More than 70 bodies have been found in mass graves in a forest near Kenya’s coast. The individuals are believed to be members of the Good News International Church, who were convinced by their leader, Pastor Makenzie Nthenge, to starve themselves in order to reach heaven before the end of the world. Police say that 58 people have died in total, and the final count could be much higher as 112 people have been reported missing.
The graves were discovered by rights organisation Haki Africa, which took the authorities to the site after being tipped off by locals. The organisation estimates that there are around 60 mass graves in the area and only a fifth of those have been examined. Police say that 29 survivors have been found so far, but some did not want to be rescued as they were convinced they were going to heaven.
The forest is “quite hidden” inside Shakahola forest and requires shrubs and bushes to be cut back in order to drive there. Victor Kaudo from the Malindi Community Human Rights Centre, which is helping exhume the bodies, says he thinks there are about 150 bodies in total. Kenya is a profoundly religious country with 85% of the population identifying as Christian.
President William Ruto, who is a devout man himself, has described the head of the Good News International Church as someone who did “not belong to any religion”, and the interior minister has called what happened a “massacre”.
Last month Mr Nthenge was charged in connection with the deaths of two children whose parents had joined his church. He was released on bail, but he is now back in police custody.
Theologian and psychologist Dr James Kipsang Barngetuny believes that there is a problem in Kenya with the “mushrooming” of lots of small churches, which are not properly regulated. He said that unscrupulous leaders are able to brainwash people and take advantage of their desire to find a solution to their problems.
Local people are beginning to come to the grave sites to tell the authorities about relatives who are missing. The discovery has prompted shock in Kenya over how dozens of people could have willingly starved themselves to death. Hussein Khalid, the head of Haki Africa, has urged the authorities to step up a search-and-rescue operation in the forest, which covers some 800 acres (325 hectares).