Eight hours and six waterfalls north of Bonanza, a boat loaded with Nicaraguan government medics, Miskito witchdoctors, and indigenous guides is puttering up the final stretch of the Waspuk river to a secluded jungle village that’s been ravaged by mysterious outbreak of collective hysteria known as “grisi siknis,” or crazy sickness.
The scene awaiting the rescue team in the village of Alal is appalling: a partially destroyed village torn apart by 80 indigenous Mayangnas under a spell-like trance that makes them manically violent and virtually indomitable. A schoolhouse and 20 bamboo huts have been chopped to the ground by machete-wielding Mayangnas in the throes of a grisi siknis-induced rampage. Healthy villagers can do little to stop them.
“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 government's Health Ministry in Bonanza. “It’s scary; very scary.”
The Mayangna Nation, the self-proclaimed "guardians of the forest," live in the Bosawas Reserve in northern Nicaragua.
Grisi siknis is an episodic, culture-bound syndrome that mostly afflicts indigenous populations in Nicaragua. It has puzzled doctors and anthropologists for centuries, since it was first chronicled by missionaries in the early 1800s. Grisi siknis is thought to be a psychological affliction, but it spreads like other viral contagions, especially among young women. Outsiders have likened it to the Salem witch episode in colonial Massachusetts, or the outbreak of “Saint Anthony’s Fire” in the Middle Ages.
The current outbreak started on Aug. 1 in the Mayangna territory of Sauni As, deep inside the largest rainforest north of the Amazon. A week later, the Mayangna Nation declared a state of emergency as the number of sick villagers rose to 40. That number has since doubled. Now, what started as a public-health problem has developed into a food-security crisis as villagers abandon their fields to attend to the sick full time.
“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 Fusion in a phone interview.
What is grisi siknis?
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.”
During a previous outbreak in 2009, I traveled to the remote Miskito village of Kamla, on Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean coast, to interview Joysi and Rafaela Chow, two sisters who had recently been “cured” of grisi siknis after the townsfolk nearly lynched an alleged warlock accused of bewitching them.
“He was flying on the wind with a knife in his hand and he was trying to kill me,” 15-year-old Joysi told me, speaking through a translator in her native Miskito tongue. Joysi, like most people afflicted with grisi siknis, reportedly gained inexplicable strength while under its trance, easily tossing men twice her size. A group of men eventually restrained the 80-pound girl. She and her sister were cured when a community lynch mob “convinced” (with kicks and punches) the accused warlock to reverse his spell in exchange for his life.
Joysi and Rafaela Chow, of Kamla, claim they were afflicted with grisi siknis by a warlock in 2009. Photo by Tim Rogers.
Grisi siknis investigator Serafina Espinoza, director of the department of traditional medicine at Nicaragua’s URACCAN university in Bilwí, suspects black magic is also to blame for the most recent outbreak in Alal. Espinoza says a smaller bout of grisi siknis was reported last May in the remote Mayangna village of Alto Wanke, near the Honduran border. The traditional healer sent to the community to cure the 45 afflicted villagers reported witnessing witchcraft, she says.
Espinoza says the same warlock, who reportedly fled Alto Wanki when the healer arrived, might be responsible for larger outbreak now deeper in the jungle.
“The two cases are very similar. In Alto Wanki, the afflicted also destroyed homes. They had lots of strength and were difficult to control,” Espinoza told Fusion. “We’re investigating whether the cause of the two outbreaks is the same.”
Community members restrain a girl with grisi siknis during an earlier outbreak. Photo by La Prensa Nicaragua
She said the three Miskito witchdoctors sent to Alal will determine whether “negative witchcraft” was also responsible for the larger outbreak.
The witchdoctors are equipped with bottles of so-called "Florida Water" and other herbal concoctions used to “manipulate the spirits” and cure grisi siknis. The government’s health director admits the treatment is not something Nicaraguan doctors are familiar with, but says she’s willing to give it a try after the first government medical team failed to cure anyone with conventional medicine.
A local pastor in Bilwi throws holy water on teenagers to protect them from a grisi siknis outbreak in 2009. Photo by Tim Rogers.
“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].”
A public health crisis
In the past, Nicaraguan governments have always dismissed grisi siknis as “Indian craziness,” while religious leaders have sought answers in scripture. Only now has the government taken the issue seriously.
"This is a public health problem like any other," said the health ministry’s Flores. "These people are sick, only they don’t respond to our medicines."