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M. Walsh.

Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

The Politicisation of Popobawa:

Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar

Martin Walsh
University of Cambridge

One of the most remarkable features of recent Zanzibar history has been the occurrence of periodic episodes of collective
panic associated with fear of a spiritual entity called Popobawa. The first and most widespread of the modern panics took
place in 1995, spreading from Pemba to Unguja and across to the mainland coast. This was in the months before
Tanzania’s first multiparty elections, and many Zanzibaris, in particular opponents of the ruling party, settled on a
political reading of Popobawa’s rude intrusion into their lives. Subsequent panics have been similarly interpreted, and
external observers have also been influenced by these politicised understandings of Popobawa. This paper examines the
development of the 1995 panic, and shows that different local explanations for the crisis were put forward before the
political interpretation came to the fore. But there is also evidence to suggest that political history and collective memory have
played an important part in shaping the content of Popobawa narratives, and the paper concludes by highlighting this.

1.0 Introduction
In the first half of 1995 an extraordinary collective panic swept across the Zanzibar archipelago. It started
on the island of Pemba and later spread from there to Unguja and Zanzibar town. Men, women and
children described being assaulted by a shape-shifting spirit, Popobawa, and on the larger island reports
were rife that adults of both sexes had been sodomised by this malevolent entity. In order to avert its
nocturnal attacks many people resorted to spending the night huddled together in anxious groups outside
of their homes. On both islands the panic produced incidents of collective violence, when strangers
suspected of being manifestations of Popobawa were attacked, beaten, and in some cases killed by the
angry mob. Government efforts to calm things down were largely ineffectual, not least because most
Pembans and supporters of the opposition Civic United Front (CUF) believed that the ruling CCM
(Chama cha Mapinduzi) party was itself responsible for bringing Popobawa to the islands in order to
divert attention away from politics in the run-up to the country’s first multiparty elections in October
In this paper, based primarily on ethnographic research undertaken in Zanzibar, I will outline both the
evolution of the 1995 panic and the development of different local explanations for the spiritual assaults
which caused it. When these assaults proliferated on Pemba people struggled to understand why this was
happening, and initially a number of different explanations were put forward, none of them overtly
political. As local accounts make clear, the political interpretation of Popobawa’s brute intrusion into
island life took time to develop. It subsequently came to dominate, particularly on Pemba and among
CUF supporters. And although apolitical interpretations of Popobawa’s evil deeds can still be heard in
Zanzibar, especially on Unguja island, external commentators continue to reiterate the view that the 1995
panic and others like it are inextricably linked to the political process, reflecting the deep and enduring
divisions in Zanzibari society and the anxieties that they generate. This may be so, but a closer
examination of the events of 1995 suggests that this cannot simply be asserted on the basis of one set of
local interpretations and the coincidence of timing between some Popobawa panics and political elections.

2.0 The political context

Before examining the 1995 panic in detail, let me outline the broader political and historical context in
which this and related episodes have taken place. Zanzibar has been through a series of colonialisms,

© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

Portuguese, Omani Arab, and British, and is now a semi-autonomous territory within the United Republic
of Tanzania. The British abolished slavery but retained the sultanate that had built its success on the back
of slave trading and slave labour. When the British departed they handed power over to an Arab-
dominated government which was overthrown the following month in a bloody revolution, the defining
event of Zanzibar’s modern history. Zanzibar became a quasi-socialist state ruled by President Abeid
Amani Karume and his Afro-Shirazi Party, originally named for the islands’ mixed indigenous and ex-
mainland (including ex-slave) population.
Shortly after the Revolution Karume agreed to the union of Zanzibar with Nyerere’s Tanganyika,
establishing what some Zanzibaris see as colonialism. But Karume and his immediate successors retained
a tight grip on the internal affairs of Zanzibar. The islands remained largely closed to outsiders (including
foreign researchers) until economic liberalisation began to take effect and the government started to
welcome significant numbers of western aid workers and tourists in the 1990s. Zanzibar’s economic and
political transition has, however, been a troubled one, and the islands remain deeply divided between
supporters of CCM, the “Revolutionary Party” that has ruled all of Tanzania since the one-party era, and
CUF, which dominates Pemban politics and is now the nation’s main opposition party.
Published sources make muddled reference to different episodes of diabolical terror and panic in post-
Revolutionary Zanzibar. There have been at least five Popobawa panics, the most widespread of which
was the 1995 episode described in this paper, others rather more localised. Table 1 shows these panics in
the context of other notable events in the recent political history of Zanzibar.

