At least 47 bodies have been found in southeast Kenya in connection with a cult leader who told his followers they’d ‘meet Jesus’ if they starved themselves and killed their children, local officials say. It’s feared the death toll could reach more than 100.
Police confirmed on Sunday that at least 47 bodies have been exhumed so far from shallow graves in the Shakahola forest near Malindi, a coastal town about 100 kilometers northeast of Mombasa. Many are believed to be children.
In one grave, investigators found the bodies of three children with their father on one side and their mother on the other side. Another grave contained the bodies of a woman and a girl, both facing each other. All appeared to have died in recent weeks.
Police have identified at least 58 suspected graves on the grounds of the Good News International Church, raising fears that the death toll will rise significantly. One Kenyan media outlet reported that more than 100 people may have been buried.
“We have not even scratched the surface which gives a clear indication that we are likely to get more bodies by the end of this exercise,” a police source told the AFP news agency on Saturday.
One survivor was found in a hideout on Sunday and appeared to be on the brink of death, telling police she didn’t want to be rescued.
15 members of the church were previously rescued but four of them died before reaching the hospital. Those four are likely in addition to the 47, which would raise the death toll to at least 51. Other followers fled when police arrived and have not yet been found.
The investigation began in late March when two boys were found dead after being starved and then suffocated by their parents. A tip led police to Pastor Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who allegedly gave them ‘advice’ on how to go to heaven and meet Jesus.
“We went for an operation in Shakahola after receiving information that there is a person who is radicalizing people – or rather brainwashing people – that they should starve their children to death so that they can see God in the future,” police investigator Charles Kamau said after the pastor’s arrest in late March.
Mackenzie and six of his followers remain in police custody, but the cult leader is now on a hunger strike himself. “He has not taken even a glass of water,” a police source told the Daily Nation newspaper on Saturday.
Mackenzie, who previously told a reporter that “education is evil,” was also arrested in 2017 after police raided his church and rescued more than 90 children, some of whom described his teachings as satanic while others defended him with quotes from the Bible. Mackenzie was later released and moved his church to Shakahola.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis related to suicide, mental health or substance use, call or text the U.S. Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 to speak with a counselor in your area. If you’re in Kenya, call Befrienders at 722178177.