Frank Bures, Harpers, June 2008
According to Ilechukwu, an epidemic of penis theft swept Nigeria between 1975 and 1977. Then there seemed to be a lull until 1990, when the stealing resurged. “Men could be seen in the streets of Lagos holding on to their genitalia either openly or discreetly with their hand in their pockets,” Ilechukwu wrote. “Women were also seen holding on to their breasts directly or discreetly, by crossing the hands across the chest. . . . Vigilance and anticipatory aggression were thought to be good prophylaxes. This led to further breakdown of law and order.” In a typical incident, someone would suddenly yell: Thief! My genitals are gone! Then a culprit would be identified, apprehended, and, often, killed.
During the past decade and a half, the thievery seems not to have abated. In April 2001, mobs in Nigeria lynched at least twelve suspected penis thieves. In November of that same year, there were at least five similar deaths in neighboring Benin. One survey counted fifty-six “separate cases of genital shrinking, disappearance, and snatching” in West Africa between 1997 and 2003, with at least thirty-six suspected penis thieves killed at the hands of angry mobs during that period. These incidents have been reported in local newspapers but are little known outside the region.
For years I followed this trend from afar. I had lived in East Africa, in Italy, in Thailand, and other places too, absorbing their languages, their histories, their minutiae. I had tried to piece together what it might be like not just to live in those places but really to be in them, to jump in and sink all the way to the bottom of the pool. But through these sporadic news stories, I was forced to contemplate a land more foreign than any I had ever seen, a place where one’s penis could be magically blinked away. I wanted to see for myself, but no magazine would send me. It was too much money, too far, and too strange. Finally, when my wife became pregnant, I realized that it might be my one last reckless chance to go, and so I shouldered the expenses myself and went.
On my first morning in the Mainland Hotel, a run-down place with falling ceiling tiles and broken locks, I awoke to a din, and I realized it was simply the city: the clatter of the 17 million people of Lagos. It was louder than any metropolis I had ever heard. My windows were closed, but it sounded as if they were wide open. For the next few days, I wandered around the city not quite sure where to begin. I went to bookstores and took motorcycle taxis and asked people I met, friends of friends, but without much insight or luck.
Eventually I found my way to Jankara Market, a collection of cramped stands under a patchwork of corrugated-tin sheets that protect the proffered branches, leaves, seeds, shells, skins, bones, skulls, and dead lizards and toads from the elements. All these items are held to contain properties that heal, help, or harm, depending on what one needs them to do. The market is better known for the even darker things one can buy. At Jankara, one can buy juju: magic. On my first trip to Jankara, to look around, I met a woman who loved me, she said, and wanted to marry me. When I told her I was already married, she threatened to bind me to her magically with two wooden figures so that I would not sleep at night until I saw her. But she said it with a glint in her eye, so I didn’t worry.
A few days later, I returned to Jankara to ask her some questions. As soon as I walked into the dark, covered grounds of the market, she saw me.
“Ah,” she said. “You have come back!”
“Yes,” I said.
“Sit here,” she said, and pointed to a bench. She sat down across from me. “What did you bring me?”
I showed her some fruit I had brought.
“Ah, very nice,” she said and started to eat, even though it was daytime in the middle of Ramadan and she was Muslim. “How is your wife?”
“She is good.”
“And what about your other wife?”
“Who is that?”
“‘Who is that?’” she said in mock surprise. “I think you know who that is. That is me.”
“That is nice,” I said. “But in America it’s not possible.”
A man came up to her and handed her a crumpled piece of paper with a list of ingredients on it. She peered at the list, then got up and went around collecting sticks and leaves and seeds and plants. She chopped them all up and put them in a bag. While she was doing this, the man sat next to me on a bench.
“Is that for you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “It makes you very strong.”
Then another man came up and put in his order. It was something for the appendix, he said. When he was gone, the woman sat down next to me.
“I have a question,” I said.
“In my country, we don’t have juju.”
“But I was reading in the paper about penis snatchers—”
“Ah,” she interrupted me. “Don’t listen to them. That is not true. If I touch your thing like this”—and here she touched my leg—“is your penis gone?”
