Salema Masha possesses a gentle voice, yet her slender figure radiates an inner strength that safeguarded the lives of her five children.
In a fateful March day, she led her children away from a desolate wilderness, where adherents of a Kenyan televangelist sect were subjecting themselves to starvation, convinced it would expedite their meeting with Jesus.
Amidst the harrowing tales emerging from this East African Christian doomsday cult, Salema’s story stands out. The Shakahola forest, an extensive expanse on Kenya’s southern coast, has thus far yielded over 200 corpses from mass graves, with new discoveries occurring daily. Survivors continue to be found concealed beneath trees and bushes within the 800-acre territory.
Proclaiming himself a pastor, Paul Mackenzie established the Good News International Church in 2003. His controversial proclamations against children attending school and rejecting medical treatments drew repeated attention from law enforcement.
In 2019, Mackenzie shuttered the church and beckoned his followers to relocate with him to Shakahola, a place he touted as a new “Holy Land.” Among those who heeded this call was Salema’s husband.
As she recounts her tale, she cradles one-year-old Esther, who was born within the forest. Amani, her eldest son, is eight years old.
The mass suicide initiative commenced in January. Salema recounts following instructions to fast in order to “ascend to heaven.”
While Mackenzie’s video sermons analyzed by the BBC did not explicitly order his adherents to cease eating, Salema asserts that he made this decree during weekly gatherings on Saturdays.
Initially, Mackenzie offered the forest as a refuge from the impending apocalypse he prophesied. However, in a chilling twist, it transformed into a final battleground to reach heaven before the arrival of the “End of Days.”
After fasting for seven days, Salema claims to have received a divine message stating that this was not God’s will and that she still had a purpose to fulfill in the world. Consequently, she ceased fasting.
Nonetheless, people around her perished. She even attended the funeral of eight children at one point, referred to as “going to sleep.”
However, Salema recounts the chilling mantra of the cult: “If my children won’t die, I should stop attending other peoples’ funerals.” Determined by this, she reflects, “So I thought about it and I said I cannot go on with this situation, I can’t eat while my child is starving. I told myself, if I feel this bad when I fast, how about my child?”
Salema explains that according to Mackenzie’s macabre hierarchy, children were meant to be the first to die, followed by the unmarried, women, men, and finally, the church leaders.
“When the child cries or asks for food or water, we were told to take a cane and beat them so that they could go and eat in heaven,” Salema reveals. “So I thought about it and I said I cannot go on with this situation, I can’t eat while my child is starving. I told myself, if I feel this bad when I fast, how about my child?”
An analysis of Mackenzie’s sermons by the BBC did not directly demonstrate him ordering his followers to stop eating. However, according to Salema, he explicitly made this demand during weekly gatherings.
Amidst Mackenzie’s teachings, significant emphasis was placed on a new national identification card in Kenya, which would contain personal data encoded in an electronic chip. Mackenzie referred to it as the “sign of the beast,” instructing his followers to avoid it at all costs.
The cost, tragically, was steep. Salema discovered her husband, one of Mackenzie’s deputies, was involved in managing this endeavor. A friend informed her that when he purportedly left for work, he was actually burying the dead.
One day in March, her husband mandated fasting for the family. Four days later, when he departed for work, Salema seized the opportunity. She gathered her children and escaped.
“My children fasted for four days without food and water, and they were crying,” she recalls. “So, when I saw they were so weak, I gave them water and I told myself I couldn’t allow my children to die.”
Guided by their mother’s unwavering determination and protected by her affiliation with Mackenzie’s deputy, the children embarked on their journey.
Salema encountered opposition from other cult members but remained undeterred. Eventually, after walking several kilometers, she reached the main road and received a ride from a compassionate stranger to a place of safety.
However, not all escapees were as fortunate. Survivors and former cult members recount instances where a group of armed enforcers pursued and brutalized individuals attempting to flee, forcibly returning them to the forest.
Mackenzie surrendered to authorities on April 15th, denying any responsibility for ordering his followers to starve themselves. Nevertheless, the search and rescue operation revealed numerous deceased children buried within his compound.
Local police shared that detained deputies disclosed Mackenzie’s instruction to continue enforcing mass starvation and burying those who perished before his departure.
Victor Kaudo, a human rights activist from Haki Africa, who initially alerted the police to the deaths of young boys in Shakahola, highlights that surviving children have provided crucial information about the events.
Some adults, even after being rescued, refuse medical treatment. Suspicion lingers that cult members exert influence beyond the forest, covertly urging survivors to abstain from food and medicine.
Kaudo reveals that two individuals rescued by his group, initially regarded as victims, were discovered to be “part of this militia that Mackenzie had,” necessitating their separation from the others.
Titus Katana, a former cult member, asserts that he is acquainted with most of Mackenzie’s deputies, and the majority have been apprehended. However, the recent discovery of a body in the forest, not buried but lying exposed, leads him to suspect that some enforcers are still overseeing the fasting process.
A week after Salema’s departure, Mackenzie’s deputies sought her out but merely advised her to return without issuing threats.
Yet, she is aware that others were not as fortunate.
A woman approached her, seeking assistance in escaping the cult with her children and procuring funds for transportation back to their home village. Salema pledged to aid her.
The woman returned to the forest to retrieve her children and vanished without a trace.