"I had come all the way from America for this and did not know how many chances I would get to speak to someone whose penis had actually been stolen," writes journalist Frank Bures in his recent Harper's article, "A Mind Dismembered: In Search Of The Magical Penis Thieves."
Bures traveled to Lagos to research the phenomenon — a phenomenon not of actual genitally mutilated men, but instead men who believe that their penises have been stolen or shrunken.
And as bizarre — or even comical — as the notion might sound, the belief has deep roots, going back as far as 300 B.C, and has had recurrent outbreaks in China, India and elsewhere, often with deadly results.
In April, angry mobs in Congo pursued supposed sorcerers who were accused of stealing and/or shrinking mens' penises. Police detained the would-be spell casters for their own protection. In 2001, at least 12 suspected penis thieves were not so lucky — they were lynched.
"It does have a sort of a shock value thing, but I figured there was more behind it," says Bures. "I wanted to get into the world where that belief comes from and look at what kind of culture that kind of thing can emerge from."
Bures says that one man he spoke to who claimed his penis was stolen said he felt he had lost part of his essence. Victims say, however, that their penises return. In Africa, Bures says, accusations of penis theft occur in places where there is little guarantee of equitable justice, or in many cases, any sort of justice system at all, so that allegations can quickly escalate into uncontrolled violence.
Still, he felt he had to see what was going on firsthand. "Penises are disappearing. Someone has to investigate," says Bures. "I'm the man."