Article — From the June 2008 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the June 2008 issue
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.