The Curious Phenomenon of Nigeria’s Disappearing Penises

The kind of acute panic attack that brings on ‘koro’ is not unique to Africa but, as economic and social pressures build, more men are feeling the squeeze

The Curious Phenomenon of Nigeria’s Disappearing Penises
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Late in the evening of Sept. 10, at a busy intersection in downtown Calabar, in southeastern Nigeria, a man raised the alarm that his penis had disappeared. A crowd of bystanders promptly rushed to his rescue. “What he saw was smaller than a grain of rice and there were no testicles too,” an eyewitness told New Lines.

Crying desperately, the man pointed at another man whom he alleged to have snatched his genitals during a handshake. Commotion ensued. An irate mob pounced on the accused with a torrent of fists, demanding he restore the other’s organ. No sooner had the police arrived at the scene than the crying man confirmed that his penis had returned.

This story of a missing penis is not an isolated case. In what appears to be an epidemic, more than a dozen cases of missing genitals were reported in September alone in Calabar, a slave port during British imperial rule, now noted for its thriving culture and ample tourist attractions. Outbreaks of penis-snatching have also been reported in other major cities, including the country’s capital, Abuja, 400 miles away. In a video shared on social media by one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers, officers from the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps tortured a man at the defense headquarters in Abuja for allegedly stealing two men’s penises.

“Touch them. Return am now,” the officers barked incessantly at the man, demanding he give back the penises as they whipped him.

According to most victims, a handshake or some subtle body contact usually precedes incidents of penis theft. Kelvin (not his real name), a factory worker, said to New Lines about the alleged snatchers, “Once they touch you or shake your hands, you’ll feel a shock that something has left your body.”

For Kelvin, the shock that bolted through him as he waited at the bus stop one evening after work was enough evidence that his penis had been stolen. Few buses came by as dusk closed in, and Kelvin had to jostle in a large crowd to climb aboard, when he felt a sudden loss of feeling in his groin “like an electric shock,” he explained. “The crowd was too much. I didn’t know who touched me and I didn’t want to shout,” recalled the 44-year-old, embarrassed by the memory. Mad with fright, Kelvin dashed home on a motorcycle taxi instead, panting and crying profusely for help. “I couldn’t hold myself from crying. My children were wondering what had come over me, so my wife called her prophetess immediately when I told her what happened.” Like prophets in the Old Testament, prophetesses in Nigeria are believed to be ordained by God, possessing the power to forecast people’s futures or reverse mysterious attacks like Kelvin’s.

Inevitably, such stories of penis theft have been widely publicized — in mainstream media and on the internet. “It’s hard to know whether these claims are true or just some false speculation,” said Emmanuel Imeh, a radio host at an independent radio station which broadcasts in Nigerian pidgin. “But there’s a foundation to these claims of a truth.”

Amid the rush of reports from Calabar and elsewhere in the country, a few Nigerian comic skit producers have used the stories of missing genitals as material. In one such clip, a man runs to the neighborhood vigilante team, crying about his stolen penis. Alarmed, the vigilantes follow the man to the scene of the incident, where the suspect is being held down by the man’s wife. Under duress, the suspect agrees to return the stolen penis, by some stroke of magic. When the frightened man checks his groin again, he finds a larger penis, much to his delight. Since uploaded to YouTube, this video skit has garnered more than 160,000 views.

Medical experts believe stories of “missing” or “disappearing” penises are unfounded: The manhood obviously does not vanish from the body, contrary to victims’ claims. Yet Alexander Audu, a consultant psychiatrist at a federal neuropsychiatric hospital, explained that in high-stress situations, virile young men in certain cultures may experience the sensation that their penises are shrinking or retracting into the abdomen, which triggers them to raise an alarm. In the field of psychiatry, reports of shrinking genitals represent a culture-bound syndrome referred to as koro.

“To the person experiencing this, it feels like the penis has retracted; meanwhile it’s just your mind playing tricks on you,” Audu said. For such people, Audu explained, feeling a great deal of physical stress or emotional trauma — brought on by economic strain, political instability or depression — could translate into fear of losing their sexual organs. Generally, men plagued with a gnawing insecurity about their masculinity or sexuality may be overpowered by such sudden sensations.

“The craziest thing about koro is that you are so tense and worried. Most of the time the precipitants are stressful life events, economic tension, unemployment, reduced means of livelihood. Since, in the culture, people attach so much importance to sexuality, these fears about society generally easily manifest as fears that your penis is going,” Audu added.

Alongside a marked devaluation of the Nigerian naira in June, Nigeria’s annual inflation rate spiked to 26.7% in September 2023, following the removal of petrol subsidies by the country’s new president, Bola Tinubu. This, together with a string of harsh reforms introduced by the new administration, has taken a heavy toll on citizens’ livelihoods.

