BILWI – “We are asking God for protection over you,” said Father Rodolfo French,as he shook holy water over the bowed heads of 30 teenagers in a ceremony he called a “preventive exorcism.” “Talk to God always, and don’t leave any space for anyone else to get in.”
The Catholic priest stressed that “prayer is important” in the battle against grisi siknis, a mysterious syndrome or ailment that has suddenly reappeared in the indigenous communities of Bilwi and other parts of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).
In the nearby EvangelicalMoravaRenovationChurch, Rev. Kenneth Bushey is also looking to the Bible for answers. He insists the recent outbreak of grisi siknis, which “attacked” seven women in his church last weekend, is a “sign of the end of times.”
Grisi siknis, or “crazy sickness,” is a powerful and puzzling syndrome that affects certain indigenous and ethnic groups – mostly young teenage women – on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. While past occurrences of grisi siknis have been mostly limited to rural indigenous communities along the Río Coco, there have been 10 new outbreaks in schools and churches in downtown Bilwi over the past two weeks.
Three elementary and secondary schools were forced to close for several days last week to prevent widespread panic after more than 40 students “fell ill” with the mysterious condition.
“We were scared,” says 11-year-old Ana Stefani, whose Morava J.A.C. school was closed for three days last week after 35 of her classmates were afflicted. “The girls were yelling like they were possessed and they were naming names of other students. Their eyes were closed and their fists were clenched.”
Foreigners who have witnessed grisi siknis have similarly chilling tales. Katie Booton, a U.S. nursing student working for a missionary group in the rural Miskito community of Francia Sirpi, said she was recently asked to transport a young woman with grisi siknis to the health clinic in Waspam.
“At first she seemed scared, but by the end of the trip she was raging,” Booton said.
“Three men were struggling to hold her down in the back of the truck, as she tore their shirts. She was screaming and digging her fingernails into her palms.”
Those who are affected by grisi siknis exhibit get inexplicable “superhuman” strength. Even young girls have been known to overpower five or six men while under its effects.
Grisi siknis is a syndrome, ailment or demonic possession, depending on who you ask. Its first known occurrence was reportedly in 1816, when a widespread outbreak affected the entire coast and lasted for three years. Since then it has been sporadically reported by other missionaries and foreigners living among coastal indigenous communities during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Philip Dennis, professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Texas Tech University, lived with the Miskito community of Awastara in 1978-’79 and conducted the first academic research on grisi siknis. He registered 63 victims in the community, and witnessed four attacks while he was there.
“In the Awastara epidemic, the young women believed they had sex with spiritual creatures who came to molest them,” Dennis told The Nica Times this week in an email. “I saw a woman have an (apparent) orgasm as two or three adults, including me, held her down. In her own mind she was certainly having a sexual experience.”
Siknis by Any Other Name
The indigenous call it “bla,” “wakni,” “bubulna,” or “lasa prukan” – Sumu, Mayangna and Miskito names that translate something like “craziness,” “dizziness” or “possession by evil spirits.” Recently, it’s become more widely known as “grisi siknis.”
Religious leaders insist the affliction is nothing short of “demonic possession.”
Anthropologists call it a “cultural sickness,” and psychologists call it “collective hysteria.” The affliction is blamed on everything from black magic and dwarfs, to socio-economic stress, hormones or an imbalance in nature. Others have speculated that it is caused by ingesting contaminated water or a crop fungus with hallucinatory effects, but so far tests have found nothing.
While the mysterious condition has many names, most agree that it has started to manifest itself in increasingly violent forms ever since the Contra war in the 1980s.
Santo Tomás de Umra
The most violent outbreak of grisi siknis occurred in 2003 when 26 indigenous Mayangnas were afflicted in the village of Santo Tomás de Umra, on the Río Coco along the Honduran border.
Eye witness José Manzanares, a traditional healer and head of the RAAN’s government office of traditional medicine, said those who fell ill in Santo Tomás grabbed machetes and chased other people around town “with the speed of an athlete.”
“They had their eyes closed and their faces turned up toward the sky, but they still chased people around. They could see with their eyes closed!” Manzanares told The Nica Times. “The only way people could escape from them was to hide under a porch or a house, where they couldn’t be seen.”
When Mayangnas are afflicted with grisi siknis, they reportedly have a violent reaction toward metal objects, which some have later described as appearing like “balls of fire” behind their eyelids. The violence mixed with indomitable strength was a devastating combination for the village of Santo Tomás.
“I saw a man punch an entire wooden house to the ground because he was bothered by the metal nails in the walls,” said Manzanares. The man reportedly broke both of his hands in the process, but didn’t seem to feel any pain at the time.
By the end of the three-month outbreak in Santo Tomás, the entire village had been destroyed by similar acts of uncontrollable rage.
“That was scary. I wanted to get in a panga and escape from the village after I saw that,” Manzanares said. Instead, he “protected” himself by carrying a lime, garlic, a bag of sulfur and the petals of several flowers.
In Santo Tomás, Manzanares and others were able to eventually capture and tie up the afflicted residents and conduct a mass-healing ceremony by burning a combination of natural plants and herbs.
The Dwarf and the Horseman
Many people who are afflicted with grisi siknis say they don’t remember much after coming out of the trance. But those who do remember speak of a similar nightmare: a mysterious horseman who tries to force them to drink a goblet of blood and drag them off into the mountains.
Witnesses say people under the spell often yell at an unseen assailant, and struggle to escape. Those who manage to run off disappear into the woods, sometimes for up to weeks, months or even years.
Juan Gónzalez, of Bilwi, said his wife was afflicted 10 years ago while sitting calmly in the house with family members. She suddenly closed her eyes, clenched her fists and started screaming about someone waiting for her outside on horseback.
“Six men, her brothers and cousins, could not restrain her and she ran into the yard,”Gónzalez remembers. “I grabbed her in the yard and asked God to give me strength to defeat the devil.”
Gónzalez said his wife eventually calmed and fell into a deep trance, during which they were able to cure her with an herbal remedy. Many believe grisi siknis is the work of dwarfs, or spirits that inhabit the earth – an important part of the indigenous community’s cosmology.
Most people who are afflicted make their hand into a tight fist with their thumb inside their four fingers, and some reportedly do the same with their feet, tucking their big toe underneath the other four. Miskitos claim this is the telltale sign of the dwarf ’s involvement, because “The dwarf only has four fingers and four toes, so he can’t stand to see a fifth,” says Sarafina Espinoza, head of the department of traditional medicine for URRACAN, the university of the RAAN.
Many speculate as to what is causing the most recent outbreak in Bilwi – everything from witchcraft to poverty.
Manzanares, meanwhile, says the affliction has reached “pandemic” levels and wants the central government to declare a health emergency in the region so that there can be a better coordinated response.
Despite the various beliefs and explanations, no one denies that something bad is happening in Bilwi.
“To say you don’t believe it is to close your eyes to what is happening,” said Manuel Coleman, the administrator of Morava J.A.C, school that closed last week. “I saw it and I believe it. I just don’t know what’s causing it.”