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Kenya’s suicide cult

IN THE NEWS | Christian leaders say weak theological training leaves Kenyans susceptible to predatory preachers


Police and local residents load the exhumed bodies of victims of Paul Mackenzie’s religious cult into the back of a truck near Malindi. Associated Press

Kenya’s suicide cult
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In 2021, about 50 women from the Africa Inland Church (AIC) wrapped up a church rally in Kenya’s western town of Eldoret and joined a well-­attended evangelistic crusade. The preacher was prominent Kenyan ­televangelist Ezekiel Odero.

Abraham Kogo, a pastor with the AIC, met the women while leading a church conference days later. They shared how Odero—who has described himself as “God’s chosen one”—sold blessed handkerchiefs believed to cure all ailments at the crusade.

Kogo was skeptical. “I told them you can also pray to God and He can help you,” he told WORLD in an interview.

In April authorities in the eastern coastal town of Malindi arrested Odero along with another prominent pastor, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, after finding more than 100 dead and starving people on Mackenzie’s property near Malindi. Police say Mackenzie, the founder of Good News International Ministries, had asked his followers to fast until they died and met Jesus. Prosecutors have linked the two preachers as business associates who led their religious followers woefully, and in some cases fatally, astray.

The case has scandalized Kenya and thrown a global spotlight on the sometimes deadly consequences of distorted theological teaching. It has also prompted Kenyan church leaders to consider how to protect Christian believers from such doctrines.

After human rights group HAKI Africa tipped off authorities about starving people on the 800-acre property Mackenzie occupied in the remote Shakahola Forest, forensic experts swarmed the site, digging for unmarked graves. Police rescued 44 people from the property and reported more than 110 deaths. On May 1, Kenya’s chief government pathologist said the first 10 autopsies, which included nine children, indicated starvation and two instances of asphyxiation.

Mackenzie, accompanied by some of his followers, appears at a court in Malindi.

Mackenzie, accompanied by some of his followers, appears at a court in Malindi. AP Photo

Prosecutors say Odero, who leads the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, buried some of his church members on Mackenzie’s property between 2022 and 2023. They also noted a business connection: Odero bought a television station from Mackenzie. Odero has been charged with murder, aiding suicide, child cruelty, and other crimes in connection with the Shakahola Forest deaths, although he denies any involvement.

Mackenzie has been in trouble with authorities before. In March, police released the end-times preacher on a $700 bond after the deaths of two children linked to his ministry. In 2017, police raided his church and authorities charged him with radicalization and keeping children from school, although the charges were later dropped.

A former taxi driver, Mackenzie founded Good News International Ministries in 2003. According to the church’s website, the ministry grew to more than 3,000 members in Malindi and other locations, including Nairobi.

In March, Mackenzie told Kenya’s Saturday Nation he closed the church in 2019 under a divine command and later moved to Shakahola with some of his members to farm.

Mackenzie preached that formal education was satanic, prompting ­followers to drop out of school. He also dissuaded followers from seeking care at hospitals and asked women not to braid their hair or wear wigs and jewelry. In Shakahola, the starvation plan was for children to die first, before the women and men.

Body bags are laid out at the scene where dozens of bodies have been found in shallow graves.

Body bags are laid out at the scene where dozens of bodies have been found in shallow graves. AP Photo

More than 85 percent of Kenya’s population is Christian. Kogo said false teachings have taken root as people travel by bus to attend crusades in major cities. He said preachers like Odero prey on people’s desire for health and wealth, particularly in poor communities: “People are being misled, but at the end, there’s no remedy.”

The deaths have drawn calls for accountability from other Christian leaders. “We call upon all Christians to know that God calls us not only to serve Him with our hearts but also with our minds,” the Rev. Henry Kaira of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa told Kenya’s KTN News.

Kenyan media have linked Mackenzie’s ministry to the teachings of William Branham, an American doomsday cult preacher prominent in the 1940s and ’50s. “It is safe to say that they used Branham’s books,” said Massimo Introvigne, founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions, in an email. However, he noted there is no unified Branham movement: “It is a constellation of dozens of quarrelsome groups.” (Branham’s teachings also influenced Jim Jones, leader of the infamous cult whose members committed mass murder-suicide at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978.)

Pastor Kogo also serves as Kenya’s country coordinator for Africans Teaching Africans, a group offering Biblical training to pastors and Christian leaders. He sees training and Biblical certification requirements as one way to shield Christians from false teachings. But he also called for an awakening within the Church.

“We need to take our people back to the Scriptures,” he said. “We have people who are just churchgoers … and at the end of the day, they can be manipulated.”

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