In most of the interviews I’ve done about penis snatching in Nigeria, people have referred to it as a superstition. And while this struck me as off the mark, it’s only after mulling it over that I think I know why: Because really, belief in penis theft is part of a complex spiritual landscape. In other words, it’s one of the varieties of religious experience. And least that’s the question I went north to the once-famous Nigerian university city to investigate:
When I arrived in Ibadan, I checked into a small hotel, then took a bus over to the university campus. As I walked thought the gates and down the boulevard into the run-down grounds, I stopped to read a startling sign.
“CULTISM puts you in bondage,” it said, “Renounce and denounce it so that you can enjoy your God-given FREEDOM. CULTISM is evil and destructive. Do NOT be part of it.”
Cultists were kidnappers—the supposed harvesters of body parts. But who exactly were they? Who was doing all this kidnapping? Nigeria was said to be a country of 50 million Christians, 80 million Muslims and just 13 million traditional believers. The Pentecostal pews were packed. The Muslim call to prayer blared across the city five times a day. Shouldn’t penises and persons be safe inside churches and mosques? How was it that men across Nigeria were so terrified of witchcraft, which the new faiths had supposedly displaced.
I walked through the university on broken sidewalk blocks. The road was lined with trees, and students milled around, lying the grass, talking and reading. Cars rolled in and out of the campus and minivans carted students around the university for a small fee.
I found the Religious Studies Department and climbed up to the second floor, where I found the office. It was a small room, and in it a few people sat talking. An old, thin man dozed in a chair. Another man came in and asked what I was looking for. I told him I was hoping to talk to someone who could explain a little about Nigerian religions.
After a few minutes, I was shown into the next room, where I was introduced to Michael Nabofa, a small man who sat between a mountain of papers on one side and a huge stack of books on the other. When he finally looked up, he told me to write down my questions, then come back in a few hours.
I went back outside, got something to eat, roamed around the zoo a little—a muddy, depressing affair, with a mountain gorilla, a couple hyenas, a lion and some snakes (the python was dead and bloated). Then I headed back to see Dr. Nabofa.
When I got there, he was with someone, so I sat in the front office and waited. On the file cabinet there was another sticker urging the reader to reject cultism. I asked the old man sitting next to me what it meant.
“These ritualists,” he said, “are very bad. They are killing people and making money with their rituals. But if you get into the cult, you can’t get out. They can kill you if you try to leave. That is why we want people to stay out.”
“So they are killing people to make money with the rituals?”
“I don’t think it really works.”
A few minutes later, I was called in to see Dr. Nabofa. He ordered some tea, and when it came, he took out the piece of paper with my questions on it and read them out loud. The first question I’d written was about who the ritualists were.
“These ritualists,” said Dr. Nabofa, “they are Christians–and Muslims and traditionalists. In the daytime you see them in the church with their white robes, praising Jesus as the prophet. But below you don’t know what they are doing in secret.”
“I’ve heard,” I said, “that these ritual killings were not part of traditional African religion?”
“No!” he said, “they were not.”
“When did they come in?”
“Well,” he said “there’s a difference between religion and magic. So we can’t know exactly when the ritual killings and magic came into the religion.”
“What is the difference?”
“In religion, it is: ‘Let your will be done.’ The will of God. In magic, it is ‘Let my will be done.’ The magician commands. The religious person prays.”
Dr. Nabofa looked back at my question and read aloud, “What percentage of Nigerians have some traditional religious beliefs?”
I tried to explain, “I was talking to some people, asking about the penis snatching. And at first, they tell me that it doesn’t exist.”
“That traditional religion doesn’t exist?”
“Yes, I mean….”
“But my question is…”
“There has not been a proper census in this country,” he interrupted. “Some claim that the Muslims are the majority. Others claim that the Christians are the majority. But there has not been a proper census, so you cannot get exactly 50% Christians, 40% Muslims or the other percent traditionalists. No. It is difficult for us to know right now. But you cannot get someone who is fully Christian who doesn’t believe any traditional things, or who is fully Muslim who doesn’t have any traditional beliefs. No, that is a lie.”
“You mean, if they say they’re totally one or the other?”
“Yes! If you scratch every African, below his skin you will get traditional African religion.”