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Witchcraft believed by some to be affecting villagers in Nicaragua

March 4, 2009 |  9:14 am


I've been to Nicaragua and explored its narrow jungle rivers by night on a jon boat. I got stuck on a sandbar and had to get out and push. A large crocodile came into focus beneath the light of the moon, and I walked on water.

Thankfully, I never contracted grisi siknis, also called "crazy sickness."

Nor had I ever heard of an ailment that is currently affecting Miskito communities along the Río Coco, leading to an influx of doctors and indigenous healers, who are not sure what causes a disease that generates collective hysteria among its victims.

Some are convinced it's a curse or the result of witchcraft, and there are many in the area who believe in such things. When I was there, a local shaman, who lived near the San Carlos River on a stilted house, was said to possess remarkable healing powers.

Oddly, the mysterious illness apparently affects mostly young people and places them in a trance and gives them superior strength, according to Centuriano Knight, a health coordinator with the North Atlantic Autonomous Region, or RAAN.


Knight told the English-language Tico Times: "A 15-year-old girl with siknis can overpower six or seven men. The men can't detain her, and have to tie her up in bed sheets."

The illness doesn't always instill violent behavior -- mostly people just start running madly about -- but during a similar outbreak in 2003 some began scurrying around with machetes, trying to harm others.

If I didn't know better, I'd say it's a reaction to a world in economic and environmental crisis. But it seems more like some waterborne amoeba affecting the brain. Or perhaps it is a curse. I'm just glad I'm not there to witness the spectacle.

-- Pete Thomas

Photos: Local residents commute on the San Juan River separating Nicaragua from Costa Rica. Among their staples are large freshwater shrimp. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times