Unraveling the Mystery of the Shakahola Massacre: A Forensic Pathology Perspective


The horrific news of numerous deaths in a property owned by a renowned televangelist broke at the beginning of 2023. A month later, several shallow mass graves were unearthed in the 800-acre land owned by the controversial cleric, Paul Mackenzie.  As of today 1st may 2023, 109 bodies have been exhumed, with the death toll estimated to 300. Due to the large number of victims, this scenario is termed as a  mass disaster.

Shakahola Massacre: Families urge gov't to find living kin instead of  exhuming the dead
Image Courtesy: Pulselive Kenya

What in the Cult?

Cults are groups of people who have extreme beliefs and practices that are different from mainstream society. These groups often have a charismatic leader who exerts a great deal of control over the members, and may use manipulation, coercion, or even violence to maintain that control.
Some cults have been known to engage in harmful or illegal activities, such as physical or sexual abuse, financial exploitation, and even mass suicide. In some cases, cult members may be encouraged or forced to isolate themselves from friends and family members, leading to a loss of social support and the ability to make informed decisions. The Shakahola massacre is   alleged to have occurred due to mass starvation at the behest a religious cult leader.

Role of forensic pathology in investigating  the Shakahola Massacre.

Forensic pathology plays an important role in the investigation of mass disaster events. Forensic pathologists are medical professionals who specialize in the study of human disease and injury, and they apply this expertise to the examination of human remains in order to determine the cause and manner of death.

In the unraveling disaster in a sleepy village in Kilifi County, forensic pathologists have been called upon to identify victims and establish the cause of death for each individual. They will examine the remains to determine whether the deaths were due to natural causes, accidental causes, or intentional acts of violence. Their investigations will seek to establish both the cause and manner of death. As much as starvation is alleged, pathologists will approach the task with objectivity and base their findings on facts and evidence as found during their investigation

Forensic pathologists may also work closely with other experts, such as forensic anthropologists and forensic odontologists, to help identify victims and establish the cause of death. Techniques deployed for these tasks will be remunerated later in this report.

In addition, forensic pathologists may work closely with law enforcement officials and other investigators to help build a case against any individuals, if any, suspected to have played a role in the deaths at Shakahola. This may involve providing expert testimony in court, as well as working with other experts to analyze evidence and develop a theory of what happened.

Overall, forensic pathology plays a critical role in the investigation of mass disaster events, and helps provide closure to families and loved ones of the deceased, as well as helps to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.

Objectives of forensic pathology Investigation

The primary objectives of forensic pathologists in this case may be as follows:-

  1. Identification of Victims: Forensic pathologists will work to identify the victims by examining the remains and comparing them to medical records, finger prints, dental records, DNA samples, and other identifying information.
  2. Determination of Cause of Death: Forensic pathologists use their medical expertise to determine the cause of death for each victim. This information is important in identifying any patterns or trends in the deaths and may help to determine if any criminal activity was involved. Of note is the allegation of organ trafficking, as such careful examination of evidence of the same will be carried out.
  3. Collection of Evidence: Forensic pathologists work with other investigators to collect evidence from the remains of the victims. This may include DNA samples, bullet fragments, or other forensic evidence that can be used in a criminal investigation.
  4. Documentation of Findings: Forensic pathologists document their findings in detailed reports that can be used by law enforcement officials, medical examiners, and other investigators. 
  5. Testimony in Court: Forensic pathologists may be called upon to testify in court regarding their findings. Their testimony can be used to help establish the cause of death, identify any criminal activity, and provide important evidence in a criminal trial.

The objective of forensic pathologists in the Kilifi disaster is to provide accurate and reliable information that can be used to identify the victims, determine the cause of death, and assist in any criminal investigations that may be necessary. Their work is critical in providing closure to the families of the victims and helping to prevent similar disasters from occurring in the future.

Techniques used by forensic pathologists

Forensic pathologists use a range of techniques while investigating mass disaster cases. Some of the key techniques include:

  1. Autopsy/Post Mortem

    Forensic pathologists perform autopsies to examine the remains of the victims and determine the cause of death. During an autopsy, they may examine the body externally and internally to identify injuries, diseases, or other conditions that may have contributed to the person’s death.

