by Femi Owolabi
Despite my educational background in the Sciences, till today, should a stranger ask me what time is it by my wristwatch or a description to where he says he’s going, the first thing I do before answering is touch my forehead, the middle of my chest, the right and left sides of my chest and then would hum the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And after I had answered, before the stranger walks out of my sight, I would pocket one of my hands and through the inner linen of my trousers to my boxers — grope for this thing that people say makes one a man. It is to ensure that it has not been stolen by this unknown person.
My over-sensitivity when answering a stranger comes from an experience of many years ago. It was in my teenage years in Ilorin. On a dull evening, a boy – Olembe – from the neighborhood, suddenly began to scream until he got the attention of almost all the residents of the estate. Olembe, crying, held tightly the trouser of a man who he accused of stealing his penis. How? The solicitous crowd gathered around the duo asked. “I don’t know him o, he just asked me for the time and after telling him, I felt a strange coldness and discovered my penis was gone,” said Olembe as he sobbed and unzipped his trouser to bring out what was left of the penis for all to see.
I had never heard of penis theft before, so, at first I thought what Olembe meant was that the penis had totally disappeared. I could see that the penis seemed to be shrinking inside the scrotum, and only its ringed-crown managed to remain outside of the scrotum. It was akin to touching the head of a snail and the snail immediately, slowly, pulls it head inside its shell.
“I didn’t steal anybody’s penis,” said the suspect, muttering under his palpitating heart, but it was a bad day for him as the now truculent crowd descended on him with punches, stones and rods. Oya return the penis, they yelled collectively.
As I watched this man being beaten, my troubled mind kept thinking, that at least we should take Olembe to the hospital and perhaps get the police involved. But when, perhaps, the man couldn’t bear the beatings anymore, he cried out louder ‘I have returned the penis, please don’t kill me.’ The beating was suspended and everybody took a closer look at Olembe’s penis. Nothing seemed to have changed and all poised hands would resume beating on this man when somebody suggested that Olembe be taken to a nearby motel to test the thing.
Olembe obliged to this when I had thought he should have opted for the hospital. This was agreed, and with the man being dragged, we all marched behind Olembe to the motel. We maintained our calmness at the gate while a few people followed Olembe into the motel. After a short-time, Olembe, flanked with those men came outside, smiling. My penis has been restored, he said, gesturing with his fist. The man who had been accused of penis thievery was thoroughly searched if he had the juju on him and eventually freed and was warned not to come near the estate again.
The next time I heard of a similar case was in 2001. It was on a Friday when hundreds of members of the evangelical sect Brotherhood of the Cross went to the town of Ilesha in Osun State for their annual convention. While these evangelists were on a house-to-house preaching, someone raised an alarm that his penis had disappeared. An angry mob descended on the visiting evangelists and burnt eight of them to death.
Ten years after witnessing Olembe’s drama, I got a sequel last year, again in Ilorin, when I went to visit some friends who had just been posted for their mandatory NYSC service. It was a few minutes past ten in the night as we caroused in their flat upstairs. Suddenly, the cry of a young lady reached us from downstairs. ‘My breasts o, my breasts o’ she screamed.
We left our drinks and rushed to the balcony to first peep downstairs. We saw the girl, holding a man by his shirt and screaming that he returned her breasts. People had already assembled around them. Quickly, my friends went in to bring their weapons and dashed downstairs. One took his original leather belt and the other picked the iron rod that was used in locking their door from the back when they go to sleep. Worried, I rushed after them.
On getting to the scene, a festival of beatings had already begun on the man. My friends joined in. The young girl is one of the daughters of the woman who sold groceries downstairs. The woman with her other daughters were crying too, that the breasts be returned.
I moved closer to the girl with my widened eyes on her breasts that were inside her gown. How does one say her breasts have been stolen when what adorn this chest is nothing short of its fullness? I was troubled. Then, I asked how it happened. The man, she said, had stopped by their shop to ask her for the description to a street and after telling him, she noticed that something left her body. Again, I threw my eyes at her breasts, and almost wanted to touch them.
When the man noticed that I was the only indifferent person, he crawled to me rubbing his palms and begged that I save his life; he has a wife and kids. The crowd won’t allow him and they would draw him back into the beating circle. His face had been deformed, cloths torn, and blood greased his body. After restraining my friends from beating the man, I tried to beg others but they didn’t listen, insisting that he returned the breasts.
It was getting to eleven o’clock and luckily a police patrol van drove into the street and took over the case. The girl, her mother and some few people were driven to the police station. When they had gone, I told the people that when the man crawled to me, he said he is a Christian, works with Obitek (Obitek is the largest electronic store in Ilorin) and he knows nothing about the stolen breasts. I was shocked when I was told to shut up, because I knew nothing. Obitek, that Igbo man’s money ritual renewals were due, and had sent one of his agents to get him the breasts, these people affirmed. I left them and went back upstairs with my friends.
Soon, the landlord’s son – a senior police officer – returned from work and came to our flat upstairs to confirm the rumor he heard downstairs. When we narrated all to him, he asked whether the breasts physically disappeared and I said no. Then, he asked again, did any of you guys suck the breast and the nipple didn’t rise to determine its functionality? We laughed, and laughed. He told us to dress up and should all go to the police station where the lady had been taken to. He wanted to know how true the case of stolen breasts could be.
We got to the station and he went in with one of us while we waited in his car. My friend who went in with him came out first to meet us in the car and couldn’t control his laughter. He said we needed to see how the landlord’s son was squeezing the lady’s breasts, claiming to be investigating. And that he even asked him to have a feel of the breasts too. Did you now feel the breasts too; we asked our friend whose unending laughter answered the question. As we drove back home, the landlord’s son just kept shaking his head.
