LOUD WHISPERS: Koro Syndrome

A few days ago, there was a video in circulation. It was a recording of a woman who had been stripped naked by a baying mob in Abuja, and was being paraded. Her alleged offence was that she had caused the penis of a man to disappear. If not for her rescue by police, she would have been beaten to death. Claims of missing penises have been around for a long time, recently, there seems to have been a resurgence of missing genitalia. Someone yells out, usually in a public place (these organs hardly ever disappear in the privacy of a home) that their organs have gone missing immediately after contact with someone. The suspect is apprehended and there is nothing he/she can say to insist on innocence. A penis has gone missing and someone has to be held responsible. The ‘missing breasts’ are a new one, but I suppose it is to prove a point that no gender has a monopoly over madness.

Koro Syndrome is characterized by a person’s acute anxiety attacks due to their belief that their sex organs are retracting and disappearing into their body. This phenomenon is so common in parts of Asia, Africa and Europe that it has been listed in the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMD). According to the DSMMD, ‘Koro is a culture bound disorder in which individuals have an overpowering belief that their sex organs are retracting and will disappear, despite the lack of any true longstanding changes to the genitals’. Koro is believed to originate from the Malay word Koro which means ‘shrink’.

While I was trying to find out more about Koro in a global context, I came across The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo death and the search for meaning of the world’s strangest syndromes by France Bures (2016). It gives interesting insights into the world of ‘culture-bound syndromes’ and covers claims of ‘missing penises’ in China, Singapore, Nigeria, Ghana and parts of Europe a few centuries ago. His journey to Nigeria to find out more about Koro claims is as revealing as it is hilarious. His central thesis is that no part of the world is immune from beliefs that might be considered strange in other places. Whether it is individual psychosis or group hysteria, the human mind is quite complex and what is ‘normal’ here could be insanity next door. Understanding, empathy and knowledge are critical tools that we all need as human beings to navigate the communities we live and work in.

It is easy for us to simply write off these ‘Koro victims’ as mentally unstable, poor, illiterate or unsophisticated. They probably are some combination of the above. What I find troubling is the process that validates their claims – the violent mobs who descend on whoever has been pointed out as the culprit. It is one thing for a single person to become delusional and make outlandish claims. It is another for a group of people to collectively, and very quickly, descend down a rabbit hole with tragic results. One person suddenly believes that his penis has left his body. He raises the alarm. No one bothers to strip him to check if the claims are true. His word is enough, a man will not say he cannot find his penis if it is not missing. Yet a woman was stripped naked and prodded through a public place because a penis allegedly disappeared. There was nowhere in the video where we saw what was left of the man’s ‘stolen’ penis.

In the group that orchestrated this injustice, there was probably someone who flunked out of school, but blamed his father’s aunt for placing a curse on him. Someone in the group had probably been told that his mother was a witch who was impeding his progress. Another one would have been informed by her Pastor that her father had locked her womb (this one really happened a few days ago) and someone would have just been involved in rituals which would guarantee immense riches. Not only do we invest so much time and energy indulging in a belief in all these phenomena, we teach our children to believe in them too. I remember when I asked my father about these myths and superstitions, he would scoff and say, ‘It is simply not true’. I would say, ‘But people say it is true! If so many people believe it must be true’, and my father would respond, ‘You do not have to be one of them. Your mind has to be yours’. If my father had a different belief system, that is what he would have tried to teach me. Funny though, my mother is on the other side of the argument, so I have simply learnt to amicably disagree with her on these matters.

Every time I watch a Nollywood movie relentlessly reinforcing a belief in witchcraft, charms, money rituals and the like, my heart sinks at the damage that is being done. Many religious bodies pass on the same message too because the Devil is good for business. So-called pillars of the society are also known to patronize strange people who promise them powers, fame and glory. Young people, even teenagers, now know where to go for money rituals. Who taught them, how do they know these things? So, every time a man claims his penis is missing, there is a multitude of people who have been socialized from birth to believe that he has to be right. This nonsense has to stop.

First, our mental health services at Federal and State level need to be supported to address this issue. While Koro is an established condition around the world, the response if a man’s penis goes ‘missing’ on the streets of Paris will be different from if it happens on the streets of Ibadan. In other places, there will be mechanisms in place to address this challenge in a manner which provides comprehensive support for the alleged victim. If a penis goes ‘missing’ around here, there are often disastrous consequences for the alleged snatcher of the penis. That reminds me, it was not stated anywhere if the poor woman in Abuja had the penis on her after she had been stripped naked, but let us leave that for the police to figure out.

Second, our law enforcement, political, religious and community leaders have to take steps to protect the general public from these disturbed people and not fuel their delusions. We need a law that prohibits anyone from claiming that his/her sexual organs have been stolen/taken. If a ‘victim’ makes such a claim they should immediately be taken in for psychiatric evaluation and treatment, and under no circumstances must anyone be molested for such an accusation. Mental illness should not be stigmatized and we cannot pathologise anyone who has mental health challenges. However, we cannot continue to create an enabling environment for innocent people to be put at risk of losing their lives.  

Third, as parents, teachers, academics, creative artistes, entertainers and all those who have a role to play in the creation and sharing of knowledge, we should think of new ways of being African in the times we live in. Our rich cultural heritage as Africans has embedded in it a world view that respects human dignity, justice, enlightenment, progress and a belief in the common good. These are the value systems we should be passing on to our children, not the thinking that your penis can mysteriously disappear at the motor park. And if for any reason, you think your penis has left your body, quietly go to your Doctor or Pastor/Imam and leave the rest of us out of your predicament. Once the penis has been ‘found’ we will join you in thanksgiving.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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2 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Koro Syndrome

  1. Adegbola Opeyemi October 7, 2023 at 7:58 am

    Wow! This is so so enlightening. Well explained

  2. Iyanuoluwa Isinkaye October 8, 2023 at 10:32 am

    Nice, thank you for this


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