Article — From the June 2008 issue

A Mind Dismembered

In search of the magical penis thieves

No one is entirely sure when magical penis loss first came to Africa. One early incident was recounted by Dr. Sunday Ilechukwu, a psychiatrist, in a letter some years ago to the Transcultural Psychiatric Review. In 1975, while posted in Kaduna, in the north of Nigeria, Dr. Ilechukwu was sitting in his office when a policeman escorted in two men and asked for a medical assessment. One of the men had accused the other of making his penis disappear. This had caused a major disturbance in the street. As Ilechukwu tells it, the victim stared straight ahead during the examination, after which the doctor pronounced him normal. “Exclaiming,” Ilechukwu wrote, “the patient looked down at his groin for the first time, suggesting that the genitals had just reappeared.”

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.

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writes frequently about Africa. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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October 2019