Table 1: Popobawa panics in historical context

mid-19th century heyday of Omani Arab rule

1890 British Protectorate declared
1897 slavery abolished
10 December 1963 independence from the British
12 January 1964 Zanzibar Revolution
26 April 1964 Union with Tanganyika to form Tanzania
Late 1960s or early 1970s? first Popobawa panic on Pemba
7 April 1972 President Karume assassinated
1984 economic liberalisation begun
1992 multiparty politics introduced
February-May 1995 major Popobawa panic on both islands (with episodes
also in Dar es Salaam and other mainland towns)
22 October 1995 first nationwide multiparty elections
9 June 1999 Commonwealth-brokered accord (‘Muafaka’)
October 2000 minor Popobawa panic on Pemba
29 October 2000 second multiparty elections
27 January 2001 mass protests and violence
July 2001 minor Popobawa panic on both islands
10 October 2001 second ‘Muafaka’ accord between CCM and CUF
30 October 2005 third multiparty elections
February-March 2007 minor Popobawa panic on Unguja (and in Dar)

3.0 The development of the 1995 panic

In early February 1995, during the first week of Ramadhan, the Muslim month of fasting, men and women
in and around the southern Pemban port town of Mkoani began to complain of nocturnal spiritual
assaults. The culprit was subsequently identified as a spirit (Swahili sheitani) and given the name
Popobawa, a label which people remembered from a similar panic in the years following the Revolution.

© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

A typical assault involved someone waking in the night to find themselves being attacked by an
amorphous or shape-shifting intruder, which was most frequently described as “pressing” or “crushing”
their chest and ribs, and of suffocating them until they had difficulty in breathing and passed out. Other
unusual events might precede or accompany or perhaps replace this standard experience: including
strange sights, sounds, smells and other sensations. Sometimes the victims were children, subjected to the
kinds of abuse that westerners might associate with a poltergeist. In general all of the victims experienced
extreme terror, and were often frozen speechless when they were assaulted.
Their plight might be recognised by their sleeping partners, who might also be attacked in turn. This
happened to people who did not ordinarily have possessory spirits as well as those who did.1 However,
household members and neighbours who did have possessory spirits were liable to go into trance when
Popobawa was about, and when they did so their spirits would identify and challenge Popobawa and cry
out to alert others of the intruder’s presence. The general scene was often one of pandemonium breaking
out until Popobawa moved on. The spirit or spirits (pl. mapopobawa) might attack many homes
simultaneously, in the same or different parts of the town or countryside.

Table 2: Chronology of the 1995 panic

2 February holy month of Ramadhan begins
First week of February Popobawa attacks in Mkoani
3 March Idd ul Fitr begins, fast ends
12 March night of crisis in Limbani, Wete
29 March only sporadic incidents
3 April ‘Popobawa’ killed at night in Zanzibar town
4 April body of ‘Popobawa’ exhibited in town hospital
6 April mob takes ‘Popobawa’ to police in Mazizini
14 April Popobawa moves out of Zanzibar town
28 April another ‘Popobawa’ killed in Nungwi
2 May the last dated report (possibly relating to the Nungwi incident)
Dar es Salaam undated incidents following those on Unguja
Tanga, Mombasa unconfirmed reports of incidents

The attacks spread across Pemba and people began spending the nights outside of their houses, trying to
stay awake huddled around open fires. At first, because it was Ramadhan and association with unholy
practices was frowned upon, people were unable to resort to local doctors (waganga, sg. mganga), to divine
their troubles or help protect them. In some cases - and I am not sure whether this was during or after
Ramadhan - individual communities were believed to have successfully repelled Popobawa because they
possessed superior guardian spirits. Occasionally people took matters into their own hands, and local
mobs beat up suspected manifestations of Popobawa - often unkempt and inarticulate men with mental
health problems who were found wandering about at night.
After two months the panic was dying down on Pemba. By then it had spread to Zanzibar town on the
main island of Unguja. Here both the assaults and the popular response took a more violent turn.
Popobawa began to sodomise its male and female victims, and several alleged mapopobawa were killed by
angry mobs. The most notorious of these incidents took place in Zanzibar town. The body of the victim
was displayed for all to see in the government hospital and his parents were interviewed on state television
to verify that he was a mainlander who had come to Zanzibar to seek treatment for a mental health

