Global Psyche - Asia and Africa: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Penis

When sorcery emasculates

By Frank Bures, published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Starrys Obazi was walking along a street one day in Lagos, minding his own business, when two men approached him, asked him for directions, and walked away. As they did, Starrys felt something strange happen in his body, in his pants: He felt his penis disappear. He was sure the two men had taken it.

The belief that one's penis has vanished is a condition known in the medical literature as "genital retraction syndrome"—or koro—a name that originally comes from the island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, where it was initially written down in a local dictionary as meaning "the shrinking of the penis." Usually the penis is felt to reappear upon examination, or it's replaced with someone else's, or only its "essence" is thought to be stolen, leaving a husk.

The symptoms were first recorded in China around 300 B.C. though it wasn't recognized by Western medicine until the 1960s when a psychiatrist based in Hong Kong named Pow Meng Yap labeled it a "culture-bound syndrome"—a mental disorder that can only arise in certain cultures.

A local belief system endorsing some means by which one's penis can be stolen is a prerequisite for koro. Nigerians believe the world is governed by mysterious life forces that certain people (namely, witch doctors) can control. The Chinese believe the world is composed of two forces, yin and yang, a sort of "cold" and "hot" which must be kept in balance. "The people in China, Singapore, and India share the common belief that it is very important to maintain vitality, not to lose the male element (yang) too much," says Wen-Shing Tseng of the University of Hawaii School of Medicine.

Individual cases might be triggered by panic attacks. According to Tseng, rashes of koro cases, or full-blown epidemics, tend to occur during times of sociocultural stress—uncertainty about the economy, or an election, or foreigners. And at least one study showed that koro victims suffered from anxiety about their penis sizes. Tseng notes that in China, (on Hainan Island, and on the Leizhou Peninsula) epidemics occur every 10 years or so, a pattern oddly also reported in Africa by Sunday Ilechukwu, a psychiatrist formerly based in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, who recorded the first case of koro in Africa in the late 1970s. While incidents of koro in Asia seem to have dropped off, the syndrome has gone on in force in Africa, perhaps related to ongoing sociocultural stress. Some 56 incidents of koro were recorded between 1997 and 2003 in one survey, and in 2008, 13 alleged penis thieves were arrested in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2009 in eastern Nigeria, at least four people were lynched after being accused of magically stealing genitals.

Fortunately, in Obazi's case there was a happy ending. As often happens in such crises, just as the police and doctors got involved in the case to verify the theft, the thieves (Obazi reported) replaced his genitals.

By the time he got home, Obazi's wife had already heard about the incident, and she came running out to meet him. When she saw him, she said, "Are you okay? Are you okay?"

"I'm okay," he said. "But let's test it."