Religion & Liberty Online

The Problem of Cults in Kenya

Supporters of Pastor Ezekiel Odero pray for his release outside a law court in the coastal town of Shanzu, near Mombasa, in Kenya (Image credit: Associated Press)

Although the overwhelming majority of Kenyans are Christians, religious con men still have a hold on many of the poor. Bringing them to justice is difficult owing to corruption, government connections, and constitutional freedom of religion. But is what they are practicing religion at all?

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As of 2021, Kenya’s population was estimated to be 54.7 million, and as of 2019 “approximately 85.5 percent of the total population is Christian and 11 percent Muslim. Groups constituting less than 2 percent of the population are Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and those adhering to traditional religious beliefs.” The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism to Kenya in the 15th century, and missionaries quickly extended the religion throughout the 20th century. About 9.7 million Kenyans, or 20.6% of the population, were members of the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. Over 60% of Kenyans described themselves as Protestant, Evangelical, or members of African- constituted churches.

Unfortunately, today cults have become a definite problem despite the growth of Christianity, too often disguising themselves as Christian through fake miracles and false prophecies. Kenyans have become vulnerable to such “prophecies,” and we have had many church scandals. There is no law restricting the opening of churches in Kenya, and that’s why some false prophets, claiming to be true men of God, have been able to milk people of their hard-earned money in exchange for false promises made in the name of God. Since the poor are most of the Christians and they face many challenges, especially financial challenges, these false prophets seek them out deliberately to deceive them, saying that they are not poor because it is God’s will but because their brother, sister, aunt, or mother has “bewitched” them. They tend to believe anything and everything the “men of faith” tell them without questioning.

As a true Christian believer, I don’t believe in witchcraft. However, if you are not educated or exposed to sound teaching, you are more likely to believe that you are poor because some of your relatives have bewitched you. Most of the churches mushrooming in Kenya now have created these scandals, demanding some amount of money as an offer of sacrifice to cast the “evil” away. Previously we had a so-called evangelist, Victor Kanyari, who deceived his followers into believing he was a miracle healer and who stated in the Christian Science Monitor that he could cure HIV/AIDS or barrenness for a fee. Kanyari became wealthy through his impoverished followers’ donations. The sad truth is that these Kenyan “pastors” live a luxurious lifestyle while their desperate followers, who contribute the offerings, are languishing in poverty. It looks like these believers attending these churches are blinded in some way, because despite all these scandals, they continue to worship in the same churches.

The most recent scandal involves Pastor Paul Mackenzie, a preacher at Good News International Church. The televangelist Mackenzie established his church in the coastal community of Malindi in 2003. Mackenzie has been arrested several times over claims that he encouraged kids to drop out of school. He admits that “I preached about how education on earth is bad, and I was taken to court for telling kids not to go to school. … It depends on how you interpret the prophecy, but it is one. I can preach, but I won’t compel anyone to follow my teachings.”

Because of the controversy, he closed the church in 2019 and relocated to his 325-hectare (800-acre) farm in a village called Shakahola in Kilifi County for a fast “to meet Jesus.” For those who were working or running businesses or in school, he insisted that they could only meet Jesus if they left everything and met up with him for fasting and prayers. He managed to gather all his followers together at Shakahola. Due to extreme fasting and irregular diet, some of his followers got sick, while others even starved to death. The sick were not able to get treatment, however, as Mackenzie told them they wouldn’t “meet Jesus” if they sought medical attention. The police report states that “the fast would only count if they gathered on his farm as a fasting venue. They were prohibited from mingling with outsiders and required to destroy government documents, including national IDs and birth certificates, for heaven.”

In April of this year, the Kenyan government authorized a search for two children who had disappeared and were believed to have been on the Shakahola farm owned by Mackenzie. During the Shakahola farm search, at least 226 bodies were exhumed, 27 people were rescued and taken to the hospital for malnutrition and nutrition, while 39 known members of the cult remain missing. There may be many more missing, however, as locals claim that about 300 people lived on the Shakahola farm, as reported in African News. Some reports state that those who wanted out because they realized they were trapped were killed and buried on the farm. The search for the two children is ongoing.

“While the state remains respectful of religious freedom, this horrendous blight on our conscience must lead not only to the most severe punishment of the perpetrators of these atrocities on so many innocent souls, but tighter regulation [including self-regulation] of every church, mosque, temple, or synagogue going forward,” Kinthure Kindiki, the minister for Interior and Security, stated in a tweet.

Mackenzie was arrested for these crimes but was released on bail. It is shocking that the government would let a criminal like him disguised as a prophet walk away. I know our Kenyan constitution’s Article 66 states that “everyone shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty before the court in accordance with applicable law.” But this case will take years to be solved because our judicial system is very slow and corrupt. Once again, the poor will see no justice.

Mackenzie’s crimes are similar to those of Ezekiel Odero, Kenyan televangelist and head of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church based in Kilifi County, who is himself accused of luring his followers with false prophecies and sacrificing them for his cult. However, his situation is unique because, before the scandals erupted, Odero had been seen worshipping with top government officials. This means that despite all the evidence of his guilt, he will probably get away with his crimes merely because he is well connected. Kenyans, especially poor Kenyans, deserve better. They deserve real justice. And true religion.

Janeth Jepleting

Janeth Jepleting is a master's student at Pepperdine University's school of public policy and an Emerging Leader at Acton Institute 2023. In 2018, she completed her undergraduate studies in political science at the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. She worked as a business owner and a volunteer for the Endless Feeding Program in the Kibera Slums of Nairobi before enrolling at Pepperdine. She has also been highlighted in such media outlets as the Daily Nation in Nairobi.