Penis-snatching epidemic hits the press?

Below is an occasional piece by my friend and colleague Timo Kallinen. Timo has conducted years of research in Ghana and is presently completing a monograph that explores how traditional Akan ideas about power and authority affect the ways in which Ghanaians see contemporary political leaders.

“Penis-snatching epidemic hits the press?” by Timo Kallinen, Helsinki University

It has become more or less a commonplace notion that in Africa magic, witchcraft, sorcery, occult practices (or whatever term one wants to use) do not only belong to the traditional societies of rural villages, but that they are also found in urban settings and in modern sectors of society. During the 1990s, this observation brought witchcraft topics in anthropology from the field of classical ethnography to more current and broader discussions about the very idea of modernity itself. However, along with this discussion has come a strand of news journalism that produces coverage of African witchcraft that seems to mix traditional (exotic) with modern (familiar). According to press reports of this kind, the occult has now made its way to settings such as soccer clubs, university campuses, overseas immigrant communities, and high-tech surveillance, just to mention a few examples. The fascination of these stories seems to lay in the ways in which things that “we know do not exist” are viewed against a background where they seem to be particularly “out of place.” Hence the beliefs and practices of Africans appear even more “unbelievable” through surprising juxtapositions. Furthermore, these stories rarely pay attention to local categories and witchcraft is discussed as a phenomenon that the audience already knows from movies, fantasy novels, computer games, and other similar sources. The implication is that there are Africans who take such things seriously, who still believe in their concrete existence, while others have moved on. The disregard for local knowledge also blurs the differences between regions, countries, ethnic and linguistic groups and so on. As Terence Ranger has recently pointed out, the idea of Africa as a single “occult culture” is becoming dominant in the Western media. When considering the premises and aims of this kind of journalism, one question comes to mind: To what extent do we know that the phenomena in the media reports really exist?

Recurrent stories about “penis-snatching” in Africa are a case in point. A recent news report by Reuters, titled Penis theft panic hits city, describes how popular panic and attempted lynchings were triggered in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, by accusations of penis-theft. According to the report, rumors about sorcerers stealing or shrinking men’s genitalia with “black magic” had circulated in the city for at least a week and led to mob attacks on the suspected sorcerers. Finally, the police had detained the accused sorcerers and their alleged victims in order to avoid the escalation of violence. The same story mentions that the Congolese police did not want to see the sort of bloodshed that had occurred in Ghana roughly a decade ago, when several suspected penis-snatchers had been beaten to death by angry crowds. True enough, during my own fieldwork in Ghana in the late 1990s and 2000s I had heard numerous stories about chopped-off penises, mysterious cases of impotence and infertility, and the like. I had also seen the accounts in the local press about the mob violence. In fact, I can even remember reading similar stories about Ghana in Finnish newspapers sometime in the late 1980s. So, if we are to trust the media, we have an Africa-wide penis snatching problem on our hands that shows no signs of stopping. But it goes further than that. Not long ago I ran into an article in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry written by two psychologists. The piece, titled ‘Understanding Genital-Shrinking Epidemics in West Africa,’ sought to explore the psychopathological aspects of “periodic episodes of ‘panic’ in which men and women are beaten, sometimes to death, after being accused of causing penises, breasts, and vaginas to shrink or disappear.” The research was based on reports published by news media of seven West African countries and the authors’ conclusion was that the epidemic occurrences of genital-shrinking distress should be considered instances of mass psychogenic illness. I am in no way qualified to assess the psychological analysis on what might lead a person to believe that his/her genitalia have disappeared or reduced in size, when they ostensibly have not. However, what should be questioned is the news reports used as sources.

When I have discussed incidents like the ones mentioned in the news with Ghanaians, nobody talked about “penis-snatching” – but almost everybody mentioned something called “money medicine.” The latter is basically a ritual arrangement in which one is considered to be able to exchange body parts, health, fertility, or even life for money. The exchange partners are spirits and the things exchanged can belong to oneself or they may be spiritually or quite concretely stolen from someone else. Sometimes, the body parts sacrificed in this way are as mundane as hair or nails, but sometimes they are indeed as vital and important as human genitalia. It is hardly necessary to say that stories about the extreme cases are the ones that make the headlines (or would reports about hair-snatching sell tabloid papers?).

Money medicine itself is connected to hundreds-of-years-old local ideas about human sacrifice and one can also link the monetary aspect to the logic of the slave trade that has played a central part in the economic and political history of the region. So, keeping all this in mind, it seems to me that the concept of penis-snatching is really a by-product of a type of sensationalist journalism that sells stories packed with sex and violence. When these isolated stories are brought together, with others that bear at least superficial resemblance, one starts talking about a region-wide, and soon a continent-wide, epidemic of penis-snatching. Such stories also satisfy Western media’s curiosity for “modern witchcraft” and in international news portals they are taken even further away from their original context. Finally, they may even end up as topics of serious scientific studies. But most importantly, stories such as these distort our understanding of what is actually going on in Africa and what topics like witchcraft and magic in anthropology are really all about.

4 thoughts on “Penis-snatching epidemic hits the press?

  1. in the past few months there have been a number of such ‘genital snatching stories in the malawian press. i also recall a few stories in late 2007 about a potion that men were giving to wives suspected of infidelity; the potion made the women’s private parts ‘disappear’ when they tried to have sex with anyone besides the husband. in malawi, politics sells newspapers. but, so does this genre you refer to: sex wedded to witchcraft/violence.
    the papers in malawi also cover seasonal bloodsuckers scares, and, more recently, the rise of witchcraft nursery schools.

    i can’t believe the part about the newspaper reports used as an authoritative lens into what’s actually going on… although since many ‘evidence based’ aids interventions in s-s Africa choose to focus on ‘harmful cultural practices’ that are extreme, uncommon, or mostly imagined… i suppose i’m not that surprised.

  2. So I read this blog entry because it had the word “penis” in the title. I guess if we took advertising, that would have been the profit motive right there–click-throughs.

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