Since mid-April, Kenyan police have been searching the Shakahola Forest in southeastern Kenya after the bodies of members of the Good News Church International were discovered. In this tragic case, the individuals would have practiced an extreme fast to "meet Jesus", under the leadership of a "pastor" named Makenzie Nthenge.
The macabre count increases as the excavations progress, reaching 95 dead on Wednesday. The results remain provisional and the excavations are now suspended because the morgues are full. “We will not dig in the next two days to have time to carry out the autopsies,” said an officer from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI).
The story begins on April 13, when police receive reports of “ignorant citizens starving to death on the pretext of meeting Jesus after being brainwashed by a suspect, Makenzie Nthenge, pastor of the International Church of Good News”, whose report was presented to AFP. Another information evokes possible mass graves. The following day, the pastor surrendered to the police, he is due to appear in court on May 2. Since the start of police operations, the death toll has only increased with children as the main victims. "We exhumed mostly children, then come the women," confirmed the officer of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.
The victims are members of the Good News International Church, founded in 2003 by Paul Mackenzie Nthenge. A former taxi driver in the 1990s, he proclaimed himself a "pastor" when he founded this religious movement. The sect claims more than 3,000 members and branches in several regions of Kenya. “The mission of this ministry is to nurture the faithful holistically in all areas of Christian spirituality as we prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ through teaching and evangelism,” reads on their site.
The guru had also started a YouTube channel in 2017 where he warned his followers against "demonic" practices such as wearing wigs and cashless digital transactions. He had been arrested twice the same year for "radicalization" after advocating not putting children in school, and for causing the death of two children from starvation. He was released on bail of 100,000 Kenyan shillings (about 670 euros).
In 2019, the self-proclaimed "pastor" decided to shut down his church, saying, "Jesus told me that the work he gave me is done." But the charismatic leader allegedly then took his followers to a nearby forest and convinced them to fast to meet God.
This tragedy is part of a larger phenomenon of development of marginal religious movements in this area of Africa. Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said on Tuesday, "What happened in Shakahola is a turning point in the way Kenya deals with security threats posed by religious extremists." President William Ruto denounced the work of "terrorists".
Already in 1992, in his book L'Afrique des Guérisons, the Jesuit priest Éric de Rosny explains this phenomenon of prosperity of the independent Christian Churches in Africa. Originally described as “a mystical resistance to colonial power and an expression of an original faith”, it dates the first religious movement to 1862 in Ghana.
Since then, their number has increased considerably. No assessment has recently been published, but Éric de Rosny presents various figures drawn from surveys carried out in the 1980s. In Ghana, there were 500 independent religious movements at that time. In Liberia, for 235,000 people, there are 500 places of worship, belonging to a hundred religious groups independent of each other. These movements abound particularly in regions with a high Protestant proportion, such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, former British colonies. Here, the theological principle of free will derived from Protestantism favors separatist initiatives.
As for the victims of the International Church of Good News, the toll could still increase. The Kenya Red Cross said more than 200 people were missing. Kithure Kindiki said “We pray for God to help them overcome the trauma, recover and tell how one day a Kenyan, a human being, decided to hurt so many people, heartless, hiding under the Holy Scriptures”.