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A dangerous cult lured my daughter to the forest, authorities uncover mass graves

When we arrived at their home, things felt strange right away. My daughter seemed like a shadow of her former self. They began quoting religious doctrine and saying we did not understand. We discovered they joined a new church and believed, with God as the ultimate provider, jobs were pointless.

  • 9 months ago
  • May 28, 2023
5 min read
Citizen TV Kenya has been reporting on bodies found in mass graves in Shakahola Forest where a cult leader convinced members to fast to death. Citizen TV Kenya has been reporting on bodies found in mass graves in Shakahola Forest where a cult leader convinced members to fast to death. | Photo screenshot of Citizen TV Kenya newscast on YouTube
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Francis Wanje was born in Kilifi County in 1965. He holds a Bachelor of Education degree from Kenyatta University and is currently a high school teacher at St. Charles Lwanga in Mombasa County. He is married with five children, four girls and one boy. He is a grandfather and a founding member of Nipe Tumaini – an organization that supports children in need.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Reports of imposter pastors and churches have drastically increased in Kenya. These pastors prey on people’s vulnerability and desperation, resulting in financial exploitation and other forms of abuse. More bodies were found in mass graves in a woodland in Kenya’s southeast, bringing the death toll from that Christian sect to 67. In the Shakahola forest close to the seaside town of Malindi, where numerous bodies were excavated, a significant search is currently underway. The bodies are believed to be those of cult members who apparently felt starving oneself would ensure their entrance into heaven.

KILIFI COUNTY, Kenya — I still feel chills down my spine recalling my last encounter with my daughter and son-in-law, who fell victim to a cult. Standing in their living room, I suddenly felt like a stranger. The person I knew disappeared, replaced by someone entirely different. After doing some research, I realized my daughter and son-in-law joined a church flagged for preaching dangerous doctrine. A friend of mine and ex-member of this group, reached out to me with a warning.

When my concerns escalated, I went to the police at Langobaya, near the church itself. When the authorities arrived at the homestead in the woods, they discovered my daughter, her husband, and one of my grandchildren in prayer. Upon seeing the police, my daughter and her husband fled deeper into the forest. The authorities rescued my grandson, who was critically ill and on the verge of death. We rushed him to a hospital to save his life; but did not find his brothers.

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I knew someone had brainwashed her, and I needed to act fast 

In 2021, my son-in-law suddenly resigned from the military and my daughter quit her job as a social worker. With no explanation, I felt like something was very wrong. Hoping to get to the bottom of it, my wife and I went to visit them. We felt especially concerned for their three children. “How can they care for their kids with no income,” I wondered.

When we arrived at their home, things felt strange right away. My daughter seemed like a shadow of her former self. They began quoting religious doctrine and saying we did not understand. We discovered they joined a new church and believed, with God as the ultimate provider, jobs were pointless. They considered work, education, and modern healthcare sinful. They avoided our questions and said very little to us. 

Later that year, in December, our daughter moved to Tana River County. They purchased a two-acre plot of land for farming. This came as a surprise. She did not explain where the money came from or if someone donated the property. Our suspicions began to worsen.

As time passed and I did not hear from her, I flew to Malindi right away, where I met up with a friend and my two nephews. We went to the to police at Langobaya, near the church itself, to file a report. I just wanted to find my daughter and make sure she was okay. Two officers from the police station agreed to set up an ambush in the Shakahola forest. Because of the possible danger, they did not allow me to attend. My nephews and the informer knew the exact location, so they accompanied the police.

The horror unravels as more people go missing

While the police retrieved one of my grandsons, a sense of dread consumed me. After he was treated at the hospital, my grandson recounted the ordeal to police. I learned the worst. The church leaders insisted the members fast from food and water for 40 days, promising direct entry into heaven. My daughter and son-in-law forced the children to participate and two of their sons died. My heart broke for our loss, and for my grandson who witnessed horror in the name of religion.

A wave of shock and anger overtook me. This could have been avoided. My wife and I made two separate reports to police stations in Langobaya and Malindi but they took no action. We soon discovered several other members of the church went missing. At that time, we did not know the extent of the atrocities. After contacting citizen news media, a crew arrived on scene to cover the story. Their exposure brought significant attention to the incident. People began flocking to the Malindi Police Station to report missing loved ones, but the authorities seemed unconcerned.

With rescue missions underway, I still long to see my daughter alive 

A month passed with no more action, so I traveled to the Kilifi County Police Station to speak to the commander and county commissioner in person. They recognized the gravity of the situation and dispatched investigators to Shakahola Forest immediately. Justice finally appeared to be on the horizon. Slowly, they uncovered the whole story: a cult masquerading as a church brainwashed its members and many of them fasted to death. I only wish the authorities did something sooner. So many lives could have been saved. 

Today, as we speak, the police recovered more than a hundred bodies from mass graves. They rescued several members of the cult and provided medical aid. The operation continues. Though I feel happy the situation is almost over, an immense sadness remains for the ones we lost. I will never hold my two grandchildren again. Families mourn loved ones they will never see. Healing my grandson remains my sole purpose now; and I hold onto hope I might see my daughter alive one day.

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