KAMLA, PUERTO CABEZAS – The outbreak of an enigmatic illness that was tormenting indigenous communities with bouts of collective hysteria appears to have subsided after a lynch mob recently captured and nearly killed a man they accuse of causing the epidemic.
The recent outbreak of grisi siknis, which afflicted 120 teenage girls and forced three schools to close temporarily, is being blamed on a mysterious drifter who admitted to practicing witchcraft. The man’s confession came after he was captured by an indigenous mob in the town of Kamla, bound with rope and beaten for hours, according to witnesses.
“They were preparing a noose to hang him when I showed up and made them stop,” said Flordina Francis-Nihiwaya, the community judge of Kamla.
Francis-Nihiwaya said the suspected warlock, identified by villagers as José Yassir Fernando Joel Downs, had been in town for about six months and was reportedly taking care of a family member’s house.
No one knew much about the stranger or suspected him of practicing black arts until three neighborhood women – Joysi, Rafaela and Alicia Chow – were afflicted with grisi siknis last May and identified the man during their hysteria-induced nightmares.
“He was flying on the wind with a knife in his hand and he was trying to kill me,” remembers 15-year-old Joysi, speaking in her native Miskito tongue.
Her sister Rafaela, 20, and her mother Alicia, 35, claim they had the same nightmare.
That was all the evidence the villagers needed to organize a lynch mob and put an end to the madness.
Grisi siknis – or “crazy sickness,” in the Miskito language – is a powerful and puzzling cultural-bound syndrome that affects certain indigenous and ethnic groups – mostly teenage women – on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.
Also known by a the indigenous names “bla,” “wakni,” “bubulna” and “lasa prukan” – Miskito and Mayangna words meaning “craziness,” “dizziness,” or “possession by evil spirits” – the strange illness has existed perhaps for centuries, though few have studied it or been able to explain its origins and meaning.
There are various theories and beliefs about grisi siknis. Some think it’s possession by the devil or dwarfs, while others think it’s a mysterious cultural expression of stress, fear, anxiety and repressed libidinal feelings. U.S. anthropologist Philip Dennis, considered the foremost expert on the topic, says it’s “a wild, orgiastic rite of sex and violence.’’
But no one knows for sure. And to complicate matters, the syndrome appears to be evolving and manifesting itself in increasingly violent forms in recent years.
Victims of grisi siknis can be sick for days, weeks or longer. Their behavior alternates between states of hypnotic trance and manic rage. People afflicted with grisi siknis are often reported to have super-human strength, whereby a young girl can overpower five or six men twice her size.
In almost all cases, grisi siknis is an extremely disruptive and traumatic event for individuals, families and entire communities, some of which have literally been destroyed by outbreaks (NT, April 3).
In the case of the Chow family of Kamla, the attack was violent and frightening. Family members said that during the grisi siknis nightmares, the three young women tried to kill themselves with knives, by drowning themselves in the nearby river and by jumping off the porch of their wooden-stilt house.
“We had to hide all the knives in the house; everyone was very scared,” said the grandmother, speaking through a translator. She said it took several neighbors to restrain Joysi, who is about five-feet tall and weighs around 80 pounds.
Joysi and her sister say they don’t remember anything about the ordeal other than their nightmare of Mr. Downs riding on the wind. Several traditional healers tried to cure them with different herbal potions for wind spirits and dwarfs, but Joysi said she would fall back into madness “every time the wind would blow.”
That’s when the lynch mob assembled to pay Downs at visit. At his house, the group found a book of black magic, notebooks full of the names of everyone in the village, potions and amulets buried in his yard. They also found limes that had the names of grisi victims stuck to into them with pins, according to witnesses.
As the suspected male witch was beaten by the villagers, he reportedly warned them that if he died his victims would never be cured.
That’s when community judge Francis-Nihiwaya intervened to save Downs in exchange for his promise to cure the victims. By digging up potions he had buried in the yard of Alicia Chow, the Chow women were cured of their nightmares and hysteria “He burned herbs to cure other victims,” Francis-Nihiwaya said.
Downs was then taken to the police station in Bilwi and thrown in jail. His spell books were burned in the courtyard of the police station.
Two days later, however, Downs was released from jail and fled town.
“Witchcraft is not a crime under Nicaragua’s Penal Code, so the police couldn’t hold him in jail without charges,” explained José Manzanares, of the regional government council.
Before disappearing, Downs reportedly told his captors that he had learned witchcraft in Orinoco, a Garifuna village in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). Residents of Kamla, however, suspect the mysterious warlock was lying about his origins.
They assume he is probably from a remote area near the banks of the Río Coco, on the Honduran border – the same area where the absent family member whose house he was sitting is apparently from, according to the townspeople.
Manzanares, a traditional healer for the government who has been dispatched to various remote communities to respond to grisi siknis outbreaks in recent years, says he thinks Downs was also responsible for last year’s outbreak in the tiny village of Santa Fe, where 38 people were afflicted.
“When we got to Santa Fe last year, the villagers told me they had run a warlock named Downs out of town,” Manzanares said. The healer noted that Downs’ arrival in Kamla corresponds to the time Santa Fe claims to have run the witch out of town.
As a result, Manzanares and other authorities now think that Kamla, a small Miskito village 6 kilometers northwest of Bilwi, was ground zero for the most recent outbreak of grisi siknis, which started last April and afflicted more than 120 people in the surrounding area.
Manzanares says witches can provoke grisi siknis outbreaks even from a great distance, if they know their victims’ names.
No one in Kamla or Bilwi has been afflicted with grisi siknis since Downs was run out of town and his books burned.
Though his whereabouts are unknown and some villagers fear he will seek revenge from afar, most of the victims have reportedly made full recoveries in the past month.
Joyci Chow says she, too, is feeling better, but she’s not 100 percent recovered.
“I still can’t go in the back of the yard behind my house,” she said, motioning to the area where she first was afflicted with grisi siknis. “There is still something buried back there that we can’t find. Every time I go there, my leg gets numb, I start to feel dizzy and I feel the grisi siknis coming back.”