1 For spirit possession in Zanzibar see Giles 1989; Goldman 1996; Nisula 1999; Larsen 2008. Zanzibar is
in the middle of a spirit possession ‘complex’ that spreads from Somalia in the north to northern
Madagascar in the south. Key references include Lewis 1966; Lienhardt 1968; Gray 1969; Gomm 1975;
Lambek 1981; 1993; Giles 1987; Sharp 1993; Caplan 1997.
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

problem. The crowds of people that filed past his body were generally unconvinced by this explanation:
the government had no doubt substituted Popobawa with a real corpse and persuaded the alleged parents
to say it was their son’s (Jansen 1996).
Within a couple of weeks of this incident Popobawa - or all 70 of them on some counts - had moved
north out of town, and eventually the attacks fizzled out without spreading to villages on the south and
east of the island. They did, however, spread to at least one quarter in Dar es Salaam (where many
Zanzibaris live), and perhaps also to Tanga and Mombasa, though I could not confirm this at the time.
On Pemba the episode lasted about two months, before ravaging Zanzibar town and north-west Unguja
for a third month. The terror ended on the islands almost six months before the October 1995 elections
took place.

4.0 Research on Popobawa

At the time of these events I was living in Pemba, at Limbani on the outskirts of the northern town of
Wete.2 However, when Popobawa was working his way up the island I was away from Zanzibar, and did
not hear about it until my return after the end of Ramadhan. My first impression on Pemba was of the
intensity of talk about Popobawa. This was, after all, the main means by which Popobawa narratives
spread: there were then no newspapers on Pemba and, as far as I am aware, no mention of Popobawa on
state radio until the first killing in Zanzibar town.
I was fast asleep on the night that Limbani suffered its greatest crisis. I learned afterwards that the whole
community had been in an uproar, and that Popobawa had even come calling on me. One of my
watchmen, Salim, told me how in the middle of the night he had been confronted by the sight of a
quivering white dog at the open entrance to the compound. It ran off but Salim’s suspicions were raised.
Shortly afterwards another strange animal, unknown to Salim, appeared in the same place, and shook in
the same odd way before departing. The third and last visitor was a diminutive man, a dwarf who
trembled like his predecessors. When Salim made to move towards this goblin it danced and hopped
around the project Land Rovers parked in the garden before making off. This was too much for Salim
and he too bolted off into the night, making a beeline for the nearby main road and the houses on the
other side of it. In his somewhat sheepish account of these events he told me that he had run off to check
that his own wife and children were alright. My neighbours, who were up and outside their own house at
the time, later confirmed that Salim had indeed sprinted across the road in the dead of night,. Their first
reaction was to panic, thinking that the fleeing Salim was Popobawa.
Following this incident I resolved to find out more, and recruited a research assistant, a married woman in
her early 30s, who asked not to be identified because of the political content of this and subsequent work
that we did together. In less than a fortnight in April 1995 Jamila filled a series of exercise books with
Popobawa incidents and related commentary based on her own interviews with colleagues, friends and
relatives in Wete. I have used this material as the basis of this paper, though I have also woven in material
from other interviews and sources on both islands, including information gathered since. Jamila’s
compilation was by far the most comprehensive, though it clearly gives a Wete point of view and there is
understandably less detail on incidents in Zanzibar town and elsewhere on Unguja.

5.0 Early explanations of Popobawa

One of the many striking features of Jamila’s meta-narrative was her account of how explanations for
what was happening during the 1995 episode developed over time, and I will run through these now.

