Guyana, 1974. Nearly a thousand worshippers at the People’s Temple Of The Disciples of Christ follow their leader, the charismatic Preacher Jim Jones, from the boardwalks of California to a 3,800 acre parcel of Guyanese forest. Those who migrated were promised a land of paradise, free from the racial and capitalist injustices of continental USA. This settlement is informally dubbed ‘Jonestown’.
Kilifi, 2019. The Kenya Film Classification Board orders for the arrest of Pastor Paul Mackenzie of the Malindi-based The Good News Church for promoting religious radicalisation, following a sermon aired on Times TV where Pastor Mackenzie preached that registering for the government-mandated Huduma Number was akin to receiving the ‘666’ mark of the beast and selling their souls to the devil. Following his arrest and release, Mackenzie closed The Good News Church in Malindi and relocated his congregation to an 800 acre remote commune in the Shakahola forest. In this forest haven, Mackenzie’s congregants are promised a life close to God, free from the suffering of the world.
Guyana, 1978. A mocktail of cyanide-laced Kool-aid is stirred in a vat and served to Reverend Jones’ congregants. The children are the first to receive this concoction. The little ones who resist are force-fed a needleless syringe of cyanide, while resisting adults are injected in the neck by the guards of The People’s Temple. In recorded audio of those final moments, Jones is heard preaching to the dying congregation amidst the howls of children in pain and congregants weeping.
“We’ve had as much of this world that you’re gonna get. Let’s just be done with it. Let’s be done with the agony of it. It’s far, far harder to have to watch you every day, die slowly, and from the time you were a child to the time you get gray- you’re dying…this is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide. “
909 people died.
Kilifi, 2023. The police receive a tip-off from a man concerned about the safety and well-being of his wife who, together with their children, left for Mackenzie’s Shakahola commune and was never heard from again. When the police arrive at Shakahola, they are greeted by the sight of emaciated bodies and carelessly dug shallow graves. Over the next few weeks, 179 dead bodies are uncovered on the land, with more being found each day. The ones who were rescued from starvation confess that they were fasting in order to ‘meet Jesus’, according to the preachings of Pastor Paul Mackenzie.
JIMMY CARTER IN 1977 vs WILLIAM RUTO IN 2023
The 1970s was the boom hour of public evangelicalism in America. The Hippie Culture and Free Love Movements of the 1960s were soon usurped by The Jesus Movement. Following President Richard Nixon’s watergate scandal which many Americans took to symbolise the degradation of integrity in the highest office of the land, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign took advantage of the dwindling faith in the office of the President and built his foundation on the grounds of piety, often caught invoking the admonitions of theologian Reinhold Niebhur that “the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.”
Upon his 1977 presidential win, Carter’s Christian faith took front and centre stage. This was during a time when the likes of famed televangelist Billy Graham brought millions of people to the screens of their black and white television box sets. Political leaders rubbed shoulders with Rev. Jim Jones, knowing the difference the influence of The People’s Temple and their Reverend could make at the ballot. Indeed, Jesus was the moment.
In a 1977 report titled ‘Inside The People’s Temple’, New West reporters Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy wrote of a time when Rosalynn Carter, wife to Jimmy Carter, took part in a campaign excursion on behalf of her husband, in a state where his support was weak. Accompanying her was Rev. Jim Jones.
“Mrs. Carter finished her little pep talk to mild applause. Several other Democratic bigwigs got polite reception too. Only one speaker aroused the crowd; he was the Reverend Jim Jones, the founding pastor of People’s Temple, a small community church located in the city’s Fillmore section. Jones spoke briefly and avoided endorsing Carter directly, but his words were met with what seemed like a wall-pounding outpour…”
Kilduff and Tracy continue to shine a light on Jim Jones’ political friendship with San Francisco mayor, George Moscone, San Francisco District Attorney Joe Freitas, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, as well as Governor of California Jerry Brown. All of whom had made multiple visits to The People’s Temple churches in California and were friendly with the Reverend. As one politically astute executive put it: “He [Jones] controls votes.” Jim Jones had the power to swing ballots with a single amen. Of course politicians would want him on the side.
