The penis shrinkers

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According to news bulletins out of West Africa earlier this month, lynch mobs were roaming the streets of Senegal hunting down foreigners believed to be sorcerers with the power to steal (i.e., shrink) men's penises. Allegedly, a handshake is all it takes.

Authorities in the capital city, Dakar, were frustrated in their attempts to defuse public hysteria after local newspapers began publishing photos of the purported "sex thieves" and a radio disc jockey claimed he had personally witnessed the "shriveled genitals" of a victim.

"The scenario of dread is consistent," reported Agence France-Presse. "Someone who makes brief physical contact with a stranger on the street claims to get a chill, then declares that his penis is shrinking."

The phenomenon would be strictly laughable had not at least eight of the scores of suspected perpetrators attacked so far by vigilantes in Dakar and Ziguinghor been beaten or burned to death. Such is the havoc superstition can wreak.

The power of magic

The penis-theft meme is believed to have migrated from the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, where similar mob scenes were reported earlier this year. Outbreaks of magical "penis shrinking" or "penis snatching" are not uncommon in West Africa. At least some of the hysteria is blamed on ethnic hostilities, but psychologists also cite the lack of education among African males, widespread belief in black magic and the loss of personal identity "in the face of an increasingly complex world."

The power of magic is not taken lightly in this region, which retains strong folk traditions of witchcraft and shamanism. The practice of Voodoo, the hybrid religion that took root in Haiti hundreds of years ago via the slave trade, had its origins in West Africa and still thrives there. The ancient fear of genital-stealing magicians may be a cultural analog of the psychological disorder known as "koro," or "delusions and acute fear of penis shrinkage."

'Collective psychosis'

The official line is that the current rumors are baseless, maliciously circulated by local thieves looking to profit from the ensuing panic. Indeed, it has been widely reported that the penis-snatching sorcerers are always sighted in the company of accomplices offering to sell unfortunate victims a quick cure. It reeks of a scam, yet the public remains credulous.

Authorities are resorting to extraordinary measures to cope with an extraordinary situation. Ahmadou Tall, Dakar's Chief of Police, went so far as to state that he had personally examined the genitals of several self-proclaimed "victims" and found no evidence to support their charges. "All the penises that I have seen are in the right place and they are quite normal," he told Agence France-Presse. Whether or not such measures will prove an antidote to what psychologist Mamadou Mboj has unabashedly labeled a "collective psychosis" remains to be seen.

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