In the Harper’s archive, I read one of Frank Bures’ – the man from America who writes frequently about Africa – essays from the June 2008 Issue – A Mind Dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves. Frank opens this essay by saying “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.”
There have been a few psychological debates over this, notably, a paper titled Koro- A Culture-Bound Depersonalization Syndrome by P.M. Yap, a Senior Specialist in Psychiatry, Hong Kong Government. But beyond the scientific findings that explain the medical effect on penis shrinking and others, I choose to dwell on what Frank Bures revealed in his essay:
‘The Malleus Maleficarum, medieval Europeans’ primary guidebook to witches and their ways, warned that witches could cause one’s membrum virile to vanish, and indeed several chapters were dedicated to this topic. Likewise the compendium Maleficarum warned that witches had many ways to affect one’s potency, the seventh of which included “a retraction, hiding or actual removal of the male genitals.” (This could be either a temporary or a permanent condition.) Even in the 1960s, there were reports of Italian migrant workers in Switzerland panicking over a loss of virility caused by witchcraft.’
In Africa, the use of juju/witchcraft dates back to the 1800s. Today, however, most African intellectuals now dismiss the effect of juju while they attempt to give scientific explanation to every strange thing. A recent experience that still lives in my memory was a few months ago, walking towards Ojuelegba – a central area of Lagos – I saw people crowding around a boy. I cleared my way through the crowd to see the boy – a danfo conductor, scratching his body and rolling on the ground, groaning. In the mutterings of the crowd, I could pick that the boy has been cursed with juju by a passenger – an old man who he insulted after dropping him off at the wrong bus-stop.
Quickly, I remembered that palm-oil should relieve him (My grandma once told me palm oil would neutralize any juju). So I ran to the nearby canteen and begged the women who were also standing with arms akimbo – watching and clapping their hands sympathetically. I returned with a plate of palm-oil and one of the Area Boys collected it and with others, he was forced to drink it. I clenched my fists to subdue my shivering, as my mind prayed for his recovery. I have never seen this kind of thing in my life except in Nollywood movies.
Suddenly, the boy gasped and coughed out the oil. As if the oil was a madness multiplier, he started throwing himself up and landing on the ground forcefully. The Area Boys grabbed him and he jumped out of their hands, fell, and then continued scratching and rolling. People were shouting, hands clasped across theirs heads as they wondered who would have cast such spell on the boy. We all kept watching, befuddled and one man screamed from the crowd “ero ito alaboyun si lenu jor (let him drink the urine of a pregnant woman jor)” I have never heard of such before, but some older women among the crowd nodded in agreement that the urine of a pregnant woman would neutralize the spell on him. Unfortunately, none was around. We stood there, Area Boys/conductors started sermonizing: “eko nla lele yi je fun gbogbo wa o hmmm. Ta ma bu passenger ta mo iru eyan to je (This must be a great lesson for all of us o hmm. It’s time we checked the way we throw insults at passengers who we don’t know who or what they are.”
Soon, I spotted a pregnant lady – in her NYSC uniform – dragging herself behind her big tummy and was moving in our direction. Quickly, I walked out of the crowd to meet her half way.
“Copa shuun. That boy there is dying and the elders say we need the urine of a pregnant woman to revive him. Please there is a public toilet there where….” I didn’t finish my explanation when she turned back and sped off faster than Usain Bolt.
People trooped in and out of the crowd and nothing was done to help this boy. One conductor and I got talking and he told me that he was there when the man said “enu to fi bu Orisa noni wa fi wa be pada (It is the same mouth that you’ve used to insult the deity that you’ll use to beg him).”
“Where is the man now?” I asked.
Nobody knows where to find him, I was told.
Time went on, and a man came around us with a bible and started praying. The conductors were shouting amen, some, mockingly. I was trying to connect with the prayers, too, from within me. Suddenly the boy’s madness tended to bow to the prayers as he became calm and then calmer. I sighed, rubbing my palms in gratitude to God Almighty. The Area Boys were shouting “Hallellu o.” The boy then sat up and the man who had prayed bent at his face and was trying to talk to him. He shook his head and stood up and said that the boy was responsible for his calamity. Then he left. I was about taking my leave too when suddenly the boy returned to the madness. This time it was more than what I could stay to watch again.
When I narrated this to a few friends, one of them said she was disappointed in me for exhibiting sheer ignorance. She said the boy was just suffering from some form of epileptic fit, that all we needed do was to take the boy to the hospital. It was then I remembered what I omitted in my narration that one Lagos State mobile ambulance sped past us and all my efforts to stop the ambulance amounted to nothing as the driver and the medical personnel who sat by his side only wound down, peeped at the boy and without any word or action, drove off. This, to me, showed that the boy’s case may be beyond hospital. And if I had even suggested hospital to the crowd here who were mostly unlettered, they would have looked at me, hissed and asked if I was well. After all, in many Nollywood films, when doctors are unable to diagnose a patient’s ailment, they call one of the patient’s family members to their office to tell him it was time they sought herbal/juju treatment for their sick person.
Even though, we cannot for sure say whether Olembe’s penis and the girl’s breasts got stolen or not, but people here don’t undermine the effect of juju. After the Olembe’s case, it would shock you that my own learned parents pulled our ears to warn us never to respond to any stranger asking for time or description. Until we understand the medical effects on loss of genitals, there would still be many more cases of ‘stolen penises and breasts.’