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.”
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.”
The full text of my story about magical penis theft for Harper’s is now online.
Just quick note to say that as of this week, you’ll find me in Minneapolis, in the shadow of the Mall of America. And while I’ll miss Madison’s Squirrel Diorama, its Brat Fest, working for Madison Magazine and a few other things about the Badger State, it also feels great to be a in new place full of lutefisk and lakes. (Not to mention some fine Somali, Laotian and Mexican food.)
From “What we Loved,” over at World Hum: I was passing through the Brussels airport this week when I saw a copy of Dave Eggers’ book What is the What? It’s the story of Valentino Achak Deng’s life in Sudan’s civil war and beyond. I’d been avoiding this book, partly because a friend told me it was boring. But on the recommendation of Doreen Baingana, who I met in Entebbe, I picked up a copy, started reading and haven’t stopped. I really didn’t want to like this book, because it seemed like one of those quasi-celebrity-vanity-charity projects that I hate. But I have to admit, I was wrong. It’s wonderful, transporting and brilliant.
I just got back from Uganda, a fantastic country with lots of energy and great people, where I was working on a story. Here are a few highlights:
Second best newspaper story: Economy Grows 9% (New Vision)
Best Book title: The Stains of Love…Sometimes Too Much Love Hurts.
Best Foods: malakwang, boo, chicken in sauce, matoke, beef in g-nut sauce.
Best Billboard: “Would you let this man be with your teenage daughter? Then why are you with his? Intergenerational sex stops with you.”
Most Euphoric Moment: Uganda’s third goal against Angola in world cup qualifying match.
Least Euphoric Moment: Pocket picked at same match.
Best Sign: See above. At same number you can also get “Brain Booster” “Hips Gain ” “Bum Gain” and other benefits, all with no side effects.
Other best newspaper story: Bush’s Secret Plan to Bonk Germany Chancellor Revealed. (The Onion-not the ironic one.)