2 I was employed as a social anthropologist on the ODA-funded Zanzibar Cash Crops Farming Systems
Project (ZCCFSP), working with farmers’ groups and promoting participatory agricultural development
on both islands. I had already lived for some years on the East African coast and was a fluent speaker of
Swahili when I arrived in Zanzibar in August 1994. I have been a regular visitor to Unguja and Zanzibar
town since leaving Pemba in June 1996.
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

The Swahili name Popobawa (p’opo-bawa) translates literally as ‘wing-bat’ or ‘winged bat’, said to be a
reference to the ominous outline or dark shadow cast by this malevolent spirit at night. People trace the
name (and in some cases the spirit) back to an earlier episode of panic that took place in the south of
Pemba following the 1964 Revolution. This Popobawa sodomised both men and women, terrorising
Mkoani and its environs for a month or more, until, on some accounts, Karume himself came to the
island and challenged the spirit to come to him at night (it did not). I have yet to find contemporary
reports of these events and there is little agreement in recent published accounts regarding the details of
this episode including its dating during Karume’s rule.
Jamila gave the year as 1965. A neighbour told her that as many as ten people were then being assaulted
every night in Mkoani. Diviners attributed this to a sheitani but the placatory offerings that they
recommended had no effect. Then one diviner declared that the real culprit was not a kind of spirit (jini or
sheitani) but a person using ‘medicines’ to perform sorcery. Some people accepted this interpretation but
others ridiculed it. The government intervened and a group of elders appointed by the President
determined that the cause of the problem was a man of Makonde (Mozambican) origin who had resorted
to sorcery to take revenge on Pemba for being forced to divorce his estranged Pemban wife. He was
caught and brought before Karume before being paraded around Pemba on a lorry and then gaoled for
To Jamila and another informant, the only significance of this first Popobawa panic was that it provided
an analogy and therefore a name for whatever it was that was assaulting the residents of Mkoani in 1995.
The two modes of assault were quite different: whereas the earlier Popobawa sodomised his male and
female victims, the Popobawa that attacked Pembans in 1995 merely crushed and frightened them,
penetrating their bedrooms but not their bodies. Some informants from Unguja doubted this asexual
account of Pembans’ recent suffering, suspecting that they were too coy to reveal that they had been anally
raped. The narratives recorded by Jamila’s made it clear that this was not the case, but provided a reason
for the switch to sexual violence on Unguja (see below).
This labelling of Popobawa in 1995 did not explain why it was happening and who or what was behind it.
According to Jamila people in southern Pemba considered a number of possibilities. The most alluring
explanation to emerge was that Popobawa was the work of a spurned witch-finder known as Tekelo.
Tekelo had plied his trade on the mainland since at least the early 1980s, moving from community to
community with a team of assistants and rooting out witches in classic fashion. In the early 1990s he
came across to Zanzibar and was invited to Pemba by the inhabitants of Chokocho, a village in the south.
However, his visit to the island, widely reputed to be a powerful centre of witchcraft and wizardry, was not
entirely successful. In Pemba alleged witches are generally not accused openly or subjected to any
sanctions: they are merely the subject of gossip and a mixture of fear and admiration for their powers (cf.
Goldman 1996). Seeing their grandmothers turned out of their homes and humiliated in public was too
much for some communities and they sent Tekelo packing without paying his fees. Others were dismayed
that when he left Pemba there was no apparent reduction in the total sum of illness and misfortune, and
they too branded him a charlatan. So when Popobawa went on the rampage people speculated that the
malevolent spirit had been sent from the mainland by Tekelo, either in revenge for his own humiliation or
as a ruse to create more work for himself on Pemba.
This explanation did not follow Popobawa as the panic travelled northwards. In the central town of
Chake Chake a different theory was revealed as follows. During a spiritual assault on a married couple
one of their neighbours went into a possession trance and her possessory spirit struggled violently with the
phantom intruder until it fled. The spirit then called for a local mganga and explained to him what the
cause of the island’s current miseries really was. A couple of years before a whale had been found beached
on the shore and people came from far and wide to cut out portions of its flesh and blubber. At the same
time a woman in Chake Chake had gone into trance and her possessory spirit declared that this whale was
in fact the child of a greater spirit, warning people not to eat it or else they would suffer the consequences.
Needless to say a lot of people took no notice. Returning now to the 1995: the possessory spirit that had
just repelled a spiritual intruder identified the earlier transgression against the whale’s mother as the cause
of contemporary attacks that people were labelling Popobawa. And it went on to suggest that people
should take special offerings of food down to the shore to placate the dead whale’s spirit-mother.

© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

This revelation rejected any identification with the original Popobawa because the former had sodomised
its victims whereas the phantom of 1995 did not. But the whale’s revenge was never more than another
localised explanation.

6.0 The politicisation of Popobawa

In Jamila’s narrative - and the accounts of everyone else I asked on Pemba - the ‘real’ explanation for
Popobawa did not emerge until the panic had reached Wete in the north. During one of many incidents
in the town the possessory spirit of a local woman announced that the culprits were certain unnamed
politicians, members of the ruling party (CCM), who had brought 70 spirits to the island to harass people
and distract them from talking about and becoming involved in politics. Wete and the surrounding district
was the stronghold of the opposition CUF party, supported by the great majority of Pembans and at that
time engaged in a bitter struggle with the CCM-controlled administration to be allowed to operate freely
and prepare for the coming national elections. Indeed when the Wete District Commissioner (DC) heard
that people were speculating about the identity of the CCM politicians alluded to by the spirit, he locked
nine people up and charged them with insulting government leaders. People refused the DC’s suggestion
that they recruit a mganga to prepare medicines to counteract Popobawa, and thereafter the number of
nocturnal assaults in and around the town increased.
On the night of the 12th of March there was a major incident in Limbani, with multiple assaults and a
frenzy of spirit possession that saw the possessed running wildly through the village and down into the
surrounding rice valleys. (This was the night that Salim fled from my home compound). The immediate
cause of this was afterwards thought to have been the actions of a group of local youths who were
prominent among the victims of assault that night. They had hurled insults at a passing vehicle whose
erratic movements back and forth over the previous three days had led villagers to suspect that it was
being used to transport nocturnal assailants. (The youths had actually cried out “There go the bats
(mipopo), there they go! God will curse you!”). This vehicle belonged to a CCM member of parliament
(MP), and after Limbani’s worst night speculation grew in Wete that another vehicle, belonging to a CCM
member of the Zanzibar House of Representatives, was also being used to spread Popobawa along the
road in this way. According to Jamila the idea that CCM politicians were responsible for this whole affair
then spread throughout the island.
A collective response was organised in Wete. Residents of the town contributed to a fund to pay for the
services of waganga, who were called out to capture the spirits as soon as people became aware of their
presence in a home or neighbourhood. Special prayers were also read in the Friday mosque and a variety
of other prayers and ritual offerings were organised by the elders of Wete. Consequently numerous
mapopobawa were trapped and in some cases interrogated with the help of possessory spirits. On a number
of occasions the malevolent spirits identified themselves as having been sent by Pemba’s leading CCM
politician, who was Zanzibar’s Chief Minister, and thereafter in many people’s eyes the chief cause of
Popobawa. He was alleged to have brought Popobawa from the mainland, and the wide extent of the
political conspiracy appeared to be confirmed when some of the trapped spirits declared that they had
come from ex-President Nyerere’s home village in northern Tanzania.
When reports came back to Pemba that Popobawa had begun to sodomise its victims in Zanzibar town,
some people interpreted this as just revenge on the CCM-supporting population that had sent the spirits
to them in the first place. The spirits had been expelled from Pemba and were now turning against their
owners, punishing them with a sexual violence that had been absent on the smaller island.
Otherwise the theory that Popobawa had begun as a CCM conspiracy spread everywhere that there was
strong support for CUF, and that meant throughout Pemba (cf. Cameron 2002a) and also across to
Zanzibar town and north-west Unguja, where there were many Pembans living as well as other supporters
of CUF (likewise particular neighbourhoods in Dar es Salaam on the mainland). Although this became the
explanation for Popobawa in most Pemban narratives, it was not the only one. In the heart of Zanzibar’s
Stone Town, a notorious focus of CUF activism, it was widely believed that the multiple mapopobawa were
spirits that had possessed the first President Karume during his lifetime, and that they had come to remind
people of their existence and chastise them for neglect. Their sodomising of mainly male victims was
linked to persistent rumours about the late Karume’s sexual prowess: it was averred that he was endowed

© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

with a larger than average penis and that women who slept with him (there were rumoured to be many of
them) would no longer desire other men.3
Despite the fact that Zanzibar town was the seat of government, the administration and other CCM
supporters there failed to counter the Popobawa narratives that worked against them, including the
widespread belief that they had spirited away the first Popobawa that people had killed. With the help of
religious leaders and the state-controlled media the government tried to curb the spread of the panic and
the outbreaks of mob violence that went with it. It is possible that this did play a part in shortening the
career and minimising the impact of Popobawa on Unguja. But neither the government nor conservative
Muslim clerics there came up with a counter-narrative that could match the power of the conspiracy
theory from Pemba.
In Wete and elsewhere on Pemba it was easy to believe that CCM’s campaign of spiritual assault had
ended because people and their companion spirits had recognised it for what it really was and taken
appropriate counter-steps. For some time afterwards I myself was beguiled by an agnostic version of the
same thesis, and suspected that the panic had indeed ended on Pemba once people came up with a
convincing and widely-agreed explanation for it - as though the conspiracy theory functioned like a kind of
scaled-up collective ‘talking cure’. But I am not so sure now, and find it equally possible that the panic
metaphorically burned itself out as it spread from community to community and quarter to quarter,
exhausting the pool of potential victims and witnesses in each one as it passed through (that is, the pool of
people susceptible, for whatever reasons, to experiencing or reporting the appropriate experiences).
The narratives of Popobawa were explained in terms of existing discourses that could be convincingly
related to them, that could swallow them up and be nourished by them in turn. Most of these
explanations were localised, restricted to and reflecting particular histories in particular areas: Popobawa
as a witch-finder’s trick or revenge; a spirit-whale’s revenge; or the anger of Karume’s neglected and
oversexed spirits. On Pemba and among Pembans everywhere it was ultimately folded up into the
political discourse that was then dominating Pemban life, one that could now explain their spiritual and
moral suffering as well as their economic and other woes.
Appropriately enough, this explanation seems to have emerged through the intended and unintended
participation of a large number of ordinary men and women: among them victims, witnesses, both male
and female spirits, local waganga and other interpreters and narrators, an apparently democratic genealogy
that underlay Jamila’s composite narrative and now informs mine. The role of women and their
possessory spirits is especially noticeable, though the gender of these spirits as well as of other actors in
the narratives recorded by Jamila is often erased by the lack of male/female gender markers in Swahili, the
language of their telling. As it first unfolded on Pemba this was a people’s panic which resisted official
attempts to control it and was not consciously engineered by opposition politicians, though CUF
supporters were later able to make good use of a conspiracy theory that stigmatised CCM and bolstered
their own political narrative.
This kind of manipulation was much more evident following the 1995 episode and especially in the run-up
to the general elections in 2000. By this time the idea that Popobawa was a political phenomenon linked
to election campaigns had become firmly established. It was widely rumoured that Tanzania’s President
Mkapa had been forced to abandon campaigning and flee Zanzibar after spending a painful night in the
company of a number of vengeful spirits. And photocopies of a newspaper cartoon that showed half-clad
CCM members in desperate flight from Popobawa were widely distributed at CUF rallies (Cameron
2002b). Otherwise the implicit prophecy that Popobawa would return during these elections was barely
fulfilled. A few incidents were reported from east-central Pemba, but that was about it. Likewise
Popobawa’s minor appearances in mid-2001 and early 2007, and failure to turn up immediately before or
after the troubled 2005 elections, cast doubt on the thesis that the periodic spiritual crises were necessarily
bound to the trials and tribulations of the political process in Zanzibar.

3 In October 2007, during production of the documentary film The Nightmare (Gray Brothers 2008), I
elicited a number of apolitical explanations for the past activities of Popobawa in Zanzibar town and
thereabouts. The presence of a government representative during filming evidently made many
interviewees reluctant to discuss well-known political interpretations of events.
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

