Unpacking Cults

Greetings, friends:

This week’s newsletter is continuing the tradition of inviting members of our community to write From The Curator’s Desk, and for this edition, I’m happy to hand it over to Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. This guest column is an abridged version of an article published this week by Debunk Media, and republished here with permission. You can read the whole article here.

Please send your guest writing pitches for this section to chris@barazalab.com  if you’re interested in being our guest curator on the newsletter, and you have something of interest to share to our community — a trend you’ve noticed or something you’d like us to think about. 

~ Christine

In the past fortnight, news reports in Kenya have emerged that a man called Paul Mackenzie, founder of the Good News International Church, managed to convince his followers – some of whom came from as far as 800km away – to starve themselves to death so they could go to heaven. Latest reports indicate that so far more than 100 bodies (and counting), including those of children, have been exhumed from shallow graves in an 800-acre plot of land some 80km from Malindi. The story has made international headlines and is likely to generate a lot of discussion on the nature of cults and why so many people are drawn to them.

History shows us that cults have many things in common. One, they are usually led by a charismatic leader. Two, people who join cults tend to have low self-esteem – they seek comfort and meaning in a group that embraces and accepts them. Three, there is an element of seduction – new recruits are “love bombed” with flattery and compliments. But once seduced, they are also susceptible to sexual and other types of abuse by their leaders. Four, cult leaders create a “them versus us” narrative among their followers, isolating them from friends and family, which can lead to more abuse. Five, cult leaders often demand that followers give up their property, which makes many of them fabulously wealthy. In some cases, to avoid scrutiny from the authorities, leaders will physically isolate the followers in remote locations, as happened at Shakahola.

Cults become a refuge for people experiencing some kind of trauma or hardship, and generally proliferate in periods of great turbulence. One can see how people become susceptible to cults at a time of great uncertainty.  Kenyans witnessed post-election violence in 2007/8 that split the country in half politically, and led to the death of more than 1,000 people and the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. Elections since then have been divisive and fraught with tension, leading people to lose faith in their leaders, who keep demanding obscenely high salaries and perks even at a time such as now when ordinary Kenyans cannot afford basic necessities and civil servants and counties are being told they will not be paid, ostensibly because the government is broke. 

The country is currently experiencing economic turmoil. The cost of living is becoming unbearable and its politics is corrupt and devoid of compassion and intellectual integrity. It is not surprising that people, especially the poor, are turning to cults to ease some of their pain. It will be interesting to see what comes up in the trial of Mackenzie. What was his end game?

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: Extremely late to read I Do Not Come To You By 
  • Chance, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. But then again, one is never late to read a book.
  • What We’re Watching: How I broke the story: sharing gender reporting best practice, one of the many panels at the just concluded International Journalism Festival held in Perugia, Italy. On this panel, journalists from around the world share their experience producing world-leading journalism about the rights of women and gender-diverse people.
  • What We’re Listening To: Selam & Hello, a wonderful podcast about identity, culture and global living, hosted by Lilly Bekele-Piper. Each episode features stories of joy and justice from Africa and the diaspora. I especially loved her in conversation with Mugambi Nthiga.

As always, 

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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