By Nimi Princewill and Stephanie Busari, CNN
(CNN) — At their modest home in Kenya’s western Bungoma County, Rodgers Shibutse noticed that his mother Pamela had become captivated by a popular but controversial televangelist known as Paul Mackenzie.
Pamela Mukalasinga, 54, a small-scale trader and mother of five, would tune in religiously to Mackenzie’s Times TV channel. She became determined to meet him, Shibutse recalls.
She was depressed because her eldest daughter suffered from an illness, her son told CNN. He says she was lured to Mackenzie’s teachings by the promise of a miracle.
In June last year, four years after she first encountered Mackenzie’s teachings, Shibutse says his mother sold all her family’s belongings, including her son’s, and traveled nearly 1000km to join Mackenzie, in the coastal town of Malindi, eastern Kenya.
Shibutse did not hear from her until three months later, he said.
“After three months, my mum called to tell me she was at Malindi in Mackenzie’s land and that he had given her a piece of land and she was okay. I tried to convince her to tell me where the place was, but she hung up the phone and the line couldn’t be reached anymore.”
At around the same time, local media reports surfaced that Mackenzie had closed his Good News International Church (GNI) and relocated deeper into Malindi with his followers after acquiring a vast land at the Shakahola forest.
Now, Pamela Mukalasinga is believed to be among 614 people who the Kenyan Red Cross told CNN have gone missing, and her family fears she may be one of more than 200 bodies recovered from shallow graves in the 800-acre Shakahola forest.
Starved and suffocated to death
Police are calling the events at the church “disturbing and inhumane.” They say Mackenzie, 50, is a cult leader who allegedly brainwashed hundreds of his followers into starving themselves to death. Police say the case began with the deaths of two children.
He was arrested In March, suspected of giving instructions to the two children “to observe fasting till death in order to meet their maker,” said the police.
Kenyan prosecutors said at the time that the two children were “believed to have been starved and later suffocated to death by their mother with the intention of starving the minors in order for them to die and become heroes before God after death.”
The youngsters were allegedly buried in shallow graves at Shakahola on March 16 and 17, according to the prosecution, by Mackenzie and their parents. A court in Malindi ordered their exhumation.
A third child said to be their sibling, was rescued.
“The rescued child narrated the sufferings his two siblings underwent after being starved for some time before their mother suffocated them to death,” prosecutors said.
Mackenzie was granted bail during a court appearance on March 17 but was rearrested on April 14 following a discovery that more people had been buried at the Shakahola site where the two children were earlier exhumed.
Earlier this month, a Kenyan court granted a request by prosecutors to detain Mackenzie, his wife and 16 followers for 30 days until investigations are concluded, the country’s prosecution authority said.
Mackenzie appeared in court again on Friday, this time before magistrates in Mombasa and told CNN that the hearing is a “matter of intimidation” and “timewasting for nothing.” When asked about the accusations that followers of his group had starved their children following his instructions, Mackenzie said he had “never seen anybody starving.”
Mackenzie has yet to be officially charged, his lawyer George Kariuki told CNN. “No charges have been raised against Pastor Mackenzie,” Kariuki said. “The state asked for time to investigate … In that case, he has nothing to respond to until the investigations are complete.”
“We have not been presented with any charge sheet to enable us to take any further instructions from Mr. Mackenzie and those who are detained with him,” the lawyer added.
Kariuki said the prosecution has made several applications to detain his client to conduct further investigations. “They have been making the same applications,” he said.
An unfolding tale of horror
The inquiry was launched after police received a tip-off that an area of land Mackenzie occupied in the Shakahola forest contained mass graves.
A grim tale of horror unfolded as they began exhuming bodies. Many of those found in the forest are believed to be followers of Mackenzie. Some of the group who were rescued told police they had been told to starve themselves to death.
Titus Katana, a former member of GNI, told local media that Mackenzie had a roster that determined who was to starve to death first. According to Katana, children and single people were the first to fast, before women and men followed. “Mackenzie and his family would go last,” he told the Kenyan newspaper, Nation.
Police clad in overalls have been scouring the site since April and have found an increasing number of bodies day by day.
Shibutse traveled to the forest near Malindi in search of his mother and said he saw bodies coming out of the shallow graves.
“I’ve seen many exhumed bodies. I was imagining if my mum was in this condition. I’m traumatized because I’m asking myself many questions: ‘Is my mum dead or not?’ If she’s dead, ‘does she look the way the other bodies are looking?’ Some ladies I saw being rescued alive from the bush looked very weak, you can even count their ribs,” he recalled.
“I saw a lot of things. People were there dying, some who had died were not even buried. I saw the decayed body of a man with no private part,” he said.
Some of Mackenzie’s followers were found alive but weakened, emaciated, and traumatized, according to rescue teams who said some resisted help.
“There was a lady who was found, she was very weak but resisted opening her mouth to get even a sip of water. This is extremism and brainwashing of the highest order,” Walid Sketty of Kenya-based human rights group Haki Africa, which has been involved in rescue operations at Shakahola, told CNN.
Government chief pathologist Johansen Oduor told reporters at the start of the autopsy process weeks ago that some of the 249 bodies so far recovered “had features of starvation.” Oduor told reporters that 36 autopsies were done, out of which 14 were found to have starved to death.
Ten of them were of them were children, Oduor said. He added that one of the people rescued alive “in a very bad state,” at the forest later died at the hospital and was severely dehydrated. He was also suffering from tuberculosis, the autopsy showed.
The cause of death could not be recorded for some of the recovered bodies due to their decomposed state. One of the bodies had a head injury and others had signs of blunt trauma and strangulation, he added.