“No,” I said, uneasily. “But what if I come to you and ask you for protection? Can you do it?”
“Yes, I can.”
“One thousand naira. Two thousand. Even up from there.” This was a large sum by Nigerian standards—more than $15.
“Do you have many people come and ask for this?”
“Yes,” she said in a low voice.
She looked around.
Nigeria was not the first site of mysterious genital disappearance. As with so many other things, its invention can be claimed by the Chinese. The first known reports of “genital retraction” date to around 300 B.C., when the mortal dangers of suo-yang, or “shrinking penis,” were briefly sketched in the Nei Ching, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic Text of Internal Medicine. Also in China, the first full description of the condition was recorded in 1835, in Pao Siaw-Ow’s collection of medical remedies, which describes suo-yang as a “ying type of fever” (meaning it arises from too much cold) and recommends that the patient get a little “heaty” yang for balance.
Fears of magical penis loss were not limited to the Orient. The Malleus Maleficarum, medieval Europeans’ primary guidebook to witches and their ways, warned that witches could cause one’s membrum virile to vanish, and indeed several chapters were dedicated to this topic. Likewise the Compendium Maleficarum warned that witches had many ways to affect one’s potency, the seventh of which included “a retraction, hiding or actual removal of the male genitals.” (This could be either a temporary or a permanent condition.) Even in the 1960s, there were reports of Italian migrant workers in Switzerland panicking over a loss of virility caused by witchcraft.
These fears, however, seem to have been largely isolated; mass panics over genital retraction were not recorded until 1874. This was the year that, on the island of Sulawesi, a certain Benjamin Matthes was compiling a dictionary of Buginese when he came across a strange term, lasa koro, which meant “shrinking of the penis,” a disease that Matthes said was not uncommon among the locals and “must be very dangerous.” Sporadic reports of koro, as it came to be known, recurred over the years, and during the late twentieth century the panics proliferated. In 1967, an epidemic of koro raced through Singapore, affecting some five hundred men. In 1976, in northern Thailand, at least two thousand people were afflicted with rokjoo, in which men and women complained that their genitals were being sucked into their bodies. In 1982, there were major koro epidemics in India and again in Thailand, while in 1984 and 1985, some five thousand Chinese villagers in Guangdong province tried desperately to keep their penises outside their bodies using whatever they had handy: string, chopsticks, relatives’ assistance, jewelers’ clamps, and safety pins. But the phenomenon was given little notice by Western scientists, who considered such strange mental conditions to be “ethnic hysterias” or “exotic psychoses.”
This way of thinking has changed, thanks largely to the work of a Hong Kong–based psychiatrist named Pow Meng Yap. In the early 1950s, Yap noticed a strange thing: a trickle of young men coming into his office, complaining that their penises were disappearing into their bodies and that when this happened they would die. After seeing nineteen such cases, Yap published a paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry entitled: “Koro—A Culture-Bound Depersonalization Syndrome.” For years, Yap had been interested in the interplay among culture, mind, and disease. In an earlier paper, “Mental Diseases Peculiar to Certain Cultures,” Yap had discussed other similar conditions: latah, a trance/fright neurosis in which the victim obeys commands from anyone nearby; amok, unrestrained outbursts of violence (as in “running amok”); and thanatomania, or self-induced “magical” death. Koro fit quite well among these other exotic maladies. In fact, it was perhaps the best example of a phenomenon that can arise only in a specific culture, a condition that occurs in a sense because of that culture. Yap saw that these ailments had this one feature in common, grouped them together, and gave them a name that, in spite of all the controversy to follow, would stick. They were “culture-bound syndromes.”
Under this rubric, koro and the other culture-bound syndromes are now treated with more respect, if not total acceptance. Science is, after all, the quest for universality. In psychiatry, this means all minds are treated the same and all conditions should exist equally across the world. Some thought that calling koro “culture-bound” was an end-run around the need for universality, a relativistic cop-out. Were these syndromes really caused by different cultures? Or were they just alternate names for afflictions that plagued, or could plague, every culture? This was precisely what I had come to Nigeria to find out, though so far with little success.
