The Great Penis Robbery
Louisa Lombard reports from Tiringoulou in the Central African Republic, where sorcerers are said to be stealing men's genitals:
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….
Penis snatching, [Lombard's informants] 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.
Such rumors and accusations aren't uncommon, Lombard adds:
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.
Those anthropologists' approach to tales of occult economies—their belief that these rumors can teach us things about people's anxieties and experiences, even when the stories are absurd—is similar to the way I discuss some of the stranger conspiracy theories in The United States of Paranoia, due out in August. Read a description of the book here; take a closer look at the cover here; preorder a copy here.
Bonus link: A few years ago in Harper's, Frank Bures offered a different (but complementary) take on the subject of supposed penis thefts in Africa, mixing a dispatch from Lagos with his thoughts on how psychiatry treats "culture-bound syndromes."