When white-robe-wearing controversial Kenyan televangelist Ezekiel Ombok Odero was locked up for the long weekend on Friday, police said he had a hand in the “mass killing” of followers. He was arrested while heading for a ‘prayer mission’ in Tanzania.
Kenyan authorities also closed his New Life Prayer Centre and Church, just days after the discovery of dozens of bodies linked to another church.
Identities of those he led to death have not been revealed yet, but he was the second preacher hunted this week for misleading followers.
On Friday, it turned out his, and messages of the other preacher, Paul Mackenzie, had attracted followers from as far afield as neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda.
Police said they had counted 110 bodies exhumed from unmarked graves thought to be victims of Mackenzie’s and Odero’s preaching, who had been brainwashed to starve as a precondition to meet Jesus Christ.
The shocking deaths are one of Kenya’s largest in a cult-related incident, mirroring the region’s deadliest cult deaths in Uganda’s Kanungu district in 2000 when some 700 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God burned to death.
Tanzania, too, has its fair share of faith ministers calling themselves prophets, bishops, pastors, while spreading dubious messages about Christianity to gullible followers.
In February 2020, at least 20 people were killed and dozens injured in a stampede at the Arise and Shine Ministry church in Moshi run by populist preacher Boniface Mwamposa. He had challenged members of his congregation to step barefooted on hot cooking oil which he claimed had healing powers.
Mwamposa was arrested a few days later in Dar es Salaam where he had fled to following the tragedy. But he was eventually released after being absolved of blame and his church is still very much in operation.
Several other Tanzanian preachers of similar ilk have got into trouble with authorities for promoting known vices such as excessive alcohol consumption and open sexual intercourse on the pretext of sourcing their inspiration from the Bible.
But despite everything, these self-proclaimed “men of God” continue to draw large followings comprising mainly individuals in search of solutions to a growing array of social, economic and even emotional problems.
Back to Kenya, investigators say the church-like sect led by Paul Mackenzie, who is in custody, had members from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, with their families already arriving in the coastal town of Malindi seeking information about their loved ones.
Dozens of followers were found alive but emaciated in the Shakahola forest, in Kilifi County, where Mackenzie, a taxi driver-turned-radical-preacher, is accused of encouraging his flock to find God through starvation.
Refused to eat
Interestingly, some of those rescued refused to eat, determined to fast to death. Hundreds more are still missing.
The Kenya Red Cross says it has received more than 300 missing person requests from relatives at its Malindi offices, although investigators say some of the deaths were reported as far back as August 2022.
“This thing is big. We expect to find hundreds more bodies in these graves given that the first reported case of missing persons and deaths at the cults site was recorded here in our station in August last year,” an investigator told The EastAfrican.
Apart from the gravesites and cult sites, most other areas were deserted, with torn books and bibles, clothes, toiletries and utensils strewn about. There were unused condoms in some houses.
Those who suspected that their missing relatives were either dead or rescued continued to flock to the scene, which has since been cordoned off and declared a disturbed area by the government, in the hope of finding their loved ones.
Kenya’s President William Ruto has promised a crackdown on ‘unacceptable’ religious movements, likening Mr Mackenzie to terrorists.
Police said they would prefer terrorism charges against Mr Mackenzie and six of his followers once they had completed their investigations.
Inspector-General of Police Japhet Koome said they were treating Mr Mackenzie as a criminal because of his history dating back to 2017.
“Mr Mackenzie has a criminal record dating back to 2017. Police became interested in his activities, arrested and brought him before court. There are many others we are interested in and believe are involved in similar crimes. All those found guilty will face the law,” Koome said.
The pastor was arrested in 2017 after urging his followers to withdraw their children from school, claiming that education was not sanctioned in the Bible. He was later released before his latest arrest in March this year.
Autopsies on the exhumed bodies were expected to begin this weekend and could last until next week before the suspects are charged.
Tales of grief
At the Malindi police station and the local district hospital, where more than 29 of the sect’s followers who were rescued from the forest are being treated, relatives continued to pour in to learn the fate of their loved ones.
“I have come to look for my wife, who left Nairobi on the eve of the Easter holidays,” said Abbas Babatunde, a Nigerian national married to a Kenyan.
Mr Babatunde said his wife, along with her parents and sisters, allegedly went to the cult shrine deep in the Shakahola villages for a fasting session and was never seen again.
“She left with our four-year-old daughter, Yemi, and we have not heard from them since,” he said.
He added: “The detectives told us that they suspect the family is still alive and hiding deep in the forest, although one of the sister’s children has been confirmed among the dead. I remain hopeful that they will be rescued alive given that we have been told their phone signals are active in the forest.”
Searching for relatives
Solomon Sabo Mundari, a Ugandan living in Kampala, could not contain his emotions as he tried to learn the fate of his relatives. For the past week, he has been desperately searching for information on the whereabouts of his sister, her husband and their child.
Moving between the sect’s compound, 70 kilometres north of Malindi town, and the police station, he still clings to the hope that they may be hiding deep in the forest.
“We are desperate and grieving. The bodies that have been exhumed are in really bad shape and I am not even sure if our relatives are among the dead.
“We need answers, but as the place is now a crime scene with limited access, we are now sure that it will take time to get any of them. My mother back in Uganda is heartbroken, but I don’t have any good news for her yet, although we know it could take some time,” said Mr Mundari.
He adds that his sister Joyce, along with her husband and child, left their home in Kampala earlier this year to be prayed for by the Kenyan pastor.
“The last time we spoke was in March and she told us they were fine. I didn’t suspect there was any trouble until mid-April when we saw the news that their pastor had been arrested. That was when our family asked me to travel to Kenya and find out what had happened to our loved ones,” he said.
At the Malindi morgue, Bethy Kahindi cried for her missing sister, sure she was the victim.
The last time they spoke, almost a year ago, Kahindi’s sister told her “she will meet Jesus and we will see each other in heaven”.
“I have no hope of finding my sister and her six children alive,” said the 37-year-old, red-eyed and distraught.
Additional reporting by Bob Karashani