A few days after I arrived in Lagos, an article appeared in the newspaper. The headline read: court remands man over false alarm on genital organ disappearance. According to the paper, a young man named Wasiu Karimu was on a bus when he “was said to have let out a strident cry, claiming that his genital organ had disappeared. He immediately grabbed [Funmi] Bello, who was seated next to him, and shouted that the woman should restore his ‘stolen’ organ.” They got off the bus, and a crowd of “miscreants” swarmed around the woman, ready to kill her. But a passing police patrol intervened, stopped her from being lynched, and escorted them both to the police station, where Karimu told the commissioner “his organ was returning gradually.” The paper gave the exact address where Wasiu Karimu lived, so I decided to try and find out what exactly had transpired in his pants.
The day was already hot when a friend of a friend named Akeem and I rolled into Alagbado, the dusty, run-down town on the far edge of Lagos where Wasiu Karimu lived. We drove past clapboard shacks and little restaurants, through huge muddy pools, past people watching us from doorways, until we came to the address given in the paper. Chickens and goats scattered in front of our car, which we had borrowed from a journalist and which said press on the windshield. The house was an ample two-story affair with a little shop next to it. We got out and asked a girl if Wasiu lived there.
“Yes,” she said, “but he is not around.”
Akeem went into the yard in front of Wasiu Karimu’s house, and a woman jumped in front of him. She said she was Wasiu’s mother and began yelling at him to get out of the yard. Akeem retreated to the car, and we stood there in the middle of the road, in the sun. Wasiu Karimu was nowhere to be found, so we decided to wait for him to show up. But after about twenty minutes, several men came around the corner and took up posts around Wasiu’s house. A couple of them were holding long sticks.
Akeem turned to me and said, “Local Area Boys.”
In Lagos, the Area Boys are thugs—a law unto themselves. They have multiplied since the military dictatorship fell in 1998, seeding a new kind of terror throughout the city. These young men had an ugly swagger, and they looked as if they had run to get there. I could see sweat start to drip down Akeem’s head.
“Let us go,” he said.
“Wait a minute,” I said. We had come a long way—in fact, I had come all the way from America for this and did not know how many chances I would get to speak to someone whose penis had actually been stolen. So I made us wait. I don’t know why. I suppose I figured we weren’t doing any harm. I only wanted to ask a few questions. I walked to the shop next to Wasiu Karimu’s house and bought something to drink.
The young girl at the shop said, “Sir, are you looking for someone?”
“Yes,” I said. “Wasiu Karimu.”
“Sir,” she said, “maybe you should just go now, before there are problems. It will be easier for everyone.”
I walked back to the car. “Okay,” I said to Akeem. Now I had a sick feeling. My own back was drenched with sweat. “Let’s go.”
Akeem shook his head and looked down the road. It had been cut off with two large wooden blocks and a car. There was no way out.
One of the local Area Boys looked particularly eager to deliver some punishment. He ran into the street with his cane and whacked it on the ground. “We will beat the press,” he yelled. “We will beat the press.”
The young men huddled together in front of Wasiu Karimu’s house. After a long delay, they called Akeem over. He talked to them for a little bit. Then they called me over. They wanted to see the article about Wasiu. I pulled the wrinkled photocopy out of my pocket and handed it over.
A quiet man in a 50 Cent T-shirt was clearly the leader. He took the article, unfolded it, and read through it.
“Let us see your I.D.,” he said. I hadn’t brought my passport, for exactly this reason, and my driver’s license had disappeared from my hotel room. All I had with me was an expired YMCA membership card, which I handed over.
The leader, whose name was Ade, took it and turned it over. He handed it to a lanky man with crooked teeth, who looked at it briefly, then handed it back.
“Do you know who we are?” asked Ade.
I did not.
“We are O.P.C. You know O.P.C.?”
The O.P.C. was the O’odua People’s Congress, a quasi-political organization that was halfway between the Area Boys and a militia. They were violent and arbitrary. Recently, they had killed several policemen in Lagos, and in some parts of the city they were being hunted by the government.
“We have to make sure,” Ade said, “you are not coming here to do some harm. Maybe you were sent here by that woman.” The woman, he meant, who stole Wasiu Karimu’s penis.
