The mother who fled a death cult to save her children
Salema Masha speaks softly, but her slender frame is animated by an inner strength that saved the lives of her five children.
One day in March she walked them out of a remote wilderness where followers of a Kenyan televangelist were starving themselves to death in the belief that they could meet Jesus faster.
Among the horrific stories emerging from the Christian doomsday cult in the East African country, Salema’s stands out.
More than 200 bodies have been recovered so far from mass graves in the vast Shakahola forest on the southern coast of Kenya, and more are being dug up every day. Survivors are still being found hiding under trees and bushes in the 800-acre territory.
Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Mackenzie opened the Good News International Church in 2003. He repeatedly attracted police attention with his claims that children should not go to school, and that medical treatments should be rejected.
In 2019 he shut down the church and invited his followers to move with him to Shakahola, a place he called a new “Holy Land”.
Salema’s husband was among those who heeded the call.
As she tells her story, she breastfeeds one-year-old Esther, who was born in the forest. Her eldest, a boy named Amani, is eight.
The mass suicide started in January. Salema says she followed instructions to begin fasting so that she could “get to heaven”.
Mackenzie had been telling his followers for some time that the world was coming to an end. Initially he offered the forest as a sanctuary from the approaching apocalypse. But in a grisly twist it became a last stand to get to heaven before the “End of Days”.
After seven days of fasting, Salema says she heard a voice from God telling her this wasn’t his will and that she still had work to do in the world, so she stopped.
People around her were dying though – at one point she attended a funeral of eight children. It was called going to “sleep”.
But they said: “If my children won’t die, I should stop attending other peoples’ funerals,” she tells me.
Survivors say children were supposed to be the first to go, according to a macabre order drawn up by Mackenzie. Then the unmarried, the women, the men, and last of all, church leaders.
“When the child cries or asks for food or water, we were told to take a cane and beat them so that they could go and eat in heaven,” Salema explains. “So I thought about it and I said I cannot go on with this situation, I can’t eat while my child is starving. I told myself, if I feel this bad when I fast, how about my child?”
A BBC analysis of Mackenzie’s sermons on video do not show him directly ordering people to stop eating. However, according to Salema, he was explicit in weekly gatherings on Saturdays.
“At first, the pastor dug… water wells [in the forest] and told us to wait for Jesus and we waited. But then, suddenly, he told us we should fast and go to heaven,” she says.
When they questioned the order, as Salema did, they were told that if they delayed their deaths, heaven would be full: “The gate would be closed.”
Much of Mackenzie’s preaching focused on a new Kenyan national identity card that will include personal data encoded in an electronic chip – the “sign of the beast” he called it, to be avoided at all cost.
The cost was very high, and Salema discovered that her husband, one of Mackenzie’s deputies, was involved in managing it. A friend told her that when he went to work, he was actually going to bury the dead.
One day in March he put his foot down, forcing the family to fast. Four days later he left for work and Salema saw her chance. She grabbed the children and left.
“My children fasted for four days without food and water, and they were crying,” she says. “So, when I saw they were so weak, I gave them water and I told myself I couldn’t allow my children to die.”
The children were guided by the steely will of their mother and protected by her status as the wife of a Mackenzie aide.
Salema says she was challenged by other cult members but not stopped, and when she reached the main road after walking for several kilometres, got a lift from “a good Samaritan” to a safe place.
But other runaways were stopped. A group of male enforcers bearing machetes chased, beat, and dragged them back to the forest, in accounts told by survivors and former cult members.
Mackenzie surrendered to the authorities on 15 April. He denies ordering his followers to starve themselves. But the search and rescue operation found many dead children buried in his compound.
Police told local reporters they had learned from aides who had been detained that this was meant to be a way for Mackenzie to identify with Jesus’ command to “let the little children come unto me,” says journalist Marion Kithi.
Police also said that before Mackenzie left, he ordered his deputies to continue enforcing the mass starvation and burying those who died, according to Kithi.
It is the surviving children who’ve provided a lot of the information about what happened, says Victor Kaudo, a human rights activist from Haki Africa who first tipped off the police that young boys were dying in Shakahola.
Some of the adults refuse treatment even after they’ve been rescued. And there is suspicion that members of the cult are continuing to exert influence beyond the forest, quietly telling survivors to refuse food and medicine.
Kaudo says two people his group rescued and regarded as victims were actually “part of this militia that Mackenzie had,” and needed to be separated from the others.
Former cult member Titus Katana says he knows most of Mackenzie’s aides and the majority have been arrested. But this week a body was discovered lying in the forest, not buried beneath it. That makes him suspect some of the enforcers are still “supervising the process of people to fast”.
Salema says Mackenzie’s deputies came looking for her a week after she left and advised her to return, but did not threaten her.
But she knows others were not treated as kindly.
A woman came to her, asking for help to escape the cult with her children and find the money for transport back to their home village. Salema promised she would do so.
The woman went back to the forest to get her children and was never heard from again.