Here on the Nicola Peninsula in Costa Rica, the medical news that dominates headlines today is not swine flu but a mysterious affliction called grisi siknis(or “jungle madness,” in the language of the Miskito). In neighboring Nicaragua, an outbreak of grisi siknis that sickened 120 teenage girls and closed three schools in the village of Kamla has apparently receded after an angry mob captured a drifter suspected of practicing black magic, bound him with rope, and nearly beat him to death. The police took the man into custody and burned his spell books in a public square, but he was soon released because witchcraft is not a crime in Nicaragua.
Grisi siknis is a contagious collective hysteria that strikes indigenous people in Nicaragua, primarily young pubescent women, who fall into a trance, become manic or violent, and often imagine that the devil is sexually possessing them.
Western medicine, while acknowledging the disease, has had difficulty explaining it. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes grisi siknis as “a psychological disorder due to stress, upheaval, and despair.” According to Phil Dennis at Texas Tech University, the disorder is “a wild, orgiastic rite of sex and violence.” Western physicians who have traveled to villages where grisi siknis is epidemic have been unable to help those afflicted. The Miskito believe that grisi siknis is caused by evil spirits conjured up by sorcerers, and that herbalists and witch doctors can exorcise the spirits and cure the disease. The epidemic that just claimed 120 teenage women in Kamila, Puerto Cabezas, may be the largest on record. Here’s a YouTube video recently posted by a journalist at The Nica Times.