There was a crash, as a glass bottle exploded against one of the tires on our car. Both Akeem and I jumped.
“No,” I said trying to be calm. “I just want to ask some questions. Is he around?”
“He is not around.”
They talked among themselves in Yoruba, then Ade’s henchman with the bad teeth told the story. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Wasiu Karimu himself was apparently there, listening from a distance. Akeem told me later he was sure he had seen him—a little guy standing at the back, young and nervous.
Wasiu, Bad Teeth told me, had gotten on the bus and sat down next to this woman. He didn’t have a watch, so he asked her what time it was. She didn’t know. Then the conductor came around and asked her for her fare. She didn’t have that either. As she stood up to get out of the bus, she bumped into Wasiu.
“Then,” he said, “Wasiu Karimu felt something happen in his body. Something not right. And he checked and his thing was gone.”
“Was it gone,” I asked, “or was it shrinking?”
“Shrinking! Shrinking! It was getting smaller.”
And as he felt his penis shrink, Wasiu Karimu screamed and demanded the woman put his penis back. The conductor told them both to get off the bus, and a crowd closed in on the accused, not doubting for an instant that the woman could do such a thing. But as soon as she saw trouble coming, Bad Teeth said, she replaced Wasiu’s manhood, so when the police took him down to the station, they thought he was lying and arrested him instead.
“What did she want the penis for?” I asked Bad Teeth.
“For juju,” he said, “or maybe to make some money.”
Behind us, from the corner of my eye, I could see that the roadblocks had been removed.
“Do you have anything else you want to ask?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” he said. “You are free to go.”
I nodded to Akeem. We got in the car and drove away.
The debate over the term “culture-bound syndrome” seems to have simmered down as our understanding of “culture” has evolved. These days the terms “culture-bound” and, more often, “culture-related” have been grudgingly accepted; after all, how is Western medicine supposed to categorize such ailments as hikikomori, in which Japanese children refuse to leave their rooms for years on end, or dhat, in which Indians and Sri Lankans become ill with anxiety over semen loss, or zar, in which some Middle Easterners and North Africans are possessed by a spirit, or hwa-byung, the “fire illness” of Korean women in which anger is said to be manifesting itself in physical symptoms including “palpitations” and “a feeling of mass in the epigastrium”? How can we fit these, and a dozen other ailments, neatly into the pages of the DSM-IV, theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Western bible of maladies of the mind? The fact is that there was no good place until Pow Meng Yap created one—ill-fitting as it may be—for these unruly members of the family of mental conditions whose causes cannot be found just in one mind but instead must be sought in the social. These conditions are not purely psychogenic, as psychiatry’s universalists once held all things must be. They are also sociogenic, or emerging from the social fabric.
This debate has mirrored a larger debate that took place in the twentieth century over whether culture was something pure, something existing independently of the people who lived in it—something with an almost supernatural ability to shape those people into fundamentally different beings—or merely accumulated wisdom, the chance collection of the behavior of a group of individuals. Was culture a quasi-independent superorganism that shaped people? Or was it just a collection of human organisms? Did it produce us, or did we produce it?
Lately, a more nuanced conception of culture has emerged, as evolutionary psychology begins to shed some light on what exactly culture is. It is neither nature nor nurture. It is both at the same time, a positive feedback loop of tendencies and behaviors and knowledge and beliefs. It is, as the science writer Matt Ridley has called it, nature via nurture, or as primatologist Frans de Waal put it in his book The Ape and the Sushi Master, “an extremely powerful modifier—affecting everything we do and are, penetrating to the core of human existence.”
In 1998, Charles Hughes, co-editor of Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest, one of the few books on the phenomenon, wrote a scathing critique of the DSM-IV’s treatment of culture-bound syndromes, which had been gathered together in the back of the book in an appendix as if they were still under glass, a museum of exotica where nothing had changed since these ills were considered “ethnic psychoses” that affected primitive people but not us. Hughes argued that the borders around culture-bound syndromes are inherently fuzzy and that to rope them off at the back of the DSM-IV is a farce. He lamented the lack of a “short course in sophisticated cultural awareness” for psychiatrists and said that “[t]o use the class-designated term ‘culture-bound [psychiatric] syndromes’ is comparable to using the terms ‘culture-bound religion,’ ‘culture-bound language,’ or ‘culture-bound technology,’ for each of these institutional areas is shaped by, and in its specific details is unique to, its cultural setting.”