  2. Toxicology:
    Toxicology is used to examine blood, urine, or tissue samples for the presence of drugs or other toxic substances that may have played a role in the person’s death.
  3. Molecular Techniques/DNA analysis:
    DNA analysis techniques are the gold standard  to identify the victims by comparing DNA samples from the remains to samples provided by family members or stored in medical records.
  4. Odontology:
    Dental records or dental X-rays to identify victims or establish the cause of death in cases involving dental injuries or disease. It’s doubtful a significant number of victims at shakahola have prior dental imaging
  5. Microscopy:
    Microscopy techniques to examine tissue samples or other biological materials in order to identify injuries or other abnormalities that may have contributed to the person’s death.

Starvation: what are the typical findings on autopsy?

While we cannot speculate what the teams will find out at shakahola, it’s interesting to note starvation as a cause of death is rather rare. It also has peculiar characteristics, some of which I enumerate below. The final report will shed light on how the victims died.

In cases of suspected mass starvation, the typical findings on autopsy can include a range of physical and pathological changes that are associated with malnutrition and starvation. Some of these findings may include:

  1. Emaciation: Victims of starvation will typically appear very thin and emaciated, with little to no body fat or muscle mass.
  2. Dehydration: Dehydration is a common symptom of starvation, and may be evident on autopsy in the form of dry or wrinkled skin, sunken eyes, or decreased fluid in organs.
  3. Organ Failure: Starvation can cause organ failure, and on autopsy, this may be evident in the form of liver, kidney, or heart failure.
  4. Loss of Bone and Muscle Mass: Starvation can cause a loss of bone and muscle mass, which may be evident on autopsy in the form of decreased bone density or muscle atrophy.
  5. Gastrointestinal Changes: Starvation can cause changes in the gastrointestinal tract, including inflammation, ulceration, and atrophy of the intestinal lining.
  6. Metabolic Changes: Starvation can cause metabolic changes in the body, including low blood sugar, low blood pressure, and decreased body temperature.

To summarize, the findings on autopsy in cases of suspected mass starvation will depend on a range of factors, including the duration and severity of the starvation, as well as any underlying medical conditions that may have contributed to the person’s death. The forensic pathologist will carefully examine the remains and document any findings that may be relevant to establishing the cause of death and identifying any contributing factors.

Another interesting angle is whether the starvation is voluntary or forced. Differentiating between forced and voluntary starvation can be challenging, but there are some factors that forensic pathologists may consider when conducting an autopsy and investigating the circumstances surrounding the deaths:

  1. Evidence of restraint: If there is evidence that the victims were restrained or prevented from leaving, it may suggest that the starvation was forced rather than voluntary. This could include evidence of physical restraints, locked rooms or buildings, or other measures that were used to control the victims.
  2. Coercion or manipulation: If there is evidence that the victims were coerced or manipulated into participating in the starvation, it may suggest that the starvation was forced rather than voluntary. This could include evidence of psychological manipulation, brainwashing, or other tactics used to control the victims.
  3. Medical conditions or disabilities: If the victims had medical conditions or disabilities that would have made voluntary starvation unlikely or impossible, it may suggest that the starvation was forced rather than voluntary.
  4. Testimony from survivors: If there are survivors of the cult who can provide testimony about the circumstances surrounding the deaths, this may provide important insights into whether the starvation was forced or voluntary.

Differentiating between forced and voluntary starvation in the context of cultism can be complex and may require a careful analysis of the available evidence. Forensic pathologists may work closely with other investigators and experts, such as psychologists and sociologists, to help build a more complete picture of the circumstances surrounding the deaths at Shakahola.


As we have seen, forensic pathology have a critical role to play in solving the mysteries at shakahola. Knowing exactly how the victims met their gruesome deaths is cathartic to the family and friends and the nation at large. Hopefully their report will answer the many questions in people’s minds at the moment and help bring closure to the families and culprits, if any to book.

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