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No, this TikTok video does not show ‘hidden’ photos from the Kenyan starvation cult

IN SHORT: A video on TikTok claims to reveal never-seen-before photos of starving people in Kenya’s Shakahola forest, the site of mass starvation deaths allegedly encouraged by a self-declared pastor. But the photos shown are old and not from Kenya.

A video posted on TikTok on 2 May 2023 claims to expose photos that the Kenyan government doesn’t want people to see. 

The video is a slideshow of five photos. Three of them show people who are very thin, with their bones showing, and who look very weak, likely from starvation. 

The first photo shows two healthy looking children sitting on the ground, and the last shows a young girl sitting on the ground, with a smaller child on her lap. 

More people and some makeshift houses can be seen in the background. All the people in the photos appear to be African.

The captions on the slideshow claim that the photos are from the Shakahola cult. The video has received over 550 likes, 95 comments, and has been shared over 240 times.


Deaths in the Shakahola forest

Shakahola is a remote forest in the coastal Kilifi county in Kenya, where self-styled pastor Paul Mackenzie convinced his followers to move after closing down his former church. 

He is accused of encouraging his followers to starve to death in order to “meet Jesus” in the afterlife, but Mackenzie has denied these claims. A major operation was declared in Shakahola by the Kenyan government, after reports of multiple deaths by starvation in the area. 

By 14 June, the operation was still ongoing and at least 318 bodies had been exhumed from the forest, including those of children. Mackenzie has since been arrested, along with 30 others.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga attempted to access the Shakahola site in early May, but was denied entry. He said he wanted to console Kenyans who had lost relatives. 

Odinga accused the government of a cover-up as it had also prevented journalists and human rights groups from accessing the area. Following criticism, the minister in charge of the operation said access to the site was denied because the area was a crime scene and the images were sensitive.

But are the photos shown in the TikTok video captured in Shakahola? We checked.

Photos are old, widely published 

A reverse image search of the photos revealed that all five images have been widely published and were taken in East Africa. Some of them are from decades before the deaths in Shakahola. 

The first photo shows two Burundian sisters at a refugee camp in Tanzania, likely taken between 2015 and 2018.

The second, third and fourth photos are from Sudan in the 1990s. They were all captured by well-known photojournalists: the second by Kevin Carter in 1993, the third by Tom Stoddart in 1998 and the fourth by James Nachtwey in 1993. 

The fifth photo is credited to Getty Images, a stock photo website, and can be found in articles published as far back as 2016. Captions to the photo suggest it was also taken in Sudan. 

None of the photos were captured in Kenya. The claim that they show people from the Shakahola cult is false.

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