Anthropologist investigates African penis theft

Penis thefts are on the rise again in West and Central Africa. UC Berkeley cultural anthropologist/geographer Louisa Lombard investigated while visiting the tiny village of Tiringoulou. According to the town doctor, "Western medicine is no match for this magic. It is a mysterious thing.” From Pacific Standard Magazine:
As for the men whose penises were stolen, several eyewitnesses assured me that the appendages did indeed shrink dramatically. I can’t offer such an intimate eyewitness account myself, but I did visit one of the men at his home, and he clearly seemed to be suffering. He lay propped on one elbow, slack and listless in loose sweatpants, on a woven mat in the shade outside his house. A handful of friends kept him company. Over cups of sweet tea, I asked them about how they understood the recent events.

Penis snatching, they 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.

"Missing Pieces"


  1. Yes, the Europeans and Americans are behind it all.  They put stolen penises in their Viagra pills.  It’s capitalist witch-doctery at work.

    1. All joking aside, I’m honestly always a bit surprised that PDE5 inhibitors(Viagra being the most famous; but not the only one) haven’t taken more of a bite out of the various traditional-folk-virility-medicine market.

      They are still under patent, and thus modestly expensive, in many first world markets; but India(a huge generic drug manufacturing center) among other places stamps them out more or less at cost, and they actually work, unlike powdered-endangered-species-longer-than-it-is-wide.

      Once the patents are off, these aren’t terribly expensive compounds(and some of the ‘traditional’ stuff isn’t cheap, or risk free), and they work pretty well. My naive expectation was that they would have cut a bloody swath through the snake oil. 

      1. I’m honestly always a bit surprised that PDE5 inhibitors(Viagra being the most famous; but not the only one) haven’t taken more of a bite out of the various traditional-folk-virility-medicine market.

        They have in places where they’re widely available, such as urban China. I don’t think most of the people in this story have easy access to pharmacies.

  2. An anthropologist is heading up the investigation? Come on, they’re not going to get to the bottom of this mystery without resorting to a P.I. (Penis Investigator). Sometimes there’s just no better recourse than a good Private Dick.

  3. “…a woman there who was nabbed by airport security while trying to smuggle several penises to the Continent inside a baguette.”

    OH, COME ON!!!!

    It´s not like the lady was going to admit to have a “baguette full of dicks” to spare her from the airplane food nightmare.

  4. “Western medicine is not match for this magic.  It is a mysterious thing,”

    We’ve abbreviated this to:  ‘Once you go black (magic…)’

  5. Instead of ridiculing and belittling these people we should respectfully listen to them, giving them a chance to air their concerns. Every culture has something to offer!

    Then, after we’ve learned as much as we can about penis stealing, we should use the information to tailor a marketing campaign to sell them shlong – protecting underwear amulets.

    1.  Sell THEM schlong protection?  Have you seen the American infomercials?  Every third one is schlog-shrinkage related. 

  6. The idea of a witch doctor/evil shaman stealing something is ancient.  often they claim to have stolen someone’s soul, which they claim to have trapped in a gourd where it is kept with shards of broken glass. If the shaman doesn;t get his bribe, he will shake the gourd and maim the soul. 

    Here is a soulcatcher used in healing ceremonies

  7. Good god. The problems facing this world are much worse than I had given them credit for being.

  8. I’m probably at the far end of the Boinger spectrum in that I think it’s usually fine for anthropologists to pretend that they are open to various obviously false beliefs they study. I expect it helps protect them from charges that they don’t recognize that such beliefs exist in their own culture or person. But when there are real people being punished (murdered, in this case) for crimes that don’t exist, I would think even anthropologists might have some ethical duty to try to convince people that magical penis snatching isn’t actually a thing. I’d be interested to hear an anthropologist’s take on it, although BoingBoing is probably the wrong place to hope for that.

    1. It simply may not be possible: if I can get all Kuhnian for a second, the paradigms may just be incommensurable.  Not only would the anthropologist be trying to prove a negative, she’d be up against the widespread belief that magic works.  Without destroying that assumption, the task is pretty much impossible.

