Health & Fitness

Zealous cult following can point to mental illness

A sad woman.
A sad woman. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Qn: “What causes cultism is religion? I am afraid we are losing an aunt to a church that won’t let her mingle with the rest of the family”

On November 18,1978, a total of 918 people died at a settlement known as Jamestown in Northern Guyana. They were all new members of a cult. The leader of the cult, Mr Jim Jones had ordered members to kill themselves using the poison cyanide. Those who did not take it were either injected with poison and others killed by guards who had instructions to kill all those who tried to run away. Many of the dead were children. The event shook the entire world.

The debate that followed lasted many months as people tried to understand how so many people could live under the spell of a man who ended up causing so much destruction.

The event was described as mass suicide while others called it murder/suicide. Whatever name you give this most foul criminal act, the reality is that many innocent men, women and children died because they followed a cult leader who purported to lead his people to Jesus Christ.

So powerful was his message that the then US Vice President Walter Mondale met him. He also met and had fellowship with many leaders, including Rosalin Carter, wife of President Jimmy Carter. Cult leaders can have following at very high levels.


Kenya has no shortage of prophets, evangelists and other high sounding titles of men who claim ability to heal imaginary diseases. Others claim ability to block men’s desires for their wives while returning wives to bad and unkempt hair (matuta).

At the centre of cults, is a person with charisma, and a following in deep need for “salvation”, some from perceived sin, many from poverty! The promises by the self-declared men of “god” range from easy and direct entry into heaven, to more earthly things like wives, cars, money and general prosperity. Those unable to achieve the promises are told to give more and believe. Their day is not far, they are promised!

Many cult leaders claim that theirs is a religion and is based on the teachings of the Bible. Closer examination fails to demonstrate that there are structures beyond the individual charismatic leader. Put differently, unlike a religion which has a structure of leadership and governance, a cult is based on the individual and seems almost personal to the Prophet or Apostle!

The loyalty and money demanded is personal to the cult leader who often creates a larger than life image, as he parades gold, silver, cars and sometimes women.

Many live in palatial homes, with all the trappings of power, including a large number of personal (often armed) guards.

By their very nature, cults exist outside the constraints of the law, and are neither audited nor regulated by any authority. Thousands of followers are often seen mowing with the leader as he dishes out empty words, blessings and promises to often desperate people.

It is common for the leaders to offer insults to their followers who for whatever reason seems to falter by not making adequate money donations.

Other cults also exist. Joseph Stalin, for example became the all-powerful, all knowing leader of the Soviet Union, after his 50th birthday in 1929. He became the mama and baba of the Soviets.

Sadly, for you, it is very difficult to stop a relative or friend from joining a cult. By its definition, a cult is a system of belief or dogma not available to change by reason or logic. Any attempt to tell your aunt about the dangers of following a Prophet or Apostle so and so will be met by her standard response, “you do not understand the power of God”. All your aunt requires as proof of his power is for the cult leader to “heal” a pretender from a form of fake paralysis and she believes.

A few years ago, a family came to see us in distress. The man of the home had joined a cult in which all earthly belongings were to be donated to the cult leader. After withdrawing all the family finances from the bank and giving them to the prophet, he begun the process of transferring the family assets to him. This included their land.

When the wife and children discovered this, they thought he had “lost his mind” and needed treatment. Upon examination, no formal illness existed and the family was told as much! He believed in the cult and there was little anyone could do to change that. Following a cult can sometimes be a sign of mental illness. In other cases no illness is present.