At last count, more than 400 corpses of people linked to a cult in Kenya called Good News International Church have been exhumed from where they were buried in the Shakahola forest of Kilifi County.
The human remains were exhumed by Kenyan investigators following an inquest into the activities of the church, which was led by a man named Paul Mackenzie, currently detained.
Many of the exhumed bodies are believed to be those of members of the cult who allegedly starved themselves to death on the order or advice of Mackenzie, who allegedly brainwashed them into believing they would meet Jesus or go to heaven if they starved.
While the reports concerning Good News International Church shocked many people around the world, they brought to the fore concerns about cult groups posing as religious centers and the danger they pose: suspected fanaticism in Africa where many are passionate about religion and the conditions are ripe to make them vulnerable to manipulation.
Gideon Goma, priest at Holy Family Parish in Kanamkemer, Kenya, told Baptist News Global he wasn’t surprised by the Good News International Church story.
“The story of Pastor Paul Mackenzie of Kenya was all over the news and social media (that he became) public enemy No. 1. From President William Ruto calling him a “terrorist” on April 24 to the angry mob that destroyed Mackenzie’s former church in the southeastern town of Malindi in Coast province on May 1, the entire country considers this self-proclaimed pastor to be one of the worst killers in the nation’s recent history,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised because pastors in Africa are fond of doing a lot of funny things all in the name of proclaiming the good news and leading people to heaven.”
Goma continued, “For example, under the instruction of Pastor Lesego Daniel of Rabboni Center Ministries, dozens of followers dropped to the floor to eat grass at his ministry in Garankuwa, north of Pretoria, after being told it will ‘bring them closer to God.’ Again, another South African cleric, Prophet Rufus Phala, made his church members drink disinfectant, Dettol, in order to get healed. … His controversial methods have drawn criticism from many people, although members of his congregation swear by his methods. He is said to have claimed humans can eat anything to feed their bodies and survive on whatever they choose to eat.”
Regarding Mackenzie’s followers, Goma said: “I strongly believe all the people involved were brainwashed and so became fanatics.”
Mkamburi Mwawasi, a Kenyan journalist, believes there’s more to it.
“I would say desperation and poverty is to be blamed for what happened to the victims. … Kenyans have become so desperate because of the issue of the rising (inflation) in the country,” she said. “Many people believe in miracles and find solace in the church with the hope that their lives might change for the better.”
“People believe miracles can just happen by believing and not doing anything,” she added. “Kenyans should understand that the Bible says if someone does not work, then they should not eat. It’s also sad that most pastors have taken advantage of that and are using it to con people out of their hard-earned money. Most of the stories I have heard and seen are churches soliciting money from poor Kenyans in the name of getting them miracles. This Shakahola thing was the first (time I would) hear that people are dying for fasting so as to meet their Creator.”
Stan Chu Ilo, a research professor of world Christianity and African studies at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago, also believes economic challenges lead people to become victims of groups like Good News International Church.
“As a student of history, especially religious history, (what happened in Kenya) was not a surprise. It’s shocking but it didn’t surprise me,” he said. “Why? Because in my research within the last 10 years in Africa, I would say there is a gradual pathologizing of Christianity and cultist groups in the continent.
“If you go back to the year 2000, you will know about the movement for the restoration of the Ten Commandments that brought people together somewhere in Uganda and close to 300 people were burned to death. So, if you watch what is going on in the last few years in Africa, it is this continuation of pathologization, hatred for life. Let’s put it that way. People have suffered so much.”
And it is because of the suffering of daily living that people want to “escape,” he added. “Because life is no longer palatable. Abundant life is lacking. Social structures are collapsing. There is fragmentation in African societies; that is, the society is breaking apart, families are breaking apart, states are breaking apart, so people are looking for small units where they can find succor. And you find there is this constant desire to escape.
“Escape from what? Escape from reality of pain. The tragedy of everyday existence.”
This affects not only Christianity but also Islam, Ilo said. “You can look at these two together, the fact that there are so many people who are ready to die like terrorists, to join groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda or Islamic State in the African Sahel. These people are willing to die.
“I always say, when doing analysis of religion in Africa, never do this in isolation. You have similarities between what you see there and the desire for ‘martyrdom,’ through killing the other in terrorist groups that are waging asymmetrical wars on the state.”
In parts of Africa, “the social reality around them is not real anymore and that’s how these kinds of atrocities can happen,” he explained.
Outsiders may not understand the context of Christianity found in Africa today, he noted.
“You have the traditional groups like Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals, the evangelicals. Then you find what you might call African independent Christian churches. … And then you find the millennial risks, who combine a little of this, a little of that, who feel the world is coming to an end, that the world would be destroyed soon and so, they are looking for end of time apocalypse. And these groups, you have many of them. Some people say there are over 1,000 of them in Africa.”
“If people can be manipulated this way, it also shows we are not giving them the sound teaching.”
The central message of the latter groups is that “all the evils happening around us in Africa and the world are signs that the end time is near. That was what Paul (Mackenzie) sold to this particular audience. Remember also that these are folks who are being battered by poverty, suffering, and so they find succor in these groups. It’s kind of a release from suffering, that’s why I call it pathologization.”
The phenomenon is to take desperate people and convince them if they do some heroic act they will receive a reward.
The antidote, Ilo believes, is sound Christian teaching.
“If people can be manipulated this way, it also shows we are not giving them the sound teaching. We need to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. This I think is more important than a government regulation that may become contentious. We need religious education — by which I mean educating our people’s minds, to develop a critical consciousness that I think is also rooted and is at the very heart of Christianity.”
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian-born freelance journalist who lives in Houston. He covers Africa for BNG.