Heads bent in supplication, Kenyans in flowing robes trudge towards the top of a dormant volcano in one of Africa’s oddest pilgrimages.
Meet Kenya’s Juda Israeli sect: Their gowns of white, pink and green flutter in the wind as they toil towards the peak of Kenya’s second highest mountain, the 4,321 metre (14,180 feet) Mount Elgon on the Uganda border.
Although 3,500 km (2,175 miles) from Israel, the 1,000 strong sect believes its members are Jews and that one of the rivers running down the mountainside is the Jordan, in which every member must be baptised.
Their home village is called Jerusalem.
“God revealed himself to the Africans in the 1920s. He said they were Israelites,” Samuel Wanyama, the high priest and self-styled representative of the Biblical Moses, said.
“The Holy Spirit has shown us that Jesus was an African, not a white man. He is preparing his second coming and it will be here in Kenya in Bungoma, our area.”
The Judah Israelis believe the Jews in modern Israel are impostors because they do not believe Jesus to be the Messiah.
They are among the more original of the many independent churches set up around Africa in colonial days to give alternatives to the ban by mainstream churches on polygamy or female circumcision. The Judah Israelis encourage polygamy.
“When these people are bringing the Old Testament into focus they are trying to make their message relevant to the ordinary man and woman in Africa,” said Gilbert Ogutu, a religious studies professor at the University of Nairobi.
The sect was formed in 1947 by the late Elijah wa Masinde, a self-proclaimed prophet and freedom fighter.
Analysts believe independent churches were formed to fight colonialism because mainstream churches set up by colonisers failed to push aggressively for African emancipation.
The story goes that Masinde was one of six people possessed by a spirit which gave them a mandate to end colonialism.
Under the umbrella of the Anglican African Israel Church the six men preached against both the Devil and their colonial masters. They hid in underground tunnels whenever British colonial forces came in search of them.
In later years Masinde founded his own Judah Israeli church. The current leader is Binti Zion — “Daughter of Zion” in Swahili — and she mediates between God and her community.
Juda Israeli is just one of more than 2,000 religious groups in Kenya. Mainstream Christian churches are not happy with their proliferation, although Kenyan law allows religious freedom.
“Any form of religion that says that there is a place on this earth that can be equalled to the heavenly realms…I would not say that is good,” said Sabastian Macharia, a clergyman with the Kenya Assemblies of God, a Pentacostalist Protestant church.
The small sects can have a darker side.
In March 2000, a leader of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a doomsday cult over the border in southwestern Uganda, convinced worshippers to lock themselves in a church and set it on fire, killing more than 900 members.
The cult’s leaders had earlier urged members to give their possessions to the cause, saying the world would end.
“When a charismatic leader has some following and the government does not monitor what they are doing and when they are meeting, they could come up with all manner of resolutions which could be dangerous,” Ogutu said.
Before embarking on their mountain journey, Judah Israelis sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on religious implements.
As they approach the summit, they spot trouble in the form of a cloud which they are convinced will freeze them to death, but the sky clears after a call for divine intervention.
They then bathe in “living water” — hot springs — to cure diseases and banish bad luck. Binti Zion reads out the names of the followers who will make up a heavenly kingdom or perfect Israel. Whoever does not make the list will have to wait.
The pilgrims head back to “Jerusalem”, where they are welcomed by singing and dancing. A bull is sacrificed.
Whatever their reasons for joining Juda Israeli, most members believe that they will find their answers in the church. Personal testimonies support their beliefs.
“Within two years of my marriage, I could not conceive, then I joined the Judah Israeli church and they prayed for me and now I am blessed with a child,” said one of the faithful, a baby resting on her hip.