Delirious with hunger, a believer who brought his family to live with a Christian doomsday sect in a remote wilderness in southeastern Kenya sent a distraught text message to his younger sister last week. As he pleads for her help to escape, he is still in the grip of a preacher who lures him there, promising salvation through starvation.
“Answer me quickly, because I don’t have much time. Sister, End Times are here and people are being crucified,” Solomon Mwendo, a former peddler, told his sister. “Repent that you will not be left behind, amen.”
Mr. Mwindo, 35, has been living in Chakula Forest since 2021, when he, like hundreds of other believers, abandoned his home and moved there with his wife and two young children.
They were following the plea of Paul Nthingi McKenzie, a former taxi driver turned televangelist, who proclaimed that the world was about to end and marketed Shakula to his followers as an evangelical Christian sanctuary from the rapidly approaching apocalypse.
But instead of a sanctuary, the 800-acre estate, a sun-baked wasteland of deciduous trees, is now a ghastly crime scene, dotted with shallow graves for believers who have starved themselves to death–or as Mr. Mackenzie would have crucified themselves so that they could meet Jesus.
As of last week, 179 bodies had been exhumed and taken to a hospital morgue in the coastal town of Malindi, about 100 miles east of Chakhula, for identification and an autopsy. The government’s chief coroner reported last week that while starvation had caused many deaths, some bodies showed signs of death by suffocation, strangulation or clubbing. A police affidavit said some had organs removed.
Hundreds more are still missing, possibly buried in unexcavated graves. Others roam the property without food, like Mr Mwindo – whose wife and children are missing, his sister said.
The horrific scale of what the Kenyan media dubbed the “Chakhula massacre” has left the government struggling to explain how law enforcement, in a country that considers itself among Africa’s most modern and stable, has long missed horrific events in a stretch of land that lies between two destinations. Two popular attractions, Tsavo National Park and the Indian Ocean coast.
That so many people disregard the simplest human instinct to survive and instead choose to die through fasting has raised sensitive questions about the limits of religious freedom, a right enshrined in the Kenyan constitution.
The popularity of evangelical Christianity – and independent preachers – has soared across Africa, part of a religious boom on the continent that contrasts starkly with the rapid secularization of former colonial powers like Britain, which ruled Kenya until 1963. About half of Kenyans are evangelicals, a much higher proportion than in the United States.
Unlike the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches, which are governed by hierarchies and rules, many evangelical churches are run by independent preachers who have no oversight.
Kenya’s president, William Ruto — a fervent believer whose wife is an evangelical preacher — has been wary of imposing restrictions on religious activities, although last week he asked a group of church leaders and legal experts to suggest ways to regulate Kenya’s chaotic faith sector.
For Victor Kadu, a rights activist in Malindi who visited Shakula in March, the freedom given to advocates like Mr Mackenzie has gone too far. Guided by dissenters from the sect, Mr. Cowdo found emaciated believers who, even though they were in death throes, rebuked him as “the enemy of Jesus” when he tried to help.
A video recorded by him showed a starving woman, her head shaved on orders from the cult leadership, livid on the floor when Mr. Kaudu approached for sustenance.
“I wanted these hungry people to live, but they wanted to die and meet Jesus,” Mr. Kaudu recalls. “What do we do? Does freedom of worship supersede the right to life?”
Mr. Mackenzie told the inquisitors that he never ordered his followers not to eat, and only preached about the agonies of the end times foretold in the Book of Revelation, the final chapter of the New Testament. He was arrested in April, then released and then quickly rearrested. He is under investigation for murder, terrorism and other crimes. His lawyer declined to comment.
Mr Mackenzie appeared briefly in a Mombasa court this month, wearing a pink jumpsuit, cutting a vulgar look as he waved sternly from inside a metal cage to get the judge’s attention. The judge ignored him and extended his detention.
It was an ordinary church at first.
Mr Mackenzie’s journey from destitute taxi driver to cult leader with his own TV channel began in 2002 in a stone courtyard across from a Catholic primary school in Malindi. The property was owned by Ruth Kahinde, who met Mr. Mackenzie at a nearby Baptist church and invited him to preach in her home.
Together they formed their own church, Good News International, using Mrs. Kahandi’s home as her base.
“It was an ordinary church in the beginning,” recalled Mrs. Kahandi’s daughter Naomi, who remembers Mr. Mackenzie as a powerful speaker who initially stuck to the standard evangelical message of salvation through faith in Christ alone and the Bible as the ultimate spiritual authority.
After years of close partnership, Ms. Kahinde separated from Mr. McKenzie around 2008, the daughter said, after he became increasingly formidable in his preaching.
Kahindi’s daughter said there were also disagreements over money, adding that Mr Mackenzie was suspected of stealing tithes.
In response, the daughter said: “He began to accuse my mother of witchcraft.”
Prohibited to use Mrs. Kahandi’s house for preaching, Mr. Mackenzie, no longer poor, built himself a large prayer hall on a plot of land he had bought at Furunzi on the outskirts of Malindi and declared this the new home of the Good News International Church. Word spread of his warnings of the upcoming battle of Armageddon.
Although bitterly estranged from Mrs. Kahandi, he takes with him one of her daughters, Mary, who marries one of Mr. Mackenzie’s most ardent followers, Smart Mwakalama, a former hotel cleaner.