Reports of shrinking penises continue to erupt in different states across the nation, filtering into social media. In Calabar, where fewer than a dozen cases were first reported in August, the fear on the streets was almost palpable. The state government felt compelled to quell the mounting tension, partly concerned about possible damage to the city’s reputation among visitors. Calabar hosts an annual carnival, dubbed Africa’s largest street party, during December. On Sept. 12, in its press statement, the state government labeled the reports of disappearing genitals “fake news,” threatening to use “the full wrath of the law” against those spreading the rumors.

Despite the warning, more cases followed. Claims of vanishing penises and mob violence targeting suspected thieves rose to 15 cases, spreading through the streets like a sandstorm. The majority of men in Calabar resorted to pocketing bitter kola, a tropical seed valued for its neutralizing properties, as a talisman. John Uket, an electricity worker living on the fringes of the city, made sure to keep two pieces of the plant seed in his pocket as he commuted to work each day.

“I used to have two pieces in my pocket, but my colleague took one,” he said. The demand for bitter kola instantly drove up its price, as reported by a local newspaper. Locals also relied on charcoal and needles as potent talismans to ward off penis theft.

The phenomenon of koro is not unique to Africa: The earliest cases were recorded in Asia and parts of Europe. The word koro itself is derived from the Malay word “kura” (tortoise). In Malay culture, prominent in parts of Southeast Asia, the head of the tortoise recoiling into its shell was used to refer to the shrinking penis.

Outbreaks of reports of disappearing members have gripped nations around the world across the centuries. At the emergency unit of the Singapore General Hospital in October 1967, hundreds of panic-stricken young men presented with complaints of shrinking penises after rumors spread of an inoculated pig that died from penile retraction. As a result, pork sales dipped. Fearing that they might die if the penis retracted into the abdomen, these victims held tightly to their penises, clamped with restraint devices. Faced with this deluge of koro patients over more than a week, the Singaporean medical association and the government appeared on television and radio, announcing that this was a purely psychological disturbance. More than 460 cases were documented by the end of the epidemic.

Similarly, in the fall of 1976, an epidemic broke out in northeastern Thailand. About 200 patients — predominantly Thai and male — reported at local hospitals with acute anxiety over the shrinking of their genitals. Most of the patients drew on news reports and public opinion to pin the disease on tobacco poisoning and Vietnamese food, seen as sapping Thai people’s sexual vitality and their general well-being. Yet all patients promptly recovered after brief medical intervention.

Stories of penis disappearance were also a concern in medieval Europe. “Malleus Maleficarum,” a manual on witches written by a German clergyman and first published in 1486, contains multiple chapters on the subject of penis theft. They relate stories of 15th-century peasants who claimed to have had their penises stolen and stored in birds’ nests. The men would recover their penises only after appeasing the witches responsible. In one of these stories, a victim tries to choose a larger penis to replace the one he has lost but is told that it belonged to the village priest.

Cases of koro have been recorded in women, too, though much less frequently than among men. Like men, young women experience an overwhelming yet delusional sensation that their breasts or nipples are retracting.

“For the female counterparts, what happens is the complaint that their breasts are shrinking or that their nipples are disappearing,” Audu explained. “Some may even end up piercing the nipple or tying it to something to stop it from retracting.”

Although Western psychiatrists do not fully grasp the nature of the disorder, koro was listed — together with other culture-specific syndromes — in the back of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” of the American Psychiatric Association in 1994.

Although the missing genitals are a figment of the imagination, this is not how the phenomenon appears to the crowds within the psychic range of these scenes, who absorb the claims so wholeheartedly that they can maim or even kill because of them. In April 2001, eight members of an evangelical sect who were alleged to have stolen a penis were burned alive in the Nigerian state of Osun, according to the BBC. More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, young men in a remote community in the state of Benue complained about their genitals disappearing. The ensuing mob frenzy resulted in one suicide and the murder of a spiritual leader, forcing the government to impose a curfew on the community.

“Most of the reports, by the time you investigate, are more related to mass hysteria and something to prove that humans are quite suggestible,” Audu added.

Hapless passersby and shoppers promptly come under mob attack once fingered as suspects, long before the police arrive at the scene. Emmanuel Brown was one such victim. Dark and clean-shaven, Brown manages a small restaurant in the city of Calabar.

One Saturday morning, Brown had set out for the market, with no inkling of what lay ahead of him. Halfway through shopping, he felt a tug on his shirtsleeves from within the noisy scrum. “When I turned, I saw a man holding my shirt and screaming, ‘Give me my penis!’ I thought it was a prank because I didn’t know the man from Adam,” recalled the 32-year-old restaurateur. But koro cases often play out thus: The “victim,” suffering an acute attack of koro, looks around for the closest person who may have touched them, even if briefly. The “attacker” need not be a person known to the victim; in fact, it is usually a stranger.

The accusation grew more forceful, as did the jostling from the crowd that had gathered. Brown would lose his money and phone before he was hauled to the nearest police station. “I was detained for the night since there was nobody to bail me out of the station. My phone and all the money I had was missing,” Brown recalled. Brown has since come to dismiss claims of missing genitals as spurious. “Most of these things are not real. How can you tell somebody that your manhood was stolen and then claim to have recovered it all of a sudden?”

