Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Koro

Harper's Magazine, June 2008, pp. 60-5.

A Mind Dismembered
In search of the magical penis thieves

By Frank Bures

[This excerpt is from pp. 64-5.]

Starrys Obazi sat across the table from me at Mr. Bigg's, a cheap fast-food place on the north side of Lagos where we had agreed to meet. Around us, other Nigerians walked past with their trays and sat down to eat their burgers and watch rap videos on the television behind us. Starrys dug into his chicken. A wiry little man with a nasal voice, he had been an editor for fourteen years at FAME, a Nigerian celebrity tabloid, until the publisher mysteriously stopped paying him. Jobs, even low-paying editorial jobs, were tough to come by in Lagos, and it had been several years since Starrys had held one.

Here, in the flesh, finally, was a man whose penis had been stolen. It happened one day in 1990, when Starrys was a reporter at the Evening Times. While he was waiting for a bus to take him to work, a man approached him and held out a piece of paper with a street name on it.

"Do you know where this is?" the man asked, without saying the name. Starrys did not know the street, and he thought this was strange. He didn't believe the street existed. Then another man behind Starrys, without seeing the paper, said where the street was. This was even stranger.

The two men walked away, and Starrys started to feel something he had never felt before.

"At that moment," Starrys told me, leaning forward, "I felt something depart my body. I began to feel empty inside. I put my hand into my pants, and touched my thing. It was unusually small -- smaller than the normal size. And the scrotum was flat. I put my fingers into the sockets; and they were not there. The testes were gone. And I was just feeling empty!" His voice strained as he recalled the panic of that day.

Starrys ran after the men and confronted them. "Something happened to my penis!" he told the man who had asked for directions. The man said he had no idea what Starrys was talking about.

"Something told me inside not to shout," he said. "Because as soon as I shouted, he would have been lynched. And if he was lynched, how could I get my penis back?"

I watched as Starrys finished his chicken and wiped his hands. "It was one quarter of its normal size," he said emphatically, as if, even now, even he could not believe it had happened. But Starrys, a journalist and a worldly man, did believe it. And as I listened to him tell his story, I almost believed it, too. I could feel the intensity, the fear. It made a kind of sense, even if it didn't make sense at all. I could start to see the world that his fear came from. I could see what it was built on, and for a few minutes I could imagine standing there with Starrys on a street comer, alone in the world, helpless and missing my most cherished possession. I let go of my doubts and gave in to the panic in Starrys's voice, and it was real, utterly. And I was afraid. This was how koro could be caught.

Starrys continued with his story. Despite the men's denials, one of them agreed to accompany Starrys to a nearby hospital to document the theft. But just as they arrived at the hospital, the man grabbed Starrys and bellowed, "LET'S GO IIIIN!" And at that moment something happened.

"When he grabbed me," Starrys said, "I felt calm again. I felt an inner calm. I checked my testes, and they were there." He checked his penis as well, and the missing three quarters had returned. The doctor examined Starrys and pronounced him fine. On hearing Starrvs's story, though, the doctor admonished the penis thief to quit causing trouble on the street.