Mr. Muklama is now in detention. His wife Mary and their six children are missing and are feared to be among the dead buried at Shakkula.
“He’s a demon,” said Naomi, Mary’s sister, to Mr. Mackenzie and “has ruined so many lives.”
Among those trapped in the rubble is Priscilla Resicki, a poor villager who gave her eldest daughter, Lorraine, to Mr. Mackenzie’s preaching a decade earlier. Stricken with guilt and grief, she visits Malindi’s morgue every day to search for her daughter and three grandchildren, all of whom have moved into Mr. Mackenzie’s retreat in 2021.
“My only hope now is to only see my daughter – either dead or alive,” Ms. Rizky said.
A mob of angry residents, some miserable relatives of the missing sect members, ransacked Mr. Mackenzie’s former church, last week, tearing down its pink front gate, and smashing down the perimeter wall.
“People are very angry and blame Mackenzie, but I blame the government,” said Damaris Moteti, a member of the rival evangelical church and itinerant preacher, as they surveyed the wreckage.
“Mackenzie is a good man,” she said, “but the Devil used him.” “Something is wrong.”
Selling land that he does not own
A peanut seller named Titus Katana, who joined the Good News church in 2015 and rose to become deputy pastor, said he was initially very impressed with Mr. Mackenzie and his preaching. “He was transformed by his false prophecies” about the end of the world, said Mr. Katana. “His main concern became making money, not preaching to the world.”
By 2017, he recalls, Mr. Mackenzie had begun asking the congregation not to see doctors or send their children to school. He established his own unregistered school in his church. He also claimed divine healing powers, which he also charged.
“He told me he had received a revelation from God,” Mr. Katana recalls, about education and medicine being sinful. “Everything bad started with this.”
By this time, Mr. Mackenzie had expanded his reach far beyond the Kenyan coast thanks to his founding of Times TV, an evangelistic channel broadcasting his increasingly fiery sermons online and across Africa. Among the missing in Chakahola are a Nigerian national and a Kenyan flight attendant.
Elizabeth Siombua, the sister of the man who is now starving in the wilderness, said she and her brother were stunned by Mr Mackenzie’s television broadcast. “You’re addicted to what he says,” she said, remembering how she was rushing home from working in a sewing factory in Mombasa so she could join her brother to watch it.
“It’s like an evil spirit with such strange power to lure people into its trap,” she said.
However, Mr. Mackenzie’s growing popularity attracted the attention of the authorities.
He was arrested in October 2017 on four counts, including extremism and promoting extremist beliefs, offenses previously charged mostly against Muslims responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Kenya. Mr Mackenzie pleaded not guilty and was acquitted.
He was arrested again in 2019, and released on bail. He escalated his confrontation with the government, denouncing its introduction of national identification numbers for citizens as “the mark of the beast” – and another sign of the approaching end of the world.
Threatened with further prosecution, Mr Mackenzie stunned his followers in 2019 by announcing he was closing the church, selling its property and retreating to the Shakaula forest. He invited his followers to join him and buy small plots of land for what he said would be a new holy land.
Children will be the first to die
Mr Katana, his former deputy preacher, said he had bought an acre for 3,000 Kenyan shillings, then worth about $30 — a low price but still a blessing for Mr Mackenzie, who did not legally own the land he was selling.
The arrival of the Covid pandemic in Kenya in 2020 has only added to the appeal of Mr. Mackenzie’s offer of land, and for many has vindicated his longstanding message that the world is coming to an end.
Growing obsessed with the coming apocalypse, Mr. Mackenzie, according to Mr. Katana, issued “new instructions” in January to the hundreds of people who moved to Shakula, which the TV evangelist divided into areas with biblical names like Jericho and Jerusalem.
Mr. Mackenzie, who portrayed himself as a Christ-like figure, lived in a section he called Galilee – after the area of Palestine where Jesus lived most of his life.
Katana said the instructions include a systematic plan for mass suicide through starvation. Remembering the pastor’s words, Mr. Katana said, the first to die were the children, who “fasted in the sun so that they might die faster.” In March and April, it will be the turn of the women, followed by the men.
Mr. Mackenzie said, according to Mr. Katana, that he would survive to help lead his followers to “meet Jesus” through starvation, but that once this work was done, he too would starve himself before what he said was the imminent end of the world.
In an online video post in March, Mr. Mackenzie said he had “heard the voice of Christ telling me that ‘the work I have done for you to preach the end-time messages for nine years is over’.”
Mr. Katana said that by this time he had separated from Mr. Mackenzie and was not in Chakhola when the suicide program began, but had heard about it from believers who were. He went to the police to report that “children are dying” in the woods.
“They didn’t take any action until it was too late,” he said.
In April, Mr. Mwendo, a former hawker who moved to Shakula in 2021 with his family, called his sister in Mombasa and told her we were “starting a fast so we can go see Christ at Calvary,” a reference to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Bible.
“I told him, ‘I am praying for you but we need you, so don’t crucify yourself,’” said Sister Mrs. Siombua.
Mr. Mwindo, according to his sister, asked her to understand that he had no choice but to “go through to the end”.
“He was happy,” said the sister, “because he thought he would soon die for Jesus.”
As for Mr. Mackenzie, she added: “He’s a murderer.”
Simon Marks Contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.