7.0 The political thesis amplified

The politicised Popobawa of mid-1995 was readily incorporated into meta-narratives in the international
media and on the internet. An article in the British newspaper The Guardian in October 1995 set the ball
rolling (McGreal 1995). Among other things this reported the connection that some people were then
making between the appearance of Popobawa and periods of political tension. But this statement and
many of the details in the article were progressively amplified and distorted as they were copied by other
journalists and writers (e.g. Anon. 1996). This was especially so as the internet grew in importance, and
items about Popobawa proliferated after the 2000 elections (e.g. Russell 2001; Saleh 2001; Anon. 2004-08;
Maclean 2005; Anon. 2007).4 An article in The Economist in December 2003, with the sub-heading
‘Superstition as a political barometer’, presented a particularly topical version of the political thesis,
suggesting that the periodic Popobawa panics functioned not only as a mirror of social anxiety but also as
a predictor of political terror – referring in this context to known connections between Al-Qaeda and
Zanzibar, and the possibility of terrorist attacks in this tourist mecca (Anon. 2003).
A sophisticated version of the same thesis is argued by the anthropologist David Parkin, discussing
“Provenances in the Making of Zanzibari Politics”:
“What are such extensive spirit movements about? If spirits are sometimes mnemonics recalling
the past, does Popobawa recreate the fears and terror of the oppression and brutality suffered by
the people of Zanzibar during and since slavery, a subject normally too delicate to be mentioned?
If we regard the Popobawa movement as part of the political election in Zanzibar and not just as an
accidental prelude to it, then it can indeed be regarded as a continuing trajectory of communal
violence that continues into the present.
During the 1995 election campaign, a surfeit of past events was worked into rhetorical promises
of a better future, bringing together old fears and new possibilities. Would there be another
massacre, not just of political parties against each other but of ‘racial’ groups or kabila? This fear
was presented not as a formulaic political argument, but as what we translate as imagined suffering
and terror, a kind of emotional pre-emptive strike, clearing the spiritual ground before the argument
of political campaign began. It as if people knew that issues of power are not settled by rational
debate but by past and present resentments of privation and oppression.” (2004: 115-116)
Having listened to various accounts of oppression and brutality, I do not entirely agree with the suggestion
that Zanzibaris find this “a subject normally too delicate to be mentioned” (my emphasis). Reluctance to
talk about such matters publicly often stems from the fear of government surveillance and its consequences,
and it was for this very reason that my research assistant Jamila asked not to be identified in print. Since
the Revolution the authorities have actively used censorship and the security services to discourage open
discussion of politically sensitive topics, in particular the events of the Revolution itself. Not surprisingly
therefore people readily saw Popobawa as another means by which the government was trying to silence
More importantly I disagree with the implication that Popobawa was in some sense an integral and
inevitable component of the intense politicking of 1995. Elsewhere Parkin refers to Popobawa as “a spirit
that has a habit of sweeping across large areas of the Zanzibar islands of Unguja … and Pemba at times of
political crisis” (2004: 114). As we have seen this statement is incorrect. And in 1995 Popobawa was not
initially interpreted as a party political phenomenon, and the politicisation of the panic did not take hold
until it reached the stronghold of CUF support in the north of Pemba.

4 As well as being a readymade subject for (often ethnocentric) political comment and quirky ‘human
interest’ stories, Popobawa was also admitted into the global pantheon of occult beings. Many of the
websites that have lists of strange and mythical creatures now include passages about this hybrid
Popobawa, sometimes fancifully depicted in an artist’s image (the first of these was based on McGreal’s
description of how Popobawa was drawn in a Zanzibar market). Perhaps not surprisingly, the sexual
content of Popobawa narratives has also excited widespread interest, while the phenomenology of the
nocturnal attacks has attracted the attention of students of sleep paralysis and its cultural manifestations
(see Nickell 1995; Gray Brothers 2008).
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

