Cultism has recently become a buzzword in Kenya, with police and crime busters linking murders to the beliefs underworld.
On October 24, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) said it was investigating a cult link to the murder of Machakos Catholic Priest Michael Maingi who was found buried in shallow grave in Embu County two weeks ago.
This was after Kavivya Mwangangi, a suspect in the murder, was found with filled registration forms and other material belonging to Secret Society Cult.
"... a filled application form (by him) to join illuminatiam (sic) Cult in September 2018 was recovered at Mwangangi's rented house," DCI said.
On the same day, DCI detectives also linked the death of the son of University of Nairobi lecturer Hannah Khahugani Inyama to cultism.
The decomposing body of Emmanuel Solomon Inyama, which was wrapped in a blanked, was found on the floor of their living room, with his mother on the floor of the kitchen praying.
The suspected cult links to the two murders shook the nation, raising many questions about the secret religious underground.
But then, just what is cultism?
Cambridge Dictionary defines a cult as a "religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme" by many people.
Christian Research Institute (CRI) says "occult is typically associated with esoteric and mystical practices". It says occult "deals with hidden or secretive means to attain personal power".
Popular occult practices, according to CRI, include fortune-telling, witchcraft and trance-channelling.
Tarot cards, crystal balls, ouija boards, and horoscopes are listed among tools used by occultists.
CRI says that these practices "deal directly with demonic forces".
To many Kenyans, illuminati is the byword for cultism.
But what is illuminati?
Illuminati is the plural of the Latin word illuminatus, which means "enlightened", according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
This name has been in use since the late 15th Century and has been applied to various groups since then.
Illuminati, according Encyclopaedia Britannica, is characterised by:
Members claim to be unusually enlightened;
The doctrines, practices, and rituals of illuminati groups are generally shrouded in secrecy;
The organisation has four major symbols-- the Pyramid, the Eye, the Light and the Eternal Circle.
In his book Cult and Cultism, Louis Hughes, a Dominican priest, argues that while most cults are affiliated to religion, there are also "psychological, political, commercial and New Age cults" that "control their members no less ruthlessly".
Hughes says that membership of a cult can run from a few people to thousands.
According to him:
Cult members are usually under the command of an authoritarian and charismatic leader.
This leader "exercises an almost irresistible power" and "unquestioning obedience" over "every aspect of members' life".
Some cult leaders claim to be God, he says.
Most cults share common features, the Nation review of online literature, reveals.
Lack of accountability on the part of the group leader.
Intolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
Lack of meaningful financial disclosure on aspects of budget or expenses. Usually there are no audited financial statements.
Members live in dread of an impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions from the outside world.
Members cannot leave the group. Exiting is considered evil.
Stories of abuse are widespread among former members.
Cults inspire a sense of weakness among followers.
The leader is always right, and the exclusive means of knowing "truth".
An online site illuminatiofficial.org says that Illuminati is not a church, religion, political group or charity organisation.
Instead, it describes itself as "an elite organisation of world leaders, business authorities, innovators, artists, and other influential members of this planet" who work to further the interests of the human species as a whole.
Contrary to popular assumption that members have to subscribe to certain beliefs, the site claims that Illuminati "has no belief but the sovereignty of the human species".
It further states that "all people, in all places, are eligible to apply for Illuminati membership".
Initiates, it adds, are "not required to take any vows of loyalty" and that they "may remove themselves from our membership at any time with no repercussions".
Interestingly, the organisation has a verified Twitter account, with 84,000 followers.
So what gives rise to cults?
Throughout the history of Christianity, Christian denominations have opposed non-Christian religions.
In the 1940s, this opposition gave rise to more organised a Christian counter-cult movement in the US.
Its members considered as cults all religious groups that claimed to be Christian but whose practices were unconventional.
Christian cults are, therefore, new religious movements which "have a Christian background but are considered to be theologically deviant", according to American religious scholar John Melton, who authored the Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America.
CULTISM IN KENYA
Under the Bill of Rights, the Constitution of Kenya says that "every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion", and that every Kenyan has the right "to manifest any religion or belief through worship, practice, teaching or observance, including observance of a day of worship" without restrictions.
The law is, however, silent on the subject of cultism.
Given the secretive nature of cultism and illuminati, no single religious organisation has come out to claim the cultism crown in Kenya.
However, this growing trend of suspected cultism in the country has not escaped the notice of the authorities and religious leaders.
Last year, the DCI issued a statement warning about a cult nicknamed "Young Blud Saints".
According to the DCI, the cultic activities were targeting young university students in Nairobi.
"Members are expected to sacrifice what they love most to prove loyalty to the organisation," said the DCI.
The DCI went on to caution members of the public and especially parents "to keep a keen eye on their children to deter them from being recruited to such evil organisations."
In 2014, then bishop of Eldoret Catholic Diocese Cornelius Korir warned that cases of cultic behaviour were on the rise in the country.
The bishop said that many Kenyans were seeking help after being affected by devil worship.
He appealed to "anybody calling himself a servant of God to be true to themselves and serve the living God instead of involving innocent people in their own personal interests."
How is the situation elsewhere in Africa?
The International Research Journal of Social Sciences says in a 2016 paper that cultism has been a serious social problem facing the Nigerian society, with rising cases of cult-related killings.
"Cult rivalry is at the centre of most homicide committed by cult members. Cult groups are always in constant battle for supremacy and control over turf. Many young people are lured into joining cult because of peer pressure, the desire to belong and to seek for protection," the findings show.
The paper blames the proliferation of cult groups in the region on the "fall in moral standard, structural imbalances in our society and near total collapse of the Nigerian socio-economic system".