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Diabolical Delusions and Hysterical Narratives in a Postmodern State

Diabolical Delusions and Hysterical Narratives in a Postmodern State

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Published by Martin Walsh
An illustrated seminar paper by Martin Walsh outlining and analysing different explanations for the collective panic that swept across Zanzibar in 1995 and was associated with nocturnal assaults by a malevolent spirit dubbed Popobawa.
Citation: Walsh, M. T. 1995. Diabolical Delusions and Hysterical Narratives in a Postmodern State. Presentation to the Senior Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 4 February 2005.
An illustrated seminar paper by Martin Walsh outlining and analysing different explanations for the collective panic that swept across Zanzibar in 1995 and was associated with nocturnal assaults by a malevolent spirit dubbed Popobawa.
Citation: Walsh, M. T. 1995. Diabolical Delusions and Hysterical Narratives in a Postmodern State. Presentation to the Senior Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 4 February 2005.

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Published by: Martin Walsh on Apr 06, 2009
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01/31/2013

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 1
presentation to the
Senior Seminar 
, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge,4 February 2005
[1: title slide]
Diabolical delusions and hysterical narratives in apostmodern state
Martin T. Walsh
Department of Social AnthropologyUniversity of Cambridge
[2: quote from
The Economist 
]In 1995 an extraordinary mass hysteria swept across Zanzibar. I happened to beliving there at the time and came away with the ethnographic scraps that you’ll behearing shortly. For most of the past decade these notes have been boxed away whileI did other stuff, though I did bring them out a few years ago when internet accessprovided new material as well as a chance to explore some of the comparativeliterature. Now that I’ve been back in Cambridge for more than a year I’m runningout of excuses not to write some of this up. This is my first attempt. My basic aim isto provide an overview of the events of 1995 and what I know about them, and tohighlight some of the things that I think are interesting about this particular case.The problem I set out with in 1995 was how to explain these unusual events. I soonrealised that almost everyone in the affected areas of Zanzibar was asking much thesame question. And initially at least