention of forensic experts. Beyond the forest itself, there is shock in the country over how dozens of people could have willingly starved themselves to death.
Police launched an investigation on April 21, 2023, in a 325-hectare area of the forest. Dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”, the Shakahola forest has now been sealed and declared a crime scene.
The wide-ranging investigation includes the Good News International Church and its notorious leader. 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. He reportedly converted people to his beliefs and engaged them in fasting, ultimately encouraging them to starve themselves so they could meet Jesus.
Nthenge bought a field in the Shakahola forest where he relocated in 2022. According to the church’s website, he founded the movement in 2003 and set up branches in Nairobi and along Kenya’s coast that attracted more than 3,000 devotees. The website said 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”.
Kenyan police raided the Good News International Church two weeks ago following tips about the cult from locals and human rights activists who found that a number of people were going missing around the coastal town of Malindi.
When police arrived at the property they found emaciated people who couldn’t even walk or talk. Eight severely emaciated people who were found alive by police later died, said Kenya’s Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome on Monday.
Nthenge is in police custody and due in court on May 2. The pastor had been arrested twice before—in 2019 and in March of this year—in relation to the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court. Local politicians have urged the court not to release him this time, decrying the spread of cults in the Malindi area.
Kenya is a profoundly religious country with 85% of the population identifying as Christian.
President William Ruto, who is a devout man himself, described the head of the Good News International Church, Pastor Makenzie Nthenge, as someone who did “not belong to any religion”. He also weighed in on the sensitive subject of Kenya’s homegrown religious movements — and failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.
“Terrorists use religion to advance their heinous acts. People like Mr Mackenzie are using religion to do exactly the same thing.”Kenya President William Ruto
Ruto, who was elected in 2022, is the country’s first evangelical Christian president. He has nominated several pastors into parliament and government agencies like the anticorruption commission.
“While the State remains respectful of religious freedom, this horrendous blight on our conscience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrator(s) of the atrocity on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation (including self-regulation) of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward.”Kithure Kindiki, Kenya’s Interior Minister