The Underworld

Madison Magazine doesn’t usually send people into the bowels of the earth, but recently I got to do some spelunking for an assignment. The story is in the August issue, and it tells about my quest for a lost cave in the town where we were living: “Sitting at the library one day, I was looking at an old map of the area around Madison when I saw something strange. It was called ‘Richardson Cave’ and it wasn’t far from my house in Verona. When I looked for it on modern maps, it was gone.” You can read the rest here, if you like.

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What We Loved: Dancing Across the Planet

From this week’s What We Loved at World Hum: Last week, our second daughter came into the world, a tiny little thing. It’s an amazing time, but there’s also something about it that makes me feel like I’m already living in the past, as if today is just a photo that she will stare at while trying to imagine the world back then. Last week, I also watched Matt Harding’s dancing video. On the face of it, I thought it sounded like your typical self-promotional YouTube stunt. But by the time I got done watching it, I had tears running down my cheeks.

This might be because I’m feeling a little hormonal at the moment. But it could also be something else: With all the reasons to be pessimistic about the world our girl might grow up in, seeing Matt dancing his way across the planet reminded me of a simplicity, an optimism, a joy, a naïveté, a beauty and a laughter I too have found in the world. It’s a kind of love letter to humanity, and it makes me hopeful that when our girls finally walk out our door to see it for themselves, that they will fall in love with it, and that they will find themselves dancing, too.

Interview: The Amateur Scientist

Saturday, July 19, 2008
Inside the Amateur Scientist Studio: Frank Bures

I had a nice chat with Brian Thompson of The Amateur Scientist, a clever science-humor blog. Needless to say, we talked about penis theft. The gist: In the studio this week: Travel writer Frank Bures discussing his article A Mind Dismembered: In Search of the Magical Penis Thieves, an exploration of the phenomenon of witchcraft-assisted penis theft in Africa. Frank’s writing has been featured in Harper’s, Esquire, Outside, The Washington Post Magazine, and the L.A. Times. His work has also been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing 2004, and he’s the recipient of a 2007 Lowell Thomas award for travel writing. For a fun drinking game, try taking a shot every time someone says “penis” during this interview.” You can download the podcast of the interview here.

Destination: Ibadan

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?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think it really works.”

“What?” he looked shocked. “Yes! It works! Don’t say it doesn’t work. It works. These people are just doing their rituals, and saying some things, and money is falling every where.”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

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….”

“They are liars! They just want deceive you. Because if you go into the town now, you can go and see the shrine where they go to worship.”

“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.”

Interview: Bryant Park Project

Yesterday I was interviewed on the ill-fated Bryant Park Project show talking about…what else?…penis theft. The show actually was a lot of fun and the host, Mike Pesca, was smart and funny, with good questions. You can read about or listen to it here, or get the podcast through iTunes. One quote they pulled from the interview about the phenomenon, which sums up the endeavor nicely: 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.”

Burn, Burn, Burn: A trip to Area C

While I was reporting on the case of the missing manhoods, I had a chance to go along with Toni Kan while he was investigating a lynching. This outtake was part of an early draft of my story:

As it happened, penises weren’t the only thing in danger of disappearing from the streets of Lagos. People, it was alleged, were stealing entire live bodies for the same reason they stole penises: Juju, money and ransom.

The city was in a panic about this. My first day at the hotel, I turned on the TV to see footage of “instant justice” being carried out on some accused kidnappers. Newspapers were full of advice about how to elude the them. (Never go out alone, lock your doors and “Be slightly suspicious of everyone and everything”). Then one day, a homeless 11-year-old kid was accusing of trying to kidnap another child. He denied it, but the crowd didn’t believe him. Their judgment was final.

The lynching was caught on camera and played on the nightly news, which proved too much: Nigerians were outraged. The police actually got involved. And Toni was writing an in depth story about it. When he invited me to come along for his reporting, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.

We drove down to the National Stadium, parked and walked over to where we could see black marks still staining the road. There were bits of burned tire laying on the ground and some thin radial wires. Toni, who was also a poet and an author, shook his head.

“When I saw this happen,” he said, “I just cried.”

Toni interviewed some motorcycle drivers who had seen the boy killed. Then we climbed on a bus and headed down the road to the burned out shell of the Area C Police station. The windows were broken out and black streaks rose up from them. The yard in front of the building was full of torched automobiles.

It had happened a few weeks earlier, when a policeman from the station had been manning “checkpoint” where he stopped an army officer and demanded the officer pay him like everyone else. The officer refused. The policeman (according to the story) slapped him. So the officer drove back to his barracks, rounded up his troops and did what the army does best: Burned the station down.

Toni and I picked our way through the yard to the front steps. There on top of the stoop sat two policemen on chairs. Toni greeted them and, since he didn’t have any press cards, he gave them each a collection of his poems. They grunted and started leafing through the books, seemingly pleased. Probably the only policemen in Nigeria to be bribed with poetry.

After a minute, one of the officers looked up.

“So what do you want?” he said.

Toni told them he was doing a story about the lynching of the boy.

“These crimes with juju,” one officer said, “they are not recognizable by law. Because with the law, you have to be able to prove the crime was committed. We cannot prove that, so how can we prosecute them?”

“These things are very difficult to investigate,” chimed in the other policeman. “It is like this business with the penis snatching. You can just forge a lie and get someone killed.”

Toni talked to them for a little while, but they didn’t have much to offer, since the investigation was ongoing. So we left them to their poems and walked back out to the road.

“For the people,” Toni said to me, “it is real. For the law it is not. For the law it doesn’t exist. That is why the crowds do this. They know the law can’t do anything. So they take things into their own hands.”