Kenyan preacher Paul Nthingi Mackenzie has appeared in court after dozens of dead bodies were discovered in a remote forest. He is accused of encouraging his followers to starve themselves to death – and hundreds of his relatives are now wondering what happened to their loved ones.
When the leader of the Good News International Church, Rev. MacKenzie, said the world would end in June 2023, Stephen Moeti’s wife believed him.
Now, he is sure that she died of starvation along with her six children.
The 45-year-old, who makes a living selling mandazi, or fried bread, holds a crumpled photo of his wife and four of his children, asking if anyone has seen them.
He had been doing this repeatedly in the city of Malindi, in southeastern Kenya, since she disappeared from there last August.
Mr. Moeti was also looking for them in the Chakahola Forest, where members of Reverend Mackenzie’s church had secluded themselves.
His wife, Bahati Joan, was pregnant when she left last year with their children: Helen Karimi, nine, Samuel Kermel, seven, Jacob Kimathi, three, Lillian Gatombi, 18 months, and Angelina Gatombi, seven months.
Mr. Moeti later discovered that his wife had given birth to a son, who also died.
She has been an ardent devotee of Pastor Mackenzie since 2015 and first went to Shakahola in 2021, then it kept coming and going.
After alerting the police several times and having personal attempts to rescue them fail, he has recently learned from other children who escaped and are being held by the Kenyan police that his children are dead.
“They were able to identify them from the photographs,” he says, fighting back tears. “They knew their names and where Jacob and Lillian were buried.”
“I was told not to try to search for my children again. They are all dead. It is too late.”
It is believed that they were buried in the forest, but their bodies have not yet been identified.
Shakahola is a Swahili word that loosely translates as “a place where cares are lifted”.
It is located on the sprawling 50,000-acre (20,000 ha) Chakama Ranch in coastal Kilifi County.
Reverend Mackenzie is said to own 800 acres of woodland area.
The entrance to the forest, down a bumpy track from the main road, is a two-hour drive from Malindi, the nearest major town.
Shrubs and forests dot the landscape and make the trek to Shakahola challenging. Heat is felt almost all year round and elephants occasionally roam the area.
The deeper the inside, the cuter it becomes. There is no mobile network, no internet connection.
But here a new holy land was created.
The area was divided into villages, each of which was given biblical place names.
Some of Rev. Mackenzie’s followers lived a life of deprivation in Judea. Others hid in Bethlehem. There was also Nazareth.
“I learned that my wife and children lived and died in Jerusalem,” says Mr. Moeti. But he hasn’t been there since officials began exhuming bodies from the marked graves.
In the jungle, investigators first mapped 65 sites where people were buried. Each had several shallow graves with corpses huddled close together.
Children are the first to die.
Those who exhumed the bodies said they were haunted by the sight of people buried without dignity. So far 110 people have been confirmed dead, but there are fears the death toll could rise as more forests are hunted.
An autopsy remains to be performed, but police and prosecutors say that in addition to starving to death, some members may have been strangled, strangled, or beaten to death with blunt objects.
Former members of the Good News International Church said they were forced to starve as part of their commitment to its teachings.
Titus Katana, who managed to escape, said that those who tried to leave the sect were called traitors and subjected to violent attacks.
He also indicated that there is an order in which people are supposed to die before the end of the world.
“The children were the first to die. Then, after the children, they went to the unmarried. Then after that, the mothers and the elderly were next in line.”
Church leaders were supposed to be the last to die.
Explaining what drew him to the church, Mr. Katana said he thought Rev. Mackenzie was “charismatic and preaches the Word of God so well.”
An additional attraction was that “Mackenzie was also selling land to his followers. It appealed to me. I bought 15 acres. But when I saw that his preaching was strange, I chose to leave.”
Mr. Moeti says he has heard accounts of how he breastfed his infant son only once. Then he choked to death.
He says, “I heard that when my son was killed, the sect members, instead of mourning, clapped and rejoiced because he had come up and met Jesus.”
A BBC analysis of Rev. Mackenzie’s video sermons does not show him directing people to fast, but there are numerous references to followers sacrificing what they hold dear, including their lives.
Last weekend, the Kenya Red Cross reported that 410 people, including 227 children, who are believed to be linked to Rev. Mackenzie’s church, are missing.
Their relatives are now walking around Malindi Hospital and Police Station, waiting for news of their loved ones.
I couldn’t convince my mom to leave
Among them is Patrick Ngombo.
His mother disappeared two years ago and he went to look for her in Shakkula, but although he found her he could not convince her to leave.
“I asked her if she would come home. She told me she was there for one mission, to find Jesus,” says Mr. Ngombao, queuing up among hundreds waiting for information about their relatives.
“I left Shakula in 2021 very sad because I felt we had already lost our mother.”
He had come from Makweni County – 270 kilometers (170 miles) away – to find out more. Relatives of the missing gathered in Malindi from all over the country and even further afield – neighboring Tanzania and Uganda, as well as Nigeria on the other side of the continent.
Christine Nyanchama came to Malindi from Nyamira, about 800 kilometers away, to look for her sister, brother-in-law and six other relatives. Her sister’s children – A nephew and niece have already been found dead, but Mrs. Nyanchama believes others are still alive.
“Wherever my sister is, she needs help as soon as she can, before she dies. I understand she’s already been silent for 22 days,” she says, referring to the last text message she received.
Rev. Mackenzie’s teachings online and on television seemed to touch a chord with some. Among other things, he advocated against systemic education and modern medicine.
He had said he closed the Good News International church four years ago after nearly two decades in business, but his sermons, some of which are still available online, appear to have been recorded after that date.
Some of his ardent followers ripped up their educational certificates, quit their jobs, and refused to vaccinate their children.
Dr. Susan Gitau, a counseling psychologist, believes that most people who followed Rev. McKenzie—including college graduates and an elite police officer—were looking for solace, hope, strength, and support.
Rev. Mackenzie was arrested in March when two dead children were found in Chakhula. He and their parents were accused of starving and strangling them before burying them in the forest.
However, he was released due to lack of evidence.
He is now back in custody but has not commented on the murder, extremism and public safety charges he faces.
President William Ruto promised to set up a commission to investigate what happened, but the authorities themselves face difficult questions. Not least because it took them so long to figure out that something was going on.
“There is no excuse for the authorities not to notice,” says Hussein Khaled, executive director of Haki Africa, the group that sounded the alarm about the deaths.
“We are determined and we want to make sure that every victim gets justice.”
Mr Moeti blames the government, police and local authorities in Malindi for failing to act.
“I’m already 45 years old. The moment I heard they died, I felt like I died too.”
He has now given the authorities a sample of his DNA in hopes that his children can be identified. Only then will he be able to mourn.
. “Proud zombie lover. Evil pop culture buff. Amateur thinker. Total food practitioner. Tv evangelist.”