In the rural outskirts of Riaki, Meru, a story of defiance, courage, and hope unfolds. Sheila Kawira, 20, now a student of clinical medicine at Kenyatta University, shares her harrowing tale of familial ties, radicalized beliefs, and her relentless pursuit of education.
Raised in a devout Christian family, Sheila’s life took an unexpected turn in 2019 when her parents, Doris Kendi and Fredrick Kirimi, fell under the spell of the charismatic but controversial figure, Paul Mackenzie, through his popular religious television program, Times TV.
Mackenzie’s teachings, laced with radical ideologies, persuaded Kendi and Kirimi to renounce worldly possessions, education, employment, and technology, viewing them as facets of a corrupt “Babylonian system”. This led to Kendi, once a county government early childhood school teacher, abandoning her post in 2020, a move that set a cascade of unforeseen events into motion.
Sheila’s parents became so engrossed in Mackenzie’s teachings that they rejected their civic duties, such as participating in the 2019 national census. “My mother took us into the wilderness for three days, undeterred by the presence of her infant child, just to evade census officers,” Sheila recalls.
The grip of Mackenzie’s ideology tightened after a three-week physical conference in Meru town. Sheila recounts her shock upon realizing that Mackenzie personally recognized her mother. The conference culminated in the full initiation of her parents into the cult, further deepening the divide between Sheila’s educational aspirations and her parents’ radical beliefs.
Under intense pressure from her mother, Sheila reluctantly abandoned her secondary education, nearly succumbing to the belief that education was sinful. However, an unexpected intervention by Eunice Maeke, her high school principal, pulled her back from the precipice. Maeke personally drove to Sheila’s home to persuade her to return to school.
In spite of her parents’ fierce opposition and the threat of being disowned, Sheila persisted in her pursuit of education, eventually earning an impressive A- grade in the KCSE exam. Her university education was only made possible through the financial support of local MP John Paul Mwirigi.
Now, with her mother and two siblings missing and presumed to be victims of forced starvation in Shakahola, and her step-father among 25 individuals arrested for affiliation with the rogue pastor, Sheila’s academic journey has been fraught with emotional and financial challenges.
Her quest for education continues, albeit under financial constraints and mental health issues arising from her traumatic experiences. Sheila’s courage to defy oppressive doctrines and her commitment to education serve as an inspiration to many, even as she seeks support for her university studies.
Meanwhile, as the search for Sheila’s missing family members intensifies, the devastating impact of Mackenzie’s teachings continues to unravel. The cult’s influence has not only led to familial disintegration but also forced its followers to part with their property, leaving a trail of despair and uncertainty.
In this dire situation, Kendi’s mother, Catherine Kaungu, pleads for government intervention to locate her missing daughter and grandchildren. As the family and local community grapple with the aftermath of Mackenzie’s influence, Sheila stands as a beacon of resilience, challenging the cult’s radical ideologies with her unwavering commitment to education.