(Malindi) In the midst of volunteers, in white coveralls and surgical masks, Titus Katana has been turning over the ocher earth of the Shakahola forest in eastern Kenya for several days, where more than a hundred followers of a sect died after fasting to “meet Jesus”.

This 39-year-old man with a thin beard is familiar with Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, the “pastor” at the heart of what has come to be called “the Shakahola massacre”. “We used to worship (God) together,” he says.

He prayed, even preached, alongside the taxi driver who later proclaimed himself a “pastor” of the Good News International Church he created. “I don’t know what got into him,” he sighs.

Titus Katana claims to have remained “a few years” in the group, without however being able to give precise dates.

“At the beginning, the International Church of Good News was not made to cause harm, it had good intentions […]. We felt like we saw God in this Church,” said the informal worker from Malindi, a town on the Kenyan coast about 80 kilometers from Shakahola.

He turned away from it, because “too many laws have been introduced asking women not to braid their hair, forbidding children from going to the hospital or children from going to school…”. “It was going way too far for me. I had no choice but to leave and find another Church.”

Paul Mackenzie Nthenge was arrested in 2017, accused of radicalization for his sermons advocating not to send children to school because, he claimed, education is not recognized in the Bible. He was released on bail, then acquitted in a trial in 2021.

At least 109 people, the majority of them children, have died after following Paul Mackenzie Nthenge’s precepts of fasting to “meet Jesus”.

Titus Katana goes every day to the research site where, for a week, not a day goes by without the investigators digging up bodies.

A friend of his told him that this deadly fast had been planned.

“It was in January that Paul Mackenzie set the schedule: children and unmarried people were to die first, followed by mothers, then fathers”, details Titus Katana: “Paul Mackenzie and his family were to fast last”.

According to Hussein Khalid, the executive director of the NGO Haki Africa who alerted the police to the actions of “Pastor” Mackenzie, “they were told that the world was coming to an end in June”.

As of Wednesday, 39 worshipers had been found alive, wandering in the bush, some refusing water and assistance offered by the rescue services. Others continue to flee from rescuers, wanting to complete the fast.

Under the influence, many worshipers sold “their properties, their homes, their businesses … to wait for the coming of Jesus” in the forest of Shakahola, he says.

“I feel bad about what happened because I knew a lot of devotees. They are dead now.”