Nicaraguans fall to 'crazy sickness'
Evangelical Rev. Kenneth Bushey says the outbreak of a mysterious disease in a remote part of Nicaragua is the work of the devil
TIM ROGERS/FOR THE MIAMI HERALD
Photo By TIM ROGERS
Special to The Miami Herald
BILWI, Nicaragua -- A mysterious illness that's driving some indigenous Nicaraguans to hysteria has authorities scrambling to find answers.
No one is entirely sure why the so-called grisi siknis -- the Miskito term for ''crazy sickness'' -- has returned to this port town on Nicaragua's northern Caribbean coast, but it has residents on edge.
More than 80 cases have been reported here in the past two months, including eight more girls who were afflicted at school April 21. The outbreaks are becoming a daily occurrence in schools, according to regional government authorities.
''We were scared,'' said 11-year-old Ana Stefani, whose Morava J.A.C. school in Bilwi was closed for three days last month after 35 of her classmates were afflicted in the schoolyard. ``The girls were yelling like they were possessed and they were calling out names of other students. Their eyes were closed and their fists were clenched.''
Grisi siknis is a powerful and puzzling cultural-bound syndrome that afflicts Nicaragua's indigenous and ethnic communities, mostly young adolescent Miskito women. Outbreaks have been reported as far back as the early 1800s. Some health experts say the illness is more mental than physical. However, it behaves similar to other viral outbreaks in that it's contagious and can last for months or years.
`THE END OF TIMES'
Residents say it's related to the supernatural: An evangelical reverend says the phenomenon is a sign of ''the end of times'' while a Catholic priest conducts ''preventive exorcisms'' and urges his faithful to pray for protection against demonic forces. And witch doctors are giving children charms to protect them from witchcraft and dwarfs.
Authorities have had to close four schools in recent weeks to prevent widespread panic among students.
''There is more devil than God in the city right now,'' said Rev. Kenneth Bushey, of the Moravian Renovation Evangelical Church, where seven women took ill with grisi siknis during a youth group event last month. ``God is testing our faith.''
While most outbreaks have occurred in remote villages, in the past month there have been some 50 new cases reported in the relatively populous regional capital of Bilwi, and dozens more cases have been reported in neighboring municipalities. Residents here fear the area is on the brink of an epidemic.
José Manzanares, a head of the regional government's department of traditional medicine, said he has asked the central government to take grisi siknis seriously. So far, however, the issue has been regarded by Managua as one of ''Indian craziness,'' Miskito leaders say.
The Sandinista government has not issued a formal response.
''The people feel unprotected,'' Manzanares said. ``The epidemic is getting worse and the government is not prepared to respond to the situation.''
Katie Booton, a nursing student from Nebraska working for a missionary group in the rural Miskito community of Francia Sirpi, said she was recently asked by villagers to transport a young woman with grisi siknis to a nearby health clinic.
''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.''
Grisi siknis sufferers often experience alternate states of a coma-like trance and indomitable mania, according to witnesses. In the manic stage, victims usually keep their eyes closed and fists clenched with their thumbs tucked underneath their other four fingers, which many interpret as a sign of the dwarf -- evil spirits thought to inhabit the earth, an important part in the indigenous view of the cosmos.