In other words, everything else in the DSM-IV, and in life, is culture-bound, too. Whilekoro and its culture-bound kin languish at the back, other conditions such as multiple personality disorder, bulimia nervosa, type A personality, muscle dysmorphia, belief in government-implanted computer chips, and pet hoarding are given universal status because Western psychiatrists cannot see beyond their own cultural horizons.
Starrys Obazi sat across the table from me at Mr. Bigg’s, a cheap fast-food place on the north side of Lagos where we had agreed to meet. Around us, other Nigerians walked past with their trays and sat down to eat their burgers and watch rap videos on the television behind us. Starrys dug into his chicken. A wiry little man with a nasal voice, he had been an editor for fourteen years at FAME, a Nigerian celebrity tabloid, until the publisher mysteriously stopped paying him. Jobs, even low-paying editorial jobs, were tough to come by in Lagos, and it had been several years since Starrys had held one.
Here, in the flesh, finally, was a man whose penis had been stolen. It happened one day in 1990, when Starrys was a reporter at the Evening Times. While he was waiting for a bus to take him to work, a man approached him and held out a piece of paper with a street name on it.
“Do you know where this is?” the man asked, without saying the name. Starrys did not know the street, and he thought this was strange. He didn’t believe the street existed. Then another man behind Starrys, without seeing the paper, said where the street was. This was even stranger.
The two men walked away, and Starrys started to feel something he had never felt before.
“At that moment,” Starrys told me, leaning forward, “I felt something depart my body. I began to feel empty inside. I put my hand into my pants, and touched my thing. It was unusually small—smaller than the normal size. And the scrotum was flat. I put my fingers into the sockets, and they were not there. The testes were gone. And I was just feeling empty!” His voice strained as he recalled the panic of that day.
Starrys ran after the men and confronted them. “Something happened to my penis!” he told the man who had asked for directions. The man said he had no idea what Starrys was talking about.
“Something told me inside not to shout,” he said. “Because as soon as I shouted, he would have been lynched. And if he was lynched, how could I get my penis back?”
I watched as Starrys finished his chicken and wiped his hands. “It was one quarter of its normal size,” he said emphatically, as if, even now, even he could not believe it had happened. But Starrys, a journalist and a worldly man, did believe it. And as I listened to him tell his story, I almost believed it, too. I could feel the intensity, the fear. It made a kind of sense, even if it didn’t make sense at all. I could start to see the world that his fear came from. I could see what it was built on, and for a few minutes I could imagine standing there with Starrys on a street corner, alone in the world, helpless and missing my most cherished possession. I let go of my doubts and gave in to the panic in Starrys’s voice, and it was real, utterly. And I was afraid. This was how korocould be caught.
Starrys continued with his story. Despite the men’s denials, one of them agreed to accompany Starrys to a nearby hospital to document the theft. But just as they arrived at the hospital, the man grabbed Starrys and bellowed, “LET’S GO IIIIN!” And at that moment something happened.
“When he grabbed me,” Starrys said, “I felt calm again. I felt an inner calm. I checked my testes, and they were there.” He checked his penis as well, and the missing three quarters had returned. The doctor examined Starrys and pronounced him fine. On hearing Starrys’s story, though, the doctor admonished the penis thief to quit causing trouble on the street.
I thought about Starrys. He had been a skeptic before his encounter; but on that day, his inner world shifted, and he became afraid. He stopped giving directions. He stopped trusting strangers. He knew that magical penis loss was a real and terrifying possibility. He had, in a sense, been drawn into the culture, into its beliefs, so far that he had caught this culture-bound syndrome.
We all go through a similar process of being formed by the culture around us. It is something described well in Bruce Wexler’s book Brain and Culture: Neuroscience, Ideology and Social Change, in which Wexler argues that much of human conflict arises from our efforts to reconcile the world as we believe it to exist (our internal structures) with the world we live in. According to Wexler, we develop an inner world, a neuropsychological framework of values, cause and effect, expectations, and a general understanding of how things work. This inner world, which underpins our culture, forms through early adulthood, after which we strive to ensure it exists, or continues to exist, in the world outside. Those inner structures can change in adulthood, but it is more difficult given our decreased brain plasticity.
