Since the middle of April this year there has been a steady stream of news stories about what has been called a “starvation cult” following the discovery of a number of shallow burial sites at an isolated community known as Shakahola Village in south-eastern Kenya. To date, the remains of more than 200 members of the group, called the Good News International Church led by a man called Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, have been excavated. The group’s teachings have been variously reported in the media, including reference to apocalyptic and millenarian themes – with some reports indicating that a date in August was due to be the day of apocalypse, but this was brought forward to 15 April following Nthenge’s arrest and release on bail in relation to the death of two children. (Miriri 2023.) A little clarity has started to emerge about the details of the group’s beliefs, though the information that is available is uncertain and, in the main, poorly supported. Nonetheless, we have attempted to collect here the main strands of information about the group’s theology that are available in the public domain – with a warning that the nature of this case means that little is certain at this stage.
It appears that the movement had a strict teaching about fasting, including, and perhaps especially, for children. This was intended, some reports suggest, to reflect Matthew 19 v 14: “Let the little children come unto me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. (See, for example, Plett-Usher 2023.) The majority of the victims are reported to have died from malnutrition – although there is also reportedly evidence of deaths within the group caused by violence, and some bodies may have been missing internal organs. (See, Musambi 2023.) Around 29 emaciated survivors were also found at the village many of whom refused treatment, and some of whom died after being discovered by the police. A recent press statement from the Republic of Kenya Judiciary outlines a history of court actions associated with Nthenge and the church related to, amongst other things, radicalization (including radicalization of children), child neglect and child cruelty, and the starvation and suffocation of children. (‘Press Statement – Pastor Paul Mackenzie’.)
Early reports have related the fasting practice to the expectation of a meeting with Jesus, and it has been suggested that the group rejected education, the use of medicine, and other things associated with modern ways of thinking. There seems also to have been an important eschatological thread to the movement’s beliefs. The New York Times has reported relatives of the movement’s members receiving messages about imminent end times, and the preaching of the group’s leader is said to have been oriented around the Book of Revelation and end times prophecies. (Higgins 2023). Some reports say writings of William Marrion Branham (1909-1965) were found at the community’s village, and suggest there might be formal links between the movements. (For example, Mandy 2023.) Branham was a controversial Pentecostal preacher and faith healer in America with a complex dispensationalist and restorationist message who once enjoyed considerable fame.
A blog site using the title “Good News International Ministries”, active only for a few months in 2014, and with no named authors appears to have been created by Nthenge or his followers. It refers to the movement as established in August 2003 by “the servant of God P.N. Mackenzie” with a mission “to nurture the faithful holistically in all matters of Christian spirituality as we prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ through teaching and evangelism”. The site also advertises a TV program, “End Time Messages”, which airs “preaching and prophecy on end times commonly referred to as eschatology”. The few blog posts that are available on the site refer to signs of the end times – citing permissiveness towards homosexuality, sexualized clothing, links between ID cards and “the mark of the beast”. (‘Good News International Ministries’.)
Some sources indicate that the group was originally established as a relatively conventional independent church in Malindi on Kenya’s east coast, and in 2019 the community moved inland to an isolated area of scrub and forest, which Nthenge referred to as the “Holy Land”, following police intervention in Malindi. A BBC report based on an account from a woman, Salema Masha, who had moved to Shakahola with her husband and children, says that Nthenge had originally presented the move to the new location as establishing a sanctuary from the apocalypse, but that “it became a last stand to get to heaven before the ‘End of Days’” when they were told heaven would be full if they delayed too long. Masha’s comments also suggest that children were expected to die first – then unmarried people, women, men and finally leaders of the community. The report, by Barbara Plett-Usher, refers to a “BBC analysis” of videos of Mackenzie’s sermons which “do not show him directly ordering people to stop eating”. (Plett-Usher 2023.)
With the remains of around 200 people recovered so far, there are several hundred more unaccounted for. Nthenge and 26 of his inner circle are in police custody.
‘Deadly devotion: Kenya cultists starve to death in pursuit of Jesus’ encounter’. Insight Post. 17 Apr 2023. Retrieved from https://insightpostug.com/deadly-devotion-kenya-cultists-starve-to-death-in-pursuit-of-jesus-encounter/, 18 May 2023.
‘Good News International Ministries’. 2014. Retrieved from http://goodnewsintlministries.blogspot.com/, 18 May 2023.
Higgins, Andrew. 2023. ‘He told followers to starve to meet Jesus. Why did so many do it?’ New York Times. 14 May 2023, updated 18 May 2023. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/14/world/africa/kenya-christian-cult-deaths.html, 18 May 2023.
Mandy. 2023. ‘Malindi cult: 21 dead, 100 feared buried; pastor ordered congregation to starve’. MandyNews.com. 23 Apr 2023. Retrieved from https://mandynews.com/malindi-cult-kenya-paul-nthenge-mackenzie/, 18 May 2023.
Miriri, Duncan. 2023. ‘Inside a Kenyan starvation cult and its tragic end in a forest of death’. Reuters. 4 May 2023. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/inside-kenyan-starvation-cult-its-tragic-end-forest-death-2023-05-04/, 20 May 2023.
Musambi, Evelyne. 2023. ‘Kenya cult death toll hits 200, with more than 600 reported missing’. AP News. 13 May 2023. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/article/kenya-cult-deaths-paul-mackenzie-starvation-23109a5c47e8ab9a4d7b5d528f52d579, 20 May 2023.
Plett-Usher, Barbara. 2023. ‘Pastor Mackenzie’s Kenyan cult: The mother who fled Shakahola forest to save her children’. BBC. 19 May 2023. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-65635784, 20 May 2023.
‘Press Statement – Pastor Paul Mackenzie’. 2023. Judiciary of the Republic of Kenya official website. 27 Apr 2023. Retrieved from https://www.judiciary.go.ke/statements/, 18 May 2023.