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 fine beard is familiar with Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, the "pastor" at the heart of what is now called "the Shakahola massacre". "We used to worship (God) together," he told AFP.
He prayed, and even preached, alongside this taxi driver who then proclaimed himself "pastor" of the International Church of Good News (Good News International Church) which 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 had the impression of seeing God in this Church", assures this 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, prohibiting them 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 had been released on bail, then acquitted during 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 established the schedule: children and single 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 the rescuers, wanting to complete the fast.
Under the influence, many worshipers sold "their properties, their homes, their businesses (?) to await the coming of Jesus" in the forest of Shakahola, he says.
"I feel bad about what happened because I knew a lot of worshippers. They are dead now."
04/28/2023 09:27:43 - Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP