You can be forgiven for mentally associating the phrase “touch and follow” with a fun playground activity. If you were raised in a certain part of the world however, you might realise that there is nothing juvenile about “touch and follow” – an euphemism for the sinister act of putting a hypnotic spell on an unsuspecting victim. The phrase comes from a belief that all the perpetrator (with the right juju) needs to do is touch the victim, who immediately follows the perpetrators every command. If Nollywood movies are anything to go by, many victims (usually a post-imperious man, under the command of a scorned woman) go on to live “normally’ following the spells – going on to start families they eventually appear shocked by, when their senses return.
This isn’t just urban legendry. Many of us were warned by parents – not to talk/stand close to/accept anything from strangers, or risk being abducted by “gbomogbomos” (kidnappers) and be harvested for shrine food.
Is there any truth to this phenomenon, or is it another urban myth? The search for the fire behind this smoke led us to Columbia and the much feared borrachero tree, which mothers warn their children against falling asleep under its branches. The tree’s seeds can be processed to produce scopolamine (or burundanga as it is locally known), a very dangerous drug. A group of Vice reporters uncovered some very harrowing tales and experiences in their interactions with victims of this drug. One such victim reported to the police one morning that his account had been emptied overnight. During the investigation, the bank produced CCTV footage of him holding his cheque book and ID the day prior, and accompanied by a young female . Apparently, he had requested to withdraw all of his life savings and signed several documents as proof. Another chilling story is told of Andrea Fernandez who boarded a public bus with her newborn son, only to wake up in hospital with no memory and no baby.
Borrachero flowers aka “devil’s breath”
How does it work? This is what makes burundanga so scary. Scopolamine is a tasteless, odourless drug which turns its victims into ‘zombies’. When inhaled, victims are reported to look and act normally, while being ominously compliant to commands. This makes it the drug of choice for criminals who can ask their victims to hand over all their belongings, and meet no resistance, no suspicion.
How does it work on the body? Scopolamine blocks the actions of acetylcholine in the parasympathetic nervous system. As little as 1/20th of a grain of rice taken over 3 days can be used to treat motion sickness and nausea. A dose the size of a grain of rice will act on the central nervous system, interact with the temporal lobe and impair memory. Neuroscientist Renate Thienel, from the University of Newcastle in Australia, has studied its effect on problem-solving and memory tasks during brain scans. He noted that “scopolamine has a selective effect on memory, although other mental functions, such as planning and information manipulation, are unaffected”. In normal speak, this means that while the victim can carry out normal tasks, he/she will not remember any of it.
Long before scopolamine was”discovered” in 1959 by an Austrian physician – Giovanni Anthony Scopoli, it was used by Colombian Indian tribes to bury alive the wives and slaves of dead chiefs, to enable them quietly accompany their masters to the afterworld. In the 20th century, it was used in Germany with great success as a birth anaesthetic and analgesic, enabling the mother to have no memory of the pains of childbirth, while being fully compliant with the entire procedure. Injections of morphone and scopolamine would be administered when she started having contractions, and if all went well, she would have no recollection of what transpired after the second or third injection.
By 1922, another use for the drug had been found – as a “truth serum”. Supposed criminals interviewed under its influence would have no option but to tell the truth as “they cannot create a lie because they have no power to think or reason” – Dr Robert House, American Obstetrician. Dr House made several cases for introducing the drug into the legal system for conducting interviews. He cited the case of a man who was hanged, and later found innocent. Had the man taken scopolamine, he argued, the error might have been prevented. And the drug was used in the 1920’s and 30’s in US police departments.
How can I protect myself? In unfamiliar areas notorius for kidnappings, try to avoid using public transportation if you can help it. Avoid leaving your food or drink unattended in bars and restaurants and also don’t accept drinks from strangers. It turns out our parents were right after all. Here is the warning the US State Department issued on its Colombia page:
Use of disabling drugs: The Embassy continues to receive reports of criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs to temporarily incapacitate tourists and others. At bars, restaurants, and other public areas, perpetrators may offer tainted drinks, cigarettes, or gum. Typically, victims become disoriented or unconscious, and are thus vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault, and other crimes. Avoid leaving food or drinks unattended at a bar or restaurant, and be suspicious if a stranger offers you something to eat or drink.