I have wanted to write an update on the penis snatching incident that occurred here in Tiringoulou last week, but some of the responses I've received to my previous post have reminded me that a phenomenon that seems normal (though unfortunate) here appears bizarre to people elsewhere, and I don't want to portray people here as exotic rubes.
As I learned more about the incident, I had one of those moments that occurs sometimes during field research when words on paper suddenly become animated: so this is what the recent surge of anthropological literature on “occult economies” was about. Led by the Comaroffs, this branch of research investigates the ways that people make sense of a world in which the origins of wealth have largely become obscured from view. Before, this argument goes, wealth came from things like factories. Townspeople could see in front of them why the owner had a mansion: the coal-spewing workhouse. But when people become massively, incomprehensibly rich from something as ephemeral and mysterious as credit swaps (or government corruption), it is bound to have an effect on our explanations about how the world works. And one effect that scholars have noticed is a heightened anxiety about the body and trades in organs.
Several people with whom I spoke in Tiringoulou made these links. “You see how advanced Cameroon is compared to CAR? They have multi-story buildings! It's because they are so strong in commerce of all kinds – including in genitals and scalps.” (Male pattern baldness sufferers take heart: your bald pates fetch higher prices in this trade.) Practitioners of such magic profit in one of two ways. A man here in Tiringoulou who used to live in Cameroon had seen both with his own eyes. In a crowd, a person might suddenly realize that his penis has disappeared. He cries out. Immediately his savior steps forward: I'll heal you, he says. For a fee of 25,000 [about $50]. Or else the penis-taker sells his loot to the boss who taught him the magic, for which he is handsomely rewarded.
The man who had lived in Cameroon described one case that particularly stuck in my mind. A woman arrived at the airport, off to Europe to sell a load of penises. The airport guard sensed something fishy about the woman and decided to thoroughly go through her hand luggage. He saw that she had packed some baguette sandwiches and asked if he could have one. The woman assented and made to hand him the one on top. But he persisted in reaching deeper, deeper into the bag and picked one from the bottom. Now the woman became agitated. He unwrapped it and found that, though butter leaked from the edges to make it look innocent, a row of penises were lodged between the loaf's halves. A penis-butter sandwich. Not to be eaten. Without a doubt this is the most memorable tale of “effective” (the story-teller's term) airport security I've heard.
When I asked another man if he'd heard of any similar magical crimes, his response surprised me. “Yes. In Bangui sometimes a child in a crowded street will eat a biscuit and suddenly disappear – all the way to Nigeria!” All of a sudden people's anxiety here sounded familiar: how many ridiculous strictures (not allowing kids to walk to school, for instance) have been erected in the US in recent years due to a largely irrational fear of the dreaded candy-offering kidnapper?
If the idea of penis-stealing seems beyond-the-pale weird, consider what people in a subsistence economy might think upon hearing of an American woman who starves herself near death because her reflection in the mirror convinces her she's fat? Or consider the affliction philosophers love to ponder which consists of being convinced that certain of one's limbs are not supposed to exist, making them beg their doctors for amputations. What, ethically, should the doctor do when the person avers that she will cut it off herself if necessary (and those sufferers who do so report immense relief afterward)? One hundred thousand people in the US have this condition, if Wikipedia is to be believed. I cite these examples only to highlight that there is no end to the strange things people experience when it comes to their bodies.
Did the men in Tiringoulou really have their penises magically removed? Everyone here (including the doctor at the hospital) thinks so. I don't, but the men's experience of debilitating illness certainly seems real. Perhaps their maladies are as real and yet medically invisible, unexplainable, as certain kinds of back pain or chronic fatigue syndrome. For this latter condition, the only effective treatment appears to be group talk therapy with fellow-sufferers – people who don't doubt your agonizing reality. In that respect, people in this poorest of places are well-off.
Do we even need to define ethnographic film?
3 hours ago