Nairobi, Kenya -- Francis Nganga says he has never chopped off anyone's head. He swears he has never drunk the blood of his enemies (only his friends), or extorted protection money by torching people's houses, or bullied women into swapping their jeans for traditional African wraps -- all practices attributed to the secretive Mungiki cult.
"I just collected payoffs from taxi men," a frightened Nganga, 31, said in the gigantic Mathare slum east of this African capital, where he was in hiding after abandoning the gangsterlike sect. "But when I saw them cut off a taxi man's head, I wanted out. I ran away. I thought, 'How can any religion behave like this?' "
Three months after headless bodies started appearing with jarring regularity in Kenya's vast and fetid shantytowns, residents of one of Africa's most stable democracies are asking themselves that same question.
"Mungiki madness" -- as the cult-related crime wave is dubbed here -- has touched off a round of pained soul-searching in Kenya, where political analysts and sociologists pin the spike in bizarre violence to everything from the dehumanizing poverty in Kenya's slums to a brutal campaign of political intimidation in the run-up to Kenya's December elections.
Commentators have described the Mungikis as slum vigilantes, class warriors, alienated youths and back-to-roots idealists gone bad. Others even cite the virus of global jihad: The criminal sect, whose members worship African ancestors, began beheading its victims only after watching insurgent videos from Iraq, one expert said.
At least 30 murders have been linked to the cult since April, according to local news media tallies. The same reports say 15 victims were decapitated, including three more hacked-up bodies found last Friday.
"We are supposed to be in a new phase of our history," said Peter Kagwanja, a Kenyan political scientist who has researched the cult. "Our economy is good. We are going into our second democratic election. But the fact that young people are still drawn into the Mungiki shows we've got serious problems."
In fact, Mungiki troubles aren't new in Kenya.
Inspired by the Mau Mau rebels who fought the colonial British half a century ago, the murky sect emerged in the late 1980s as a tribal self-defense force, experts say.
Mungiki foot soldiers -- almost all of them impoverished young men from Kenya's long-marginalized Kikuyu tribe -- rejected Christianity as a polluting Western force and revived traditional rituals such as blood oaths, purification ceremonies and praying toward Mt. Kenya, a sacred peak in the nation's central highlands.
By the 1990s, however, the movement had spilled along with millions of Kenya's rural poor into exploding shantytowns. And there, despite their vitriolic hatred of Kenya's corrupt and Westernized elites, the sect members eventually were co-opted as armed youth wings for ruling politicians.
Today the Mungikis -- which means "masses" in Kikuyu -- are thought to number in the thousands, cult watchers say. The group has morphed from a fellowship that once wore dreadlocks and eschewed the trappings of Western life, such as television and blue jeans, into a vicious criminal mafia.
Mungiki extortion rings target garbage collectors and mutatus, the armada of battered mini-buses that ply Nairobi streets, police say. The cult burns down shacks of shopkeepers who refuse to pay protection "fees." And by flaying and decapitating the bodies of enemies -- and drinking their blood -- the sect deploys its occult reputation to terrorize opponents. Lately they have even vowed to disrupt Kenya's elections.
President Mwai Kibaki, a democratic reformer whose police have unleashed bloody crackdowns against the cult, is seeking a second term in December.
"There are many gangs in the slums," said Julius Mwelu, a resident of Mathare, a colossal scab of rusty tin roofs that covers the hillsides outside Nairobi. "The Mungiki are just the most powerful one. They kill innocent people and rob from the poor. Even the other gangs don't do that."
The Mungikis' power was clear enough one recent morning in Mathare.
Though police had stormed the shantytown only two weeks before, shooting dead at least 33 residents in a brutal anti-Mungiki sweep, most slum dwellers still were too scared to talk about the cult. A few admitted, warily, that they were glad to not pay -- at least for the moment -- the 90-cent-a-month fee the Mungikis had been charging to use open-pit toilets. But in the scrap-board bars, some no bigger than closets and serving home-brewed grog, nervous silence greeted inquiries about the Mungiki.
Outside, meanwhile, amid the endless alleyways oozing raw sewage -- a world few of Kenya's safari tourists ever see -- the state's power was invisible.
"Police raids do nothing," said Mutuma Ruteere of the Kenya Human Rights Institute, who noted that even with a healthy 6 percent economic growth rate, little of Kenya's resources was trickling down to millions of the extremely poor.
"As long as there are places like Mathare, the Mungiki will find breathing space," Ruteere said. "The fury of young people in the slums is unbelievable. It frightens me."
Kagwanja, the political scientist, saw connections between Kenya's ruthless Mungiki and Afghanistan's mercenary Taliban, whose Islamist agents recruit among the desperate youths in refugee camps.
Kagwanja recently interviewed a group of Mungikis who said they got the idea of beheadings after viewing jihadist videos on the Web.
"They told me they had to keep up with the times," said Kagwanja. "Globalized violence finds its home in Kenya's slums."
In Mathare, one ex-Mungiki was pondering how to leave all that behind.
"They used to help poor people, give them a little pocket money, but now they have become too cruel," Nganga, the former cult member, said in an anxious whisper. "I had to leave the country for six months. I heard they were looking for me."
A rangy, frowning man, Nganga performed a rite of secrecy when he first joined the Mungiki in 2002. The gang's members obliged him to cut his palm, mix his blood with theirs and drink it from a cup.
Today he has moved to a different part of the slum. His arm was swollen to twice its normal size. He had been savagely beaten by police during a recent anti-Mungiki raid. The arm hurt, but he had no money for medicine. He was cadging food off strangers. He was looking -- had been looking for one month -- for any kind of job.