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The scene awaiting a team of Nicaraguan medics and emergency workers as they reached the remote village of Alal must have seemed like something out of a horror movie.
The team had been deployed to a distant village near the Mosquito Coast due to reports that the village had been ravaged by a mysterious outbreak of "grisi siknis", the local name for a rare psychogenic illness that strikes young people in parts of Central and South America. After eight hours of boat travel, the medical team arrived to find the village partially destroyed and over eighty people rampaging with machetes.
“They don’t talk, the just run and run like crazy. And they have such strength! I don’t know where it comes from,” says Isabel Flores, director of the Nicaraguan Health Ministry in Bonanza. “It’s scary; very scary.”
Grisi siknis (which literally means "crazy sickness"), is characterized by long periods of anxiety, dizziness, fear, and irrational anger. The most frightening symptom is the tendency to experience episodes of frenzied behaviour in which the victims "lose[s] consciousness, believe[s] that devils beat them and have sexual relations with them” and runs away." Violent behaviour can also be seen in grisi siknis victims, some of whom even pick up knives or machetes and run around in a threatening manner. Local males typically act to restrain women who have been affected and even bind them with ropes until they become more settled. Cases of gang rape of grisi siknis victims have been known to occur.
Grisi siknis goes by many different names among Nicaragua’s various indigenous tribes — “bla,” “wakni,” “bubulna,” or “lasa prukan.” All the terms translate to something like “craziness,” “dizziness” or “possession by evil spirits.” Though symptoms vary, the victims are typically young girls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. In a seminal study by Philip Dennis of Texas Tech University, the girls who were the most common victims of grisi siknis often lose consciousness following their episodes and awaken with no memory of what had happened. The attacks are also considered to be highly contagious and can spread throughout the entire female population in some places as it did in the village of Alal. Traditionally believed to be due to interaction with evil spirits (refered to as lasas) or the Devil (known as seitan in local lore), Western medical experts consider it to be a form of collective hysteria.
While the exact cause of grisi siknis remains unknown, episodes appear linked to acute anxiety stemming from social or economic pressures. Those areas of Nicaragua and Honduras where grisi siknis has been reported are typically characterized by high unemployment and lack of proper medical care. For many families seeking help for women showing grisi siknis symptoms, the only help available if often the local healers who attempt to cure the women by driving out the evil spirits responsible. In his report on grisi siknis, Philip Dennis suggests that:
Having attacks seems to guarantee a great deal of attention to the young victim. In having an attack, a woman seems to be saying something like: "I may be young and subordinate but I am also sexual, aggressive, self-assertive person." It is interesting that the social response to this assertiveness is additional restraint. Going beyond the bounds of proper behavior evokes a counter-response, which reestablishes the subordinate position of the victims.
The epidemic in Alal apparently began on August 1 deep within the territory held by the Mayangna people inside the rainforest north of the Amazon. As the number of sick villagers rose to forty, a state of emergency was declared and the number has since more than doubled. Along with the property damage resulting from rampaging villagers, the largely agricultural village faces starvation since many farmers have abandoned their crops to care for sick relatives. “This has been going on for more than a month. The people have lost their crops and now there is a lack of food because of the situation. Everyone is affected,” Mayangna leader Gustavo Lino told the Nicaraguan news agency Fusion, in a phone interview.
In trying to halt the grisi siknis epidemic in Alal, traditional healers are suggesting that witchcraft is at work and that the rash of previous epidemics striking the area may due to the same sorcerer. In previous cases, accused warlocks have been nearly lynched by villlagers demanding that they reverse the spell cast on the victim. Witchdoctors have been sent to Alal equipped with herbal remedies to "manipulate the spirits" and cure the people affected. While the Nicaraguan government is reportedly not "familiar" with this approach, Isabel Flores stated that they are willling to try it since the first government team was unable to help using convention medicine. “The first medical team was in the village for 12 days, but couldn’t do much,” Flores told Fusion. “They finally left the community last Sunday. We don’t have the expertise or competency to deal with this. That’s why we’re bringing in three traditional healers from Waspam, [a Miskito town near the Honduran border].”
This is a public health problem like any other,” she added. “These people are sick, only they don’t respond to our medicines.”
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