By Kamadi Amata
Security teams have exhumed 47 bodies at the Shakahola forest in Malindi over the past three days as an investigation into a preacher who instructed his followers to starve to death intensifies. On Monday, April 24, Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome announced that he would visit the site to support the ongoing probe and exhumation of the bodies. Koome will later address the media at the site while the teams continue with the exhumation. Malindi Head of Investigations Charles Kamau reported that they had exhumed 26 bodies on Sunday, increasing the total number to 47. He added that the search is ongoing, not only for bodies but also for survivors of the cult.
The 800-acre (325-hectare) forested area of Shakahola has been cordoned off for the search operation. Police expect to find more bodies buried in shallow graves. Last week, 15 members of the Good News International Church were rescued. The church leader, Paul Makenzie Nthenge, is in custody awaiting a court appearance. Police indicate that they have so far identified 58 graves in the search, even as the preacher told them that they would find more than 1,000 people who had gone to “meet Jesus”. Nthenge was arrested on April 15 after four people were discovered dead and suspected to have starved themselves to death, following a tip-off from a follower.
Nthenge has denied wrongdoing, but he has been denied bail. He insists that he shut down his church in 2019. The followers say he told them to starve themselves in order to “meet Jesus”. On Sunday, one woman was rescued from one of the hideouts in bad health, according to witnesses and police. Of the bodies recovered on Sunday, three were in one grave, two in another, and one in a single grave. The grave diggers also identified a grave with seven more people during the Sunday exercise.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki announced that he would visit Shakahola Village on Tuesday, April 25, and called on the Coast Regional Commissioner and security chiefs to reinforce the team currently carrying out exhumation at Nthenge’s land. The CS denounced the unfolding massacre of cult members as “the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship” and called for tighter regulation of religious entities including churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues across the country.
Earlier on Saturday, police reported that Nthenge was on a hunger strike. At the beginning of the exercise, the authorities had identified 32 sites to dig up. They had hoped to recover 32 bodies, as per an informer who had tipped them off, police said, but the number has increased to 47. Nthenge has been in the limelight for allegedly influencing his followers to fast to death. In one of the graves that had been dug up, the bodies of five family members – a father, mother, and their three children – were found. Most of them were not from the area.
Nthenge appeared before Malindi Chief Magistrate Elizabeth Usui last Monday afternoon. He was not required to plead to any charge, with the prosecution seeking 30 more days to hold him as they complete the probe. He was arraigned alongside 13 other people in the case, which will be mentioned on May 2. The ruling was for the cult leader to remain in police custody for 14 days alongside six of his followers as police investigate the matter. The other seven, whom the prosecution described as victims, as they had refused to eat even while in police custody, will be held for seven days for counselling, officials said.