However, I do agree with Parkin’s argument that historical memories of suffering have infused
understandings of Popobawa, and would argue that this has happened both directly and indirectly as
different narrators have consciously or unconsciously made use of these earlier narratives in producing
their own. Parkin draws particular attention to the role of memories of slavery and the deep ethnic
divisions that stem from this period and continue to mark Zanzibaris’ different perceptions of themselves
and others. I think that an equal and perhaps stronger case can be made for the role of memories of the
Revolution of 1964, because this was the event which more than any other crystallised previous conflicts
and continues to dominate the political landscape of Zanzibar.
Indeed some Popobawa narratives seem to echo the terrors that the Revolution brought. I have already
mentioned that in Jamila’s account the violent Popobawa episode that followed shortly after the
Revolution was eventually blamed on a Makonde man. The Makonde were originally slaves and
immigrant labourers from Mozambique and to many Zanzibaris they are represented as archetypal
savages, non-believers traditionally marked by deep facial scarification and the wearing of large lip-plugs.
In the early days of the Revolution a number of Makonde were employed to do the dirty work of the
Revolution’s unexpected leader, the self-styled Field Marshal Okello. Okello’s Makonde henchmen spent
some time on Pemba, where they are said to have terrorised the inhabitants of Mkoani and the south in
particular. Is it a coincidence that the first Popobawa, a brutalising spirit that also ravaged Mkoani, was
blamed (in Jamila’s narrative) on a Makonde? There are too many ifs and buts here, but nonetheless a
possible link with the political terror, if not just everyday representations of savagery.
Another possible connection can be drawn with the widely reported story that during the 1995 panic the
inhabitants of the village of Vitongoji on Pemba were beaten with sticks by a phantom assailant despite
the fact that they were awake and sitting up outside their houses. The first few years of the Revolution are
known to Pembans as “siku za bakora”, “the days of the stick”, a reference to the frequent beatings that
they received and the public humiliations, imprisonment, torture and unexplained disappearances that
occurred at the time. Vitongoji was the location of an army camp that was established in 1964, one of
three designed to help quell opposition to the Revolution. Soldiers based there reported being beaten by
invisible sticks as well as suffering numerous other kinds of spiritual assault. These were blamed on the
fact that the camp had been built adjacent to a traditional witches’ meeting-place, where the local spirits
had already been angered by the construction of a new school. The caning and other unpleasant
experiences were their revenge (Arnold 2003). Were then the 1995 beatings themselves revenge for these
earlier phantom assaults on the military? Or did they represent a memory of the violence and beatings
that Pembans had really suffered in the 1960s? Again, we have no way of being certain, but the evidence
is suggestive.

8.0 Conclusion
Detailed consideration of these arguments is beyond the scope of this paper, whose purpose has been not
to explain the 1995 panic and its constituent narratives, but to outline the basic sequence of events and in
particular the way in which local explanations of these were politicised, subsequently influencing the
accounts of journalists and others, including Parkin’s anthropological thesis. Of course I am not arguing
for the depoliticisation of interpretation in this and other cases, but for careful analysis and especially an
understanding of when and where the political agendas and narratives of others have infected our own.
Contemporary anxieties may or may not help to generate experiences that lend themselves to ‘occult’
interpretation. But historical and other social memories, phobias, terrors, and related anxieties most likely
do and have influenced the content of narratives like those of Popobawa, and some of these narratives
seem to have prefigured their subsequent explanation in narrow political terms. Whatever imaginary
flapping or flickering shadow of a bat’s wing conjured up Popobawa in 1995, local accounts suggest that
the panic was not at first explained with reference to party politics. But it surely reflected and refracted
political and other discourses more generally as individual nightmares were converted – through the
memories and voices of victims, the spirits of the possessed and their various interpreters – into a
terrifying episode in Zanzibar’s collective political nightmare. At the same time I have no doubt that this
episode, like the history it contains, will never be repeated in quite the same way.

© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33

This paper could not have been written without the help of many Zanzibaris, including my research
assistant ‘Jamila’ and long-term collaborator Asha Fakhi Khamis. It is an edited version of a seminar
paper read to the University of Cambridge Department of Social Anthropology in February 2005 and
available until 2007 on the internet. I am grateful to a number of colleagues for their critical observations
and other inputs into my research on Popobawa: they include Ray Abrahams, Al Cheyne, Harri Englund,
Helle Goldman, Adam and Andrew Gray, Bethan Rees Jones, Nick Long, David Parkin, Amy Rowe (and
the editorial board of Cambridge Anthropology), Malcolm Ruel, Rob Spence, Marilyn Strathern, Adrian
Walsh, and Konstantinos Zorbas. I would also like to thank the editors of the Journal of Humanities for
inviting me to contribute to their inaugural issue, and the anonymous reviewers for their incisive
comments. None of them is of course responsible for the final result.


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© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-7079