Five decades later on the other side of the globe, William Ruto ascends to the presidency following Kenya’s 2022 General elections. President Ruto’s campaign, similar to that of Jimmy Carter in 1970s America, is built on the foundation of piety and evangelical Christian morals. Ruto seeks the advice of the clergy on matters of the state. He occasionally gifts cars to pastors who have earned his favour, with some pastors asking for the Ministry of Christian Affairs promised to them during President Ruto’s campaign, as well as an exemption from taxes for religious organisations importing religious artefacts.
But following the break of the Shakahola story, Ruto labelled Mackenzie a terrorist and called for his prosecution as one in authority tends to do when it comes to criminals. Much to the chagrin of the Church and Clergy Association of Kenya, the President went even further: establishing a task force to review the laws governing churches in order to identify the cracks in the law through which religious extremism and radicalisation slip through. The umbrella bodies representing pentecostal and charismatic churches are not happy about the task force while Catholic Bishops have called the move a ‘knee jerk’ reaction, likely to affect freedom of worship.
This move must have not been easy, given the President’s affiliation to the church. Away from the political and closer to the personal, the first lady, Rachel Ruto, is well known for being a ‘prayer warrior’; integrating her Christian spirituality into her duties as first lady, a strategy she likes to refer to as faith diplomacy. The first lady has been seen speaking in tongues during prayer while rebuking the cartels of the port, as well as leading the nation in a prayer for rain and an end to drought and hunger.
Upon the upheld Supreme Court decision of February 2023 which extended the right of organisation to LGBTQ+ human rights organisations, the First Lady announced national prayers against the LGBTQ, which she claims are a threat to African family values. The President and First Lady have also imposed a weekly programme of fasting & prayers for the staff at State House.
On the other side of the political divide, opposition leader Raila Odinga paid Pastor Ezekiel a courtesy visit at his New Life Prayer Centre in Kilifi after government officials had denied Odinga access to the Shakahola crime scene. While they may seem like two unrelated pastors going about their ministry, Pastor Ezekiel is currently under investigation for the undisclosed deaths of congregants, as well as links to Mackenzie’s Shakahola Massacre case.
ECONOMY OF AMERICA IN THE 70s vs KENYA IN THE 2020s
What could explain a level of despair and desperation so malignant in a society, that it drives hundreds of people to place their lives in the hands of cult leaders? Quite possibly, the dwindling economy and broken faith in the state’s ability to take care of its people.
Stagflation ate away at the economy of 1970s America as the economic boom which followed World War II began to wane due to the expense of the Vietnam War on taxpayers, the decline of manufacturing jobs which pushed nearly 2 million Americans into unemployment, and increased international competition in the form of West Germany and Japan. High inflation rates combined with high unemployment rates was food for the day in 1970s America.
Similarly, Kenya’s economy in 2023 is the worst it has ever been. The value of the shilling is tanking faster than a sinking ship, all while the cost of fuel, food and taxes continue to soar. Like America in the ‘70s, when the masses are disillusioned they tend to turn to one of two choices: religion or revolution.
And while the Azimio La Umoja One Kenya-led mass demonstrations against the cost of living and alleged electoral injustices seemed to have signalled that Kenya was heading in the direction of revolution, in marginalised areas like Shakahola, a locale the government has been indifferent to until the reports of mass deaths brought it to their attention- revolution was not an option.
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said “to know your future, you must know your past.” The similarities between Jonestown and Shakahola are innumerable, to say the least. Both Jonestown and Shakahola fall into the category of communes. Both Jim Jones and Paul Mackenzie preached doomsday and rejection of modern living. Both preachers claimed a direct line of communication with God. And in both massacres, children were the first to die. Just like Shakahola, the aftermath of Jonestown saw American Christian and political leaders denounce Jones as satanic, in the same vein many Kenyan Christian and political leaders have denounced Mackenzie’s teachings as satanic.
Investigations into the Jonestown massacre, conducted by the FBI and the United States congress primarily focused on why authorities, especially the US State Department, were unaware of the abuses in Jonestown. Begetting the question: why was the Kenyan national Government, as well as the Kilifi County government, the police and other state agencies unaware of the fatalities and human rights abuses taking place in Shakahola until it was too little too late?
Before the state points a finger at Pastor Mackenzie or gullible individuals prone to religious radicalization, it must point the first finger at itself.