More often than not, koro sufferers are known to experience spells of heightened tension that simmer down over a relatively short amount of time, according to Audu. These periods of increased anxiety — spanning from two to three hours — often cease without any intervention. Sometimes, though, cases may persist longer without the aid of medication. “Some severe cases won’t return to calmness without you giving them anxiolytics,” a class of drugs used to manage symptoms of anxiety.

While reports of koro have largely faded into history in Europe and much of Asia, outbreaks of the disorder persist in Nigeria, where reports of missing penises have recurred since the turn of the 21st century. The cycle begins with reports of missing penises in some community or city. Innocent victims are beaten or killed by a bloodthirsty mob. Panic ensues as more cases are reported, deepening into public hysteria. The police round up a few culprits, and the furor dies down. Three or four years afterward, the cycle begins again.

Despite the violence that has erupted across many cities in the country over concerns of missing genitals, neither the Nigerian government nor its ministry of health has acknowledged the crisis. Where state authorities have tried to address concerns, the response has been forceful and intended to act as a deterrent. On Sept. 19, 2023, the police command in Cross River State arrested 32-year-old Kufre Edet Daniel and indicted him on charges of false claims of stolen genitals, assault and felony. A little over a week earlier, on Sept. 7, next to an imposing Gothic cathedral in Calabar metropolis, Daniel had raised the alarm that his manhood had been stolen, leading to the assault of one Eshu Egbelu, the suspected penis thief. When the matter was taken to the nearest police station, however, the police found the allegations to be untrue, promptly arresting Daniel. Daniel pleaded not guilty before the magistrate court, which adjourned the case, granting the defendant a 300,000 naira ($361) bail, eight times higher than the country’s 30,000 naira monthly minimum wage. Similarly, in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, 51 suspects were charged to court for “giving false information” and fomenting “public disturbance,” according to the city’s police commissioner.

The spokesperson for the Nigerian police force declined to comment on the matter, responding only with a curt “hmm.”

The strong-arm tactics meted out against koro victims and the alleged suspects not only reveal a critical lack of awareness about the nature of the disorder but also show that “most of the cases are not dealt with the right way,” Audu added. “Advocacy and enlightenment will help in this guise. The society needs to be aware of this condition to prevent more people from being lynched and sufferers from being stigmatized for accusing others wrongly.”

Preaching to a largely aged congregation in a booming voice, Chibuike Okoro, a local Calabar pastor in his 50s, spoke about an apocalyptic struggle between Christianity and satanism.

“People, young people, are going extra miles to renew their devilish covenants. That’s why they manipulate and attack people’s penises for rituals,” Okoro told New Lines. Okoro likened the male genitals to a fountain from which all life springs. “Once the Devil takes a man’s penis, he has collected not only the person’s destiny but the destinies of their future children. Such a person’s generation is destroyed.”

Okoro’s sentiment echoes the beliefs of millions of Nigerians who retell or believe these stories of missing penises. As Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria accounts for a sixth of the Christians on the continent. In the 1970s and 1980s, a groundswell of Pentecostal churches, sprouting from campus fellowships, began to surface in Nigeria, promising deliverance and a spiritual rebirth. The advent of Christianity in Nigeria demonized sorcery and occultism, and the exponential growth of the Pentecostal movement deepened this fear. This spiritual horror would inspire Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, in its budding years, as the supernatural — portrayed through occult and witchcraft — quickly became its staple genre. A villainous witch redeemed or an evil confraternity conquered by God were recurrent plots in its early films.

Though the film industry has since evolved beyond those Christian themes, sorcery and the occult still remain sinister threats in the Nigerian imagination — threats that can only be defeated by fervent prayer and strong faith. It was that faith that Kelvin, the man whose penis went missing as he waited for the bus, would rely on to restore his manhood. The prophetess whom his wife called arrived in an instant and launched into a fusillade of prayers against the forces that had snatched Kelvin’s penis.

“The prophetess prayed really hard that night until my thing came back,” he said.

For a great many Nigerians, the last quarter of the year represents its most perilous time. These concluding months — called ember months in common parlance — are believed to be riddled with fatal accidents and deadly mishaps influenced by evil, “because the Devil and his agents are seeking to balance their satanic accounts for the year,” explained Okoro.

Such paranoia around the peak of the year, Audu argued, is synonymous with the anxiety usually experienced by koro patients. “The anxiety in koro is the same with some periods we’ve experienced in the country where there’s heightened fear about traveling on a particular road or people sacrificing others for money rituals, although these fears are not recognized as conditions or disorders.”

On a particularly hot afternoon in early October, streams of market women and men stumbled through an alley after the main road had been cordoned off for repair. Amid the jostle, a woman shouted in native pidgin: “Make nobody thief my breasts o,” and the crowd burst with knowing — and slightly nervous — laughter as they held their arms tighter to their bodies and slithered between passersby.

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