In Search of the Magical Penis Thieves [Dangerous Liasons]

It could happen to you. 


It could happen to you.


Dear Readers, we’re delighted to bring you a whopper of a true (!) tale from Minneapolis, MN-based writer FRANK BURES. Originally published in Harper’s, this wild and woolly yarn of juju, dismemberment, and cultural phantasmagoria was selected for the Best American Travel Writing 2009. Frank is an old friend from my Portland days, and, to the best of my knowledge, he has never tried to steal anyone’s penis. On the contrary, this is his story of tracking down the pernicious villains. Warning, you may find yourself thinking about it on the subway, just for starters.

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.Excerpt: 

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.”

“How much?”

“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.


For the rest of Franks’s story, please go here, and come back soon!  —CDB


One comment

  • 1
    July 28, 2009 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Haha! I really enjoyed the story. Thanks for sharing!


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