Elaborate greetings are the norm, I’ve found, when one enters a Central African village. So it was a surprise when I noticed that many people weren’t shaking hands the morning I arrived in Tiringoulou, a town of about 2,000 people in one of the remotest corners of the Central African Republic, in March 2010. I soon found out the reason: the day before, a traveler passing through town on a Sudanese merchant truck had, with a simple handshake, removed two men’s penises.
As best I could reconstruct from witness accounts, the stranger had stopped to purchase a cup of tea at the market. After handing over his money, he clasped the vendor’s hand. The tea seller felt an electric tingling course through his body and immediately sensed that his penis had shrunk to a size smaller than that of a baby’s. His yells quickly drew a crowd. Somehow in the fray a second man fell victim as well.
Hearing all this, I was less shocked than intrigued. As an anthropologist who studies the region, I was familiar with the problem of penis snatching. What surprised me was that the phenomenon—or, depending on your perspective, the rumor—had made it as far as Tiringoulou.
Reports of genital theft have spread like an epidemic across West and Central Africa over the past two decades, in tandem with what appears to be a general resurgence of witchcraft on the continent. Anthropologists have explained this rise as a response to an increasingly mystifying and capricious global economy. Which is to say that when the workings of capital are as genuinely obscure as they are in today’s Africa, proceeding behind a veil of complexity and corruption, rumors of "occult economies"—often involving a trade in human organs—offer a less mystifying explanation for the radical disparities in wealth on display.
That said, genital theft is neither new nor confined to Africa. Similar panics afflicted Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. (Malleus Maleficarum, a book-length jeremiad against the dangers of witchcraft from 1486, includes a discussion of sorceresses who “take away male members” and keep them in birds’ nests.) And in 1967, an outbreak of koro—the belief that the penis is retracting into the body—overwhelmed hospitals in Singapore.
In Africa today, scholars who study penis snatching understand it mainly as an urban phenomenon—an extreme expression of the anxieties that pervade a city when villagers become urbanites en masse, living among throngs of unfamiliar people. That’s because most cases have been reported in crowded spots like Lagos, in Nigeria, and Douala, in Cameroon. But here I was in Tiringoulou—a dusty, peanut-growing hamlet so small and poor it barely has a market. If penis snatching had previously been a city dweller’s fear, now it seemed that not even the remotest places would be spared.
But spared from what, exactly?
It’s fair to say there are victims on both sides of the penis-snatching equation.
Shortly after the disturbance in the Tiringoulou market, members of the armed rebel group that governs the town arrested the traveler and subjected him to a harsh interrogation—for his own protection, they told me later. Had they left him to the mob, the town’s women would have torn the stranger limb from limb, they reasoned. But the protection, such as it was, did not last long: the supposed thief was executed by gunshot later that day. (Aware that international law frowns on summary execution, the rebel commander who oversaw the execution relayed a different version of events: he said the thief had mysteriously vanished from his holding cell.)
As for the men whose penises were stolen, several eyewitnesses assured me that the appendages did indeed shrink dramatically. I can’t offer such an intimate eyewitness account myself, but I did visit one of the men at his home, and he clearly seemed to be suffering. He lay propped on one elbow, slack and listless in loose sweatpants, on a woven mat in the shade outside his house. A handful of friends kept him company. Over cups of sweet tea, I asked them about how they understood the recent events.
Penis snatching, they said, was a means of supplying an illicit and lucrative trade in organs. Cameroonians and Nigerians—people from places “where they have multistory buildings”—were seen as particularly well versed in the business. “You see how advanced Cameroon is?” someone said. “It’s because they are so strong in commerce of all kinds, including in genitals and scalps.” The stolen organs, my companions said, are sold to occult healers for use in ceremonies, or else they are quickly fenced back to victims of penis snatching for a price. But the real money was to be made in Europe. One man who had spent some time living in Cameroon said he had heard of a woman there who was nabbed by airport security while trying to smuggle several penises to the Continent inside a baguette.
I asked the town doctor what he thought. Could he help the victims? He shook his head slowly—as if trying to gauge how much I believed about the whole affair—and then responded, “Western medicine is no match for this magic. It is a mysterious thing.”
Mysterious indeed. But perhaps no more so than certain afflictions that are less strange to us in the West. If penis stealing seems beyond-the-pale weird, consider what people in Tiringoulou might think upon hearing of Americans who starve themselves near to death because their reflection in the mirror convinces them they are fat.