As the details of the 24 March 2023 religious tragedy were unfolding, the shift in sentiments expressed by Kenyan society was palpable and rapid. That there were still a few people foolish enough to deny themselves food to dangerous levels on the instructions of an evangelist was surprising, to say the least. Surprise turned into horror when reports emerged of children, allegedly “forced to starve to death” by a pastor identified as Paul Mackenzie Nthenge under the guise of fasting so that they could “die peacefully before the world is cursed by God”. In the subsequent weeks, more and more bodies were unearthed at Shakahola Forest, reaching a sobering death toll of 318, as at 14 June 2023.
While this tragedy is an illustration of the danger that religious fundamentalist cults pose to societies around the world, the responses from Kenyans and various institutions in the country speak most to the weaknesses and dark spots in our social fabric.
The immediate response from the so-called ‘mainstream’ churches was a deafening silence, which is uncharacteristic of them because they have always been very strident in speaking out on anything they see as having any potential negative effect on the morals of Kenyan society. For instance, they haven’t been shy to speak against constitutionally guaranteed freedoms like freedom of association when they denounced the registration of an atheists’ union. Their hubris was such that they couldn’t see the irony of their angst at something that had nothing to do with morals.
Much to their chagrin, here was a social crisis that had clearly arisen from within their ranks. Nobody could deny that the religious fervour displayed by the unfortunate devotees is precisely what the plethora of evangelical churches in Kenya yearn for. Even after the authorities had swung into action, many emaciated devotees who had survived the “fasting” were heard asking police officers to “leave them alone” on their mission to depart this earth.
There was also the late, muted and incoherent response from the state security bodies, which was a cause for consternation, particularly amongst those who, despite our experiences, believed that there exists a functional and responsive system in Kenya. These people have also failed to notice the shrinkage in the perceived distance between church and state since September 2022. It is now self-evident that churches and evangelical groups are currently enjoying unprecedented closeness to, and probably in cahoots with, the powers that be. In today’s Kenya, the Christian church has become a prominent ingredient in political campaigns, during state functions such as the presidential inauguration, and even probably becoming more involved in the actual governance. In light of these, the behaviour of our security organs towards these powerful religious networks should not have come as a surprise.
Following a few days of hand-wringing, the mainstream churches started making a few noises about ‘rogue churches’ and asking (validly) why the government with all its machinery was unaware that so many people involved in cult activities masked as Christianity. These few voices blamed the government for wanting to cover up its negligence by introducing policies to regulate churches.
Things were suddenly complicated further by the implication and arrest of Pastor Ezekiel Odero, a self-styled prophet who heads the New Life Church, based in Mombasa, who has overtly boasted about his connections to politicians much more than Mckenzie. The growing discomfiture amongst the political leadership about their perceived closeness to evangelists was revealed when no less a figure than Pastor Dorcas Rigathi, wife of the Deputy President, stated that thusly: “We have a law where when somebody is a criminal the procedure should be followed. We cannot stand here and say that because one Christian has been caught in a compromising situation, the whole body of Christ should be condemned. A criminal is a criminal. A terrorist is a terrorist. A murderer is a murderer. Let them be taken through the law and be prosecuted.”
Following the move by Pastor Rigathi to isolate the perceived ‘criminal’ evangelists from the ‘good’ majority (and the political elite), the various state law enforcement organs then also found their voice, with government officials shrilly referring to the Shakahola “massacre” and vowing to bring Pastor Mackenzie to book on charges ranging from terrorism to murder and indoctrination. This left the prosecutor with a daunting task given the high threshold of proof attached to all these charges. The legal quagmire was further compounded by the repeated shrill utterances about the pastor’s guilt by Prof. Kindiki Kithure, the interior minister who is leading the investigations. With a case pending in court, this repeated violation of the ‘sub judice’ rule, which prohibits public discussions of court process by the minister, is bound to compromise the case further.
This case has ruthlessly exposed the ‘darkness’ that has continuously bedevilled Kenya’s progress towards being a country where the constitution rules supreme.
All of a sudden, there were strident calls from politicians, opinion leaders, and members of the public for religious teachings to be regulated, yet freedom of worship is enshrined in our constitution, which we promulgated over a decade ago. As a nation, we are still unable to intellectually ‘grow into’ this new dispensation, and that is the dark spot that endures in our collective psyche.
The intellectual shallowness of our response to the crisis is best encapsulated by the arrest of Mr Eliud Wekesa Simiyu, a villager from Tongaren in western Kenya who styled himself “Yesu wa Tongaren” in his own eccentric religious teachings. There has never been any evidence of harmful activities from this sect, but in the wake of the “Shakahola massacre” he was arrested, questioned and held in custody from 11 to 16 May 2023, when he was finally released without any charges being pressed against him. Being a poor man, he could neither raise bail nor hire a lawyer, so this violation of his rights went unchallenged.
In many ways, today’s Kenya remains a ‘clone’ of colonial Kenya and consistently abhors social, racial, ethnic and religious equity. This selective (if not prejudiced) attitude towards rights didn’t begin in March. Our constitution guarantees freedom of association, but whenever a “bad” group like the atheists or sex workers seeks registration or comes out publicly, we whine about being a ‘God-fearing’ nation with unwavering regularity. Yet, the well-worn, self-righteous mantra of Kenya being a ‘Christian’ or ‘God-fearing’ nation has been compromised by the Christianity-inspired tragedy that we recently witnessed. Interestingly, however, the mainstream churches, which consider themselves as the ‘moral compass’ in our society are yet to find a voice and speak clearly on the dangers of religious indoctrination, which is a key part of their operational objectives. What then is the root of the extreme and self-destructive behaviour that has manifested itself in such a tragedy? It is a weakness that very few Kenyans can admit to, much less seek to address.
Instead, we have already become somewhat inured to the still unfolding tragedy, and discussions have diminished to the daily updates on exhumations, autopsies, etc. Most notably, Kenyans have proffered all sorts of explanations for the crisis except the importance of people learning to think for themselves. Our intellectual indolence has left us craving cults, which comes with a keen desire to be told where to go, when to go, how to parent, how to conduct relationships, what to drink, what to eat, and practically how to exist as a human being. As a result, Kenya is now a hotbed for the growth of a plethora of quasi-professionals calling themselves “coaches” of relationships, transition, parenting, life, communication, attitude, dressing, speech, décor, etc. Even where the welfare of our own children is openly compromised by our faulty education system, we keep quiet because the minister and his “experts” say it is good and they are presumed to know everything in that field.
This inability to think for ourselves is further evidenced by the amount of (justified) complaints about how poorly our economy is doing and how the government is underperforming. Numerous commentators on the airwaves, social media, and public places are pointing out the promises made to us by candidates of the winning side, which now appear to be discarded. The source of alarm isn’t the probity of our political leadership, because our politicians have always been dishonest; instead, it should lie in the proportion of mature educated Kenyans who seemed to have believed those expansive roadside promises. Where would the money come from? If we thought for ourselves, we would’ve been able to see that an economy on its knees could not have delivered the ‘largesse’ that politicians promised.
It is by this same token that we as a nation are so vulnerable to any ill wind, be it religious cultism, political chicanery, or the lies in global geopolitics. We are loath to take responsibility for, and to own, our choices in life. This tragedy is a sign that the time of reckoning has come to us fast and at a terrible cost in human lives. If there is ever a time to do some introspection and pick ourselves up, this is it.