A radical preacher
As the police continue to unearth more bodies, questions are being asked as to how Mackenzie went from working as a taxi driver to an influential and controversial televangelist, whose radical teachings were not unknown to authorities.
Shibutse recalls that his mother started to observe some of Mackenzie’s doctrines denouncing healthcare and modern education for children.
“She tried to convince one of my sisters not to send her children to school. Whenever my mum took ill, she refused to go to the hospital except when I forced her to. She always said we were not supposed to go to the hospital but should instead pray,” Shibutse said.
Before she joined the cult, Pamela also shut down her maize trading business and tried to convince him to quit his job as a hair stylist, he said. “She tried to convince me to leave my job as a beautician and join her to go to Mackenzie’s church because the work I’m doing, making hair and nails, isn’t godly,” he told CNN.
Mackenzie has been on the radar of Kenyan police for several years. In 2017, prosecutors say Mackenzie was charged with radicalization, and promoting extreme beliefs, but a court acquitted him.
He pleaded guilty, along with two teachers, to charges of offering education in an unregistered institution.
Mackenzie was also accused of depriving his three children, then aged 4, 5 and 13 years of formal education which is compulsory for children in Kenya, according to his case file made public by the Kenyan judiciary. He was fined 20,000 Kenyan shillings ($147), the country’s prosecution office said.
“If anyone feels offended about my summons and teachings in accordance to the scripture, let them go to court and produce evidence,” he said during a church service, reports Citizen Digital. “I am not afraid to serve my god.”
Despite his brushes with the law and extreme views, Mackenzie continued to broadcast on his Times TV channel and preached often fiery sermons every Sunday at his GNI church in Malindi. In one of them, he urged his followers to “end their ignorance” and “stop eating bread and run to Jesus.”
“You are told that when the doctors come here, make sure your children are vaccinated. You priest, do you know what vaccination is? And do you know what the government is? Do you know what its source is? How long will you live with this ignorance? If you don’t stop eating bread and run to Jesus, do you think your ignorance will end?”
From cab driver to cult leader
Mackenzie spent most of his early years in the streets of Malindi, where he worked as a cab driver, his brother Robert said in an interview with Kenyan media.
In 2003, he founded his church, after being dismissed from previous churches due to undisclosed disagreements, according to the interview with his brother.
Mackenzie’s GNI soon gained notoriety due to his controversial teachings, centered around the apocalyptic ‘end times’ and on the biblical book of Revelations.
For example, the GNI, in a 2014 post on its website, implied that a digital identity card introduced by the Kenyan government for its citizens was the “666 mark of the beast.
Some members of his church allegedly destroyed their school certificates, sold off all their valuables and donated the proceeds to him, relatives told local media.
A deeply religious country
Mackenzie’s case has sent shockwaves through Kenya and raised questions as to how he acquired a large expanse of land where mass burials were conducted unnoticed.
Sketty of Haki Africa, a human rights organization, who raised the alarm about mass graves after being contacted by concerned relatives in March, told CNN: “We expect that this area should have local chiefs. How come someone has been burying bodies without our government authorities knowing?”
Governor Gideon Mung’aro of the Kilifi region where Shakahola forest is located said Mackenzie wasn’t the legal owner of the land, he told Citizen Digital. He added that the mass graves would have been noticed much earlier if they were in occupied areas.
Kenya is a deeply religious country and has had problems in the past with cults, which led to attempts to set new regulations for churches. “Churches are somewhat untouchable in Kenya,” analyst and political writer Moses Odhiambo told CNN.
“Politicians and the powers-that-be fear crossing their paths on the grounds they can sway their followers to act in a particular way politically,” he added.
“The government has nothing to hide and will ensure justice for the victims of this tragedy,” Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said while promising tighter regulations for religious organizations.
As part of the crackdown by the authorities, another prominent televangelist, Ezekiel Ombok Odero, of the New Life Prayer Church in Kilifi County has also been arrested and faces charges “related to mass killing of his followers.”
The New Life Prayer Church sits on a 65-acre plot and has a guest house that accommodates members who “sleep in the church,” the preacher said in a December 2022 interview with Nation.
“The said church has been shut down,” Kindiki said, adding that “over 100 people who were holed up at the premises (of the church) have been evacuated and will be required to record statements.”
Odero’s lawyer Jared Magolo told CNN that the allegations were untrue. “There are allegations that people who go to his (Odero’s) church for prayers when they are sick … and some succumb, they die, they are buried secretly. Of course, it is not true,” he said.
Prosecutors told the court there was “evidence that people died within the precincts of the New Life Centre Church,” adding that there was also proof of a “commercial transaction” between Odero and Mackenzie.
“It’s just a commercial transaction,” said Magolo. “When Mackenzie wanted to sell his TV station, Pastor Odero bought it. He hasn’t fully paid for the station, so I’m sure they must have been talking,” he told CNN.
Mackenzie’s lawyer told CNN when asked about the business deal that his client had “not discussed with me any such information. The prosecution is yet to avail any supporting evidence to their remarks,” Kariuki said. Odero was released on bail earlier this month.
Kenya’s Communications Authority announced last month it was suspending the broadcast of two TV stations linked to Odero and Mackenzie for airing “inappropriate content on exorcism” among other offenses.
The spotlight on Kenya’s megachurches and their flamboyant preachers could not have come at a better time, says analyst Odhiambo, who believes it is time for tighter regulations.
“It is precedent setting. It is a case that may define whether to go for state regulation or self-regulation in protecting Kenyans from manipulative radical preachers.”
More than a month from the grim discoveries at Shakahola, Shibutse is facing the reality that he may never see his mother again: “It’s now more than one month and the chances of getting my mum alive are very low,” he said.
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David McKenzie and Bethlehem Feleke contributed to this report.