      I’ve known intelligent (Western) adults who believed in things I’d classify as magic.  Even when these beliefs contradicted facts as established by experiment, they’re very hard to dislodge.  How much harder would it be when an outsider presents an argument against a belief that’s backed by majority opinion?

      An anthropologist could put herself in real danger here – read a truther or antivaxxer forum and count the number of times dissenters are accused of being shills, and multiply that by the power of the majority.  I understand what you’re saying, and not every aspect of every culture ought to be preserved, but I think here the risk is too high.

      1. Interesting; thanks. What you’re saying makes sense. On the other hand, with the two American witch hunts that I’ve heard the most about (Salem and McCarthyism), I have the impression that they didn’t just fade away, but that people — even many of those involved — kind of woke up at some point and realized that things had gone far beyond reason. (Perhaps even without giving up their beliefs in magic or Communist infiltration. Though not, as far as I’ve heard, because of efforts of outsiders.) I wonder how witch scares in other parts of the world tend to end.

        1. The FBI intercepted a lot of Soviet signals traffic in the 40s and successfully decrypted it (the VENONA project.) It revealed that many high-placed Americans were indeed working for the Soviets, but was not released until 1995.
          Julius Rosenberg, for example, was exposed by the information, and yet there are still people today who protest his innocence.You could criticise McCarthy for being over-zealous, but you couldn’t claim he was totally wrong.

    2. I get the impression that (unwritten) rule #1 of anthropology is ‘don’t get killed by an enraged mob of your study group’… That makes intervention harder.

    3.  I don’t know about how anthropologists feel about intervening, but I do know that you can really only argue (effectively) within someone’s belief system. There’s some wriggle room, but you can’t just rely on the logic and assumptions of something that person sees as intrinsically false. And that’s pretty much true in every context. Marx is not the person to quote in argument with an Ayn Rand fan if you’re hoping to convince them of the error of their ways. They’re not going to go, “of course!” Just as a creationist isn’t going to care what Dawkins has to say on the subject. So I don’t think a hypothetical anthropologist would have much luck with, “hey, you know this isn’t a real thing, right?” Because to people in that culture, it’s not something they question- they don’t feel that it’s a real thing, they know it. I mean, didn’t you see that guy? And it happened to my brother. This is what I saw. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Etc.

      1. I agree. I wasn’t suggesting it would be effective; I was just wondering about the ethics of not trying. I was struck reading the article by the author’s conspicuous care to avoid saying that she doesn’t believe in penis-snatching.

        1. That omission most likely comes down to practical and ethical requirements. Practical, in that populations tend to only consent to this sort of study if they don’t expect to be ridiculed by the anthropologist, and ethical in that you really shouldn’t violate the terms through which consent for any study is obtained.

  9. I was backpacking through w Africa 16 years or so ago when this panic was enveloping Ghana. People where killed after being accused of being witch doctors. It spread like a virus from the Accra market across the country. It was usd by thieves who would accuse a random person of cursing them and then in the chaos of mob outrage and usually a chase they would rob the stalls. Je whole country ended up in the grip of fee of strangers, especially Nigerians. We were told that we did not understand “African black Magic”, the work of Satan and “very real”.

  10. “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.”

    Wow – someone must’ve gone and told her to go eat a baguette of dicks.

  11. a CT scan or even a good physical examination can determine if the penis is really missing and is not just retracted into the perineal fat

    under anesthesia you can really test it. apply a small tourniquet and carefully with a small needle inject saline solution into the penis’ erectile tissue. This causes the penis to have an erection which would be proof that the penis is still there

    1. Gee why didn’t the anthropologists think of that?  Or maybe the ones who did didn’t live to report back. 

      “I’m going to knock you out, and then jab this needle in your penis” were Dr. Blunt’s last words.

  12. I posit that the genitals shrinking in reaction to the fight-or-flight chemicals produced when, say, one is genuinely terrified by people saying ‘ZOMG! Witch-Doctors are STEALING OUR DICKS!’ would, indeed be a thing (or an absence of a thing, as it were) that Western, or indeed any, medicine could explain.

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