April 26, 2016
On sale today: The Geography of Madness, by Frank Bures
by Taylor Sperry
The Geography of Madness is the story of a quest. That quest, Bures explains in his introduction, took him from Lagos to Hong Kong to Borneo, in an effort to understand the strange things that all of us believe. “In those places I discovered fox ghosts and lizards that crawl under your skin, poison pork, and poisoned minds,” he writes. “I also came to see how our ideas can kill us, how our beliefs can save us, and how these things unknowingly determine the course of our lives . . . They can also cause your penis to disappear.”
And if that doesn’t get your attention, we’re not sure what will. Below, an excerpt from Chapter 1: The Case of the Missing Manhood.
“Do you know who we are?” asked Ade.
I did not.
“We are OPC. You know OPC?”
The OPC was the O’odua People’s Congress, a quasi-political organization that was halfway between the Area Boys and a militia. They were violent and arbitrary. Recently, they had killed several policemen in Lagos, and in some parts of the city they were being hunted by the government.
“We have to make sure,” Ade said, “you are not coming here to do some harm. Maybe you were sent here by that woman.” The woman, he meant, who stole Wasiu Karimu’s penis.
There was a crash, as a glass bottle exploded against one of the tires on our car. Both Akeem and I jumped.
“No,” I said trying to be calm. “I just want to ask some questions. Is he around?”
“He is not around.”
He was. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Wasiu Karimu himself was apparently listening from a distance. Akeem told me later he was sure he had seen him—a little guy standing at the back, young and nervous.
The men talked among themselves in Yoruba, then Ade’s henchman with the bad teeth told the story. Wasiu, Bad Teeth said, had gotten on the bus and sat down next to this woman. He didn’t have a watch, so he asked her what time it was. She didn’t know. Then the conductor came around and asked her for her fare. She didn’t have that either. As she stood up to get out of the bus, she bumped into Wasiu.
“Then,” he said, “Wasiu Karimu felt something happen in his body. Something not right. And he checked and his thing was gone.”
“Was it gone,” I asked, “or was it shrinking?”
“Shrinking! Shrinking! It was getting smaller.”
And as he felt his penis shrink, Wasiu Karimu screamed and demanded the woman put his penis back. The conductor told them both to get off the bus, and a crowd closed in on the accused, not doubting for an instant that the woman could do such a thing. But as soon as she saw trouble coming, Bad Teeth said, she replaced Wasiu’s manhood, so when the police took him down to the station, they thought he was lying and arrested him instead.
“What did she want the penis for?” I asked Bad Teeth.
“For juju,” he said, “or maybe to make some money.”
Behind us, from the corner of my eye, I could see that the roadblocks had been removed.
“Do you have anything else you want to ask?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay,” he said. “You are free to go.”
I nodded to Akeem. We got in the car and drove away.
For several years before I came to Nigeria, I had been following reports of cases like Wasiu Karimu’s in the region. It all started in 2001, when I came across an article on the BBC’s website that read ‘MISSING’ PENIS SPARKS MOB LYNCHING.
In that incident, at least twelve people had been killed by an angry crowd in southwestern Nigeria after being accused of “making people’s genital organs disappear.” Eight of the accused were members of an evangelical brotherhood. They’d been attacked by angry locals and burnt alive.
The article referred to a similar incident the previous month in a nearby Nigerian state where six people were killed. The police, according to the latest report, claimed to have things under control, after deploying plainclothes detectives “to keep an eye on those they accuse of raising false alarms.”
The images kept playing in my mind. I struggled to imagine these scenes, the fear and panic that would lead to a raging lynch mob. Whether or not penises were really disappearing, it was clear people believed that they were—so much so that they were willing to kill for it. Was this just fear? Was it belief? Wasn’t it an easy thing to check? Or was there more to it than that? I’d lived in East Africa for some time, where I learned that stories came in layers. Just when you thought you’d gotten to the bottom of one, you peeled it back and another appeared. Perhaps Nigeria was like that too.
A few months later, I saw another BBC report: BENIN ALERT OVER ‘PENIS THEFT’ PANIC. In that country, which borders Nigeria to the west, at least five more people had been killed by mobs who accused them of magical genital theft. A photojournalist and a high school principal had made narrow escapes. In total, five people had died in at least ten attacks. Four were burned to death. One was hacked to pieces.
Penis theft, in other words, was serious business. Yet there was something about the dismissive tone of the latter article that bothered me. Especially this sentence: “The belief that men’s private parts can mysteriously disappear through a handshake or an incantation is commonplace in Benin where superstition and illiteracy are rife.”
This felt empty to me. It had the ring of history, of superiority. The article seemed to suggest—or to claim—that civilized people were free from superstition, that education was the cure for penis theft, and that literacy could make us less crazy.
For reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time, I wasn’t as ready to dismiss these incidents as primitive naïveté. That felt too easy. I was sure there was more at work, and I couldn’t help wanting to explore not just Nigeria, but any place where such things were possible—where magical penis theft made perfect, terrifying sense. Something made it feel real. Something stitched that world together. Was it the same thing that had stitched mine together? And was it the same thing that had pulled it apart? I knew that someday I would have to go there to find out.
The Geography of Madness by Frank Bures
ON SALE TODAY!
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.