That different internal structures exert different pressures on the mind (and body) should not be surprising. Every culture has its own logic, its own beliefs, its own stresses. Once one buys into its assumptions, one becomes a prisoner to the logic. For some people, that means a march toward its more tragic conclusions.
Not long ago, medical researchers noticed a strange phenomenon: Turks in Germany, Vietnamese in England, and Mexicans in America all registered better health than native residents. This phenomenon has come to be called the “healthy migrant effect.” Although most of the research has focused on physical indicators (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.), recent studies have started to look at the mental health of immigrants, which seems to show a similar pattern. In 2000, one study concluded that first-generation Mexican immigrants have better mental health than their children born in the United States, despite the latter group’s significant socioeconomic advantages—a finding, it noted, that was “inconsistent with traditional tenets on the relationship among immigration, acculturation, and psychopathology.” The stress of immigration is assumed to have major mental-health costs, but here the opposite seemed to be true: the longer immigrants remained in a developed country, the worse their mental health became.
For this reason, the healthy-migrant effect is also called the “acculturation paradox”: the more acculturated one is, the less healthy one becomes. One study of Turkish immigrants to Germany showed the effect to last for at least a generation. A subsequent 2004 study of Mexican immigrants to the United States showed that “[w]ith few exceptions, foreign-born Mexican Americans and foreign-born non-Hispanic whites were at significantly lower risk of DSM-IV substance-use and mood-anxiety disorders compared with their US-born counterparts.” These included alcohol and drug abuse, major depression, dysthymia, mania, hypomania, panic disorder, social and specific phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder. The longer they lived in the United States, the more they showed the particular damage to the mind that our particular culture wreaks. People who come to America eventually find themselves subject to our own culture-related syndromes, which the DSM-IV can easily recognize and categorize, as acculturation forces their internal worlds to conform to the external world, i.e., the American culture that the DSM-IV knows best.
I could feel something similar happening to me in Nigeria. I could feel plates shifting. I did not try to hold them back. As I listened to the tales of friends of friends, as I read the horror stories in newspapers, as I watched the angry crowds on television, as I saw the fear and hatred in the eyes of the young O.P.C. men, and as I sat across from Starrys Obazi and heard the panic in his voice, I could feel my own mind opening to this world where such things were possible. I could see the logic. I could feel the edge of belief. Something was starting to make sense. Now and then I would catch myself feeling strangely vulnerable between my legs.
I was almost there, and it was time to see if I could get in just a little further.
The winding streets of Lagos were packed with people. Tens of thousands, coming and going, moving along sidewalks, jamming the streets so thickly that cars had to push through them at a crawl, blaring their horns and parting crowds like a snowplow.
I was far from Jankara Market when I started out and headed southwest toward Idumota, to walk through some of the most crowded streets in the world, where I hoped to brush up against the boundary of this culture. I wanted to look back and see someone checking if his manhood was still in place.
I climbed some stairs near a bank and stopped to watch the city flow by. I walked back down the stairs and jumped into the onrush. I moved with it. Together we were packed tightly, but we rarely touched. The winding streams of people ran easily along next to one another. I moved farther into the city, and as I did, I watched the people pass within inches of me, then feint, slip by, barely brushing me. At first I tried to nudge a few people with my shoulder, but most were too fast, too alert, too leery.
Walking along, I caught one man on the shoulder with mine. But when I looked back, it seemed like he hadn’t even noticed. Then I clipped another man a little harder, but when I looked back, it was like I wasn’t even there. I bumped a few more people lightly, until finally I caught one man enough that I’m sure he knew it was purposeful.
But the magic failed. He didn’t reach down and grab himself, didn’t point to me, didn’t accuse. He didn’t even give me a dirty look. I was swimming in the water, but I could not get all the way in, no matter how deep I dove. And so I let go, walked on, and allowed the current to carry me wherever it would.