n 2019, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, an increasingly popular YouTube preacher, delivered a sermon titled “Kanisa Jangwani” (Church in the Wilderness). In it, he declared, “Why are you afraid of dying and being tortured?… Even when you die, you won’t know you’re dying … you’ll fall deep asleep, and on the other side, Jesus will be waiting for you.”
Three years later, Mackenzie’s dark prophecy began to manifest. The first death linked to his secretive commune was reported in the Shakahola forest, a place he dubbed “Bethlehem”, in August 2022. This tragic event marked the beginning of a chilling series of incidents in which hundreds of followers, including many children, died under mysterious circumstances. This grim tale of betrayal and death has been pieced together through survivor testimonies, interviews with former associates, and relentless investigative work.
Mackenzie, a self-declared prophet, arrived in Shakahola in 2019 with a vision of creating his own spiritual haven, a “Bethlehem” isolated from the perceived corruption of the outside world, which he referred to as “Babel”. He told the Nation in March 2023 that he had a “revelation that the time to call it quits had come,” leading to the closure of his Malindi church and relocation to the forest.
In Shakahola, Mackenzie’s dream was to build a peaceful community of believers. Soon, houses began appearing amidst the dense forest. Unbeknownst to the nearby villagers, these developments were the first signs of a burgeoning cult. Local businesses experienced a surge in commerce due to the influx of visitors, further concealing the commune’s true nature.
Mackenzie initially presented himself as a farmer to the locals, a deception that lasted until strange newcomers started populating the area – his growing number of followers. As early as December 2021, these followers were permitted bi-weekly visits to the local shopping center, where they conducted business in a peculiar manner. Transactions were paid for by distant relatives via a provided till number, and goods were often collected by motorcycle couriers.
As the community in Shakahola swelled, local unease grew. Despite being summoned by local authorities in December 2021, Mackenzie’s activities were not halted. This inaction set the stage for the upcoming tragedy. Reports suggest that local officials were aware of the situation as early as August 2021, when a family reported the death of a relative in one of the villages under Mackenzie’s control.
Survivors’ accounts paint a damning picture of the local authorities’ complacency, amid allegations of police officers accepting bribes to turn a blind eye. Alex*, a 15-year-old survivor, said, “Twice, both in December last year and February this year, we saw police officers come in, have a chat with the ‘prophet’ and walk away without inspecting the villages.”
The cult’s activities culminated in a series of mass deaths, disguised as “weddings,” a codename for the burials. These deaths were the result of orchestrated starvation, suffocation, and brutal physical abuse. According to Alex, the last person to “meet Jesus” was to be Mackenzie himself, after all his followers had died and been buried.
Further investigation into the cult’s activities revealed a well-structured leadership team, including Mackenzie’s wife, Rhoda Maweu, who played a key role in the group’s administrative affairs. Her involvement, and that of other key figures, was confirmed through a review of Mackenzie’s phone records, which revealed incrim