Reports of genital theft have spread like an epidemic across West and Central Africa over the past two decades, in tandem with what appears to be a general resurgence of witchcraft on the continent. Anthropologists have explained this rise as a response to an increasingly mystifying and capricious global economy. Which is to say that when the workings of capital are as genuinely obscure as they are in today’s Africa, proceeding behind a veil of complexity and corruption, rumors of “occult economies”—often involving a trade in human organs—offer a less mystifying explanation for the radical disparities in wealth on display.
In Africa today, scholars who study penis snatching understand it mainly as an urban phenomenon—an extreme expression of the anxieties that pervade a city when villagers become urbanites en masse, living among throngs of unfamiliar people.
Penis snatching, they said, was a means of supplying an illicit and lucrative trade in organs. Cameroonians and Nigerians—people from places “where they have multistory buildings”—were seen as particularly well versed in the business. “You see how advanced Cameroon is?” someone said. “It’s because they are so strong in commerce of all kinds, including in genitals and scalps.” The stolen organs, my companions said, are sold to occult healers for use in ceremonies, or else they are quickly fenced back to victims of penis snatching for a price. But the real money was to be made in Europe. One man who had spent some time living in Cameroon said he had heard of a woman there who was nabbed by airport security while trying to smuggle several penises to the Continent inside a baguette.