On the 22nd April 2008 Reuters reported on the "penis theft panic" that was sweeping Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where local police had arrested thirteen "suspected sorcerers" who stood "accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises". Reuters even tracked down an Alain Kalala, who made a living selling "phone credits near a Kinshasa police station", who testified to the truth behind these incidents; "It's real. Just yesterday here, there was a man who was a victim. We saw. What was left was tiny". However Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, the head of Kinshasa's police force, appeared to be less convinced and was "tempted to say it's one huge joke", but he nevertheless also detained fourteen of the purported victims, having noted that there had been "a number of attempted lynchings" of penis thieves which had left them "covered in marks after being beaten".
Oleko might well have been well advised to have taken such action, as a similar panic occurred at Accra in Ghana during January 1997, when CNN reported that seven sorcerers accused of penis theft had been beaten to death by angry mobs. Indeed, such was the level of the disturbances, that there was talk of calling in the army to maintain order on the streets. Four years later a similar panic swept through six towns in the south western Nigerian state of Osun. The most serious incident happened in the town of Ilesa on the 3rd April 2001, when eight members of an evangelical sect the Brotherhood of the Cross (present in town for their annual convention) were attacked by an angry mob and burnt to death. This followed a similar panic that had emerged in Oyo state in the previous month where at least six people were burnt to death. Again in November 2001 BBC News reported that similar mobs had gathered at Cotonou in Benin, and "attacked indivduals accused of using magic to steal men's penises". That time round, one man was hacked to death, and another four doused in petrol and burned to death, whilst there were others who barely escaped with their lives.
There was also another shrinking penis panic that swept through Khartoum in the Sudan during 2003, when the city was awash with rumours of a "mysterious West African", sometimes known as 'Satan’s Friend', who caused "men’s penises to disappear after shaking their hands". There appears to have been no mob violence at Khartoum (presumably because the "mysterious West African" was never identified), although the local hospitals were "flooded with dozens of hysterical men claiming that their penises had been stolen".
Although one source claims that the first such outbreaks occurred in Nigeria and Cameroon in 1996, the CNN report on the Ghana incident stated that "residents recall a similar scare in Accra in the early 1980s", and it may therefore be the case that penis theft panics have been a regular part of the West African cultural landscape for many years, whilst escaping the notice of the Western media. What can be said with certainty is that during the six years between 1997 and 2003 there were a number of reported 'penis snatchings' across West Africa in Benin, Ghana, Gambia, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and Nigeria which saw the deaths of a total of at least thirty-two suspected genital thieves through various mob executions.
Such penis theft panics are an example of what the academics like to call Genital Retraction Syndrome, which is itself an example of what is known as a culture-bound syndrome. One Wen-Shing Tseng of the University of Hawaii School of Medicine has defined such culture-bound syndromes as "mental conditions or psychiatric syndromes whose occurrence or manifestation are closely related to cultural factors and which thus warrant understanding and management from a cultural perspective" or, in other words, only those individuals raised within a culture that believes it is possible for penises to disappear magically are likely to experience the magical disappearance of their penis.
As far as the West African phenomenon is concerned the motive for the theft of the penis is either because it is believed that stolen genitals are such a coveted item in sorcery that "they can be sold at sorcerers' markets to get potent 'money medicine'", or as part of a scam involving a pair of sorcerers; one who steals the penis, and the other which sells the "proper medicine" to the afflicted individual that restores the diminished organ. Although there have been occasions when possession by evil spirits or indeed disgruntled ancestors have been blamed for the problem. Of course from the perspective of the rational West such notions appear to be absurd and indeed those investigations carried out on the inflicted have generally found the genitals to be present and intact. The West African authorities appear to take the same line, and deal with such panics by arresting the accusers, and have on occasion gone so far as to claim that such 'penis theft panics' are simply "a deliberate deception designed by pickpockets to create a crowd and subsequently rob them". Although this appears to be more of a convenient explanation rather than a serious attempt at examining the phenomenon, it is clear that the problem is not so much the allegedly disappeared penises, as the mob violence that then follows. However it is also worthwhile noting that in the Compendium Maleficarum of 1608, its author Fransesco Maria Guazzo also reported on cases of witches who were capable of casting spells that led to the "retraction, hiding or actual removal of the male genitals", thereby demonstrating that such notions were also fairly widespread throughout Europe at one point in time.
This West African phenomenon is linked to, and often confused with the South-east Asian Koro and its Chinese close cousin suoyang. So much so that the American Psychiatric Association talks of the Koro syndrome, which is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) as "an episode of sudden and intense anxiety that the penis ... will recede into the body and possibly cause death", as a catch all term for all such cases. There is however a difference between the West African belief that penises can be stolen by sorcery, and the Asian belief that it is possible to contract an illness which causes retraction and/or loss of the penis, which can ultimately lead to death if the penis should disappear into the abdomen.
- Joe Bavier, Lynchings in Congo as penis theft panic hits capital, Reuters, April 22 2008
- Mannir Dan-Ali, 'Missing' penis sparks mob lynching, 12 April, 2001
- Benin alert over 'penis theft' panic, 27 November, 2001
- 7 killed in Ghana over 'penis-snatching' episodes, CNN, January 18, 1997
- Paul Chambers, Missing member murmurings, Fortean Times May 2007
- Wen-Shing Tseng, Peculiar Psychiatric Disorders through Culture-bound Syndromes to Culture-related Specific Syndromes
Transcultural Psychiatry 43(4)December 2006
- Katherine Schroer, When Size Matters: Genital Retraction Syndromes in Cultural Perspective, Focus Anthropology Issue V: 2005-2006
- J Guy Edwards, The Koro pattern of depersonalization in an American psychiatric patient
from Culture-Bound Syndromes: Folk Illnesses of Psychiatric and Anthropological Interest
by Ronald C. Simons and Charles Campbell Hughes (Springer 1985)