In November 1978, James Warren Jones, an American preacher, orchestrated the mass murder by suicide of more than 900 people in a remote jungle commune in Guyana, South America. As founder of the People’s Temple, a doomsday cult, Jones managed to convince his followers to kill themselves by drinking punch laced with cyanide. About 70 percent of his followers who died were African American, and more than half were women.  In his book, Journey to Nowhere, the late Shiva Naipaul explains that the cult followers were made to believe they were carrying out an “act of resistance” against oppressive forces, which is perhaps why his followers were predominantly Black and female, groups that have suffered discrimination in the United States. But investigations after the mass murder found that Jones was a master at manipulation who oppressed his followers by confiscating their properties and even staging rehearsals for mass suicides. 

The Jonestown massacre, as the tragedy came to be known, has eerie similarities to the massacre in Shakahola village in Kilifi County, one of the poorest counties in Kenya. Here, a man called Paul Mackenzie, founder of the Good News International Church, managed to convince his followers – some of whom came from as far as Nyanza, more than 800 Kms away – to starve themselves to death so they could go to heaven. Latest reports indicate that so far more than 90 bodies (and counting), including those of children, have been exhumed from shallow graves in an 800-acre plot of land some 80 Kms from Malindi. The story has made international headlines and is likely to generate a lot of discussion on the nature of cults and why so many people are drawn to them.

Cults have many things in common. One, they are usually led by a charismatic leader. Two, people who join cults tend to have low self-esteem – they seek comfort and meaning in a group that embraces and accepts them. Three, there is an element of seduction – new recruits are “love bombed” with flattery and compliments. But once seduced, they are also susceptible to sexual and other types of abuse by their leaders. Four, cult leaders create a “them versus us” narrative among their followers, isolating them from friends and family, which can lead to more abuse. Five, cult leaders often demand that followers give up their property, which makes many of them fabulously wealthy. In some cases, to avoid scrutiny from the authorities, leaders will physically isolate the followers in remote locations, as happened in the Jonestown and Shakahola village cases. 

Cults become a refuge for people experiencing some kind of trauma or hardship, and generally proliferate in periods of great turbulence (as mentioned earlier, James Warren Jones’s followers were predominantly Black Americans and more than half were women, demographic groups that were – and still are – experiencing racism and sexism in the United States). Many of his followers came to Guyana with their children, which explains why almost one-third of the casualties in Jonestown were under the age of 18.

In America, the 1970s was also a decade of political turbulence; Martin Luther King Jr. and President John Kennedy had been assassinated 1968 and 1963 respectively, and so there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future.  A senseless war in Vietnam was raging and making Americans very angry, and President Richard Nixon was forced to resign after the Watergate scandal. It was a period of intellectual collapse and corruption. 

One can see how people become susceptible to cults at a time of great uncertainty.  Kenyans witnessed post-election violence in 2007/8 that split the country in half politically, and led to the death of more than 1,000 people and the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. Elections since then have been divisive and fraught with tension, leading people to lose faith in their leaders, who keep demanding obscenely high salaries and perks even at a time such as now when ordinary Kenyans cannot afford basic necessities and civil servants and counties are being told they will not be paid, ostensibly because the government is broke. 

The country is currently experiencing economic turmoil. The cost of living is becoming unbearable and its politics is corrupt and devoid of compassion and intellectual integrity. It is not surprising that people, especially the poor, are turning to cults to ease some of their pain. The question is how both Jones and Mackenzie convinced their followers that their salvation lied in them committing suicide. Jones shot himself and died after the massacre, and so he was never convicted. It will be interesting to see what comes up in the trial of Mackenzie. What was his end game?

Other disturbing questions will no doubt emerge. In an interview with Citizen TV, the former head of the Kenya Film Classification Board, Ezekiel Mutua, stated that he had flagged Mackenzie as dangerous as far back as 2017 when the latter wanted to air on a TV station. Mutua was alarmed by the disturbing content of the station and ordered an investigation. But despite involving law enforcement agencies, the case against Mackenzie died, and he walked free to continue with his poisonous sermons. If he had been jailed and convicted then, would so many lives have been lost? 

Questions are also being raised about the role chiefs and security officers played in allowing the suicides to continue unabated. When people disappeared from their villages, why didn’t their relatives report them as missing to the police? Why did area chiefs and Nyumba Kumi heads not raise the alarm? Could it be that the police were complicit and looked the other way? Were they bribed? And where was the National Intelligence Service? Did it not smell a rat? What about the area MP? Was he not aware of the unusual goings-on in his constituency? Kenya’s coast region has experienced acts of terrorism in the past, so these people’s radar should have been on high alert for bizarre happenings. Why wasn’t it? 

The massacre in Shakahola village has revealed the moral decay in our society that allowed a cult leader to carry out a heinous act of mass murder under the noses of those who were supposed to protect Kenyans from such acts. An official inquiry must be held immediately to bring all those responsible to account, and to determine why such cults are becoming so alluring to so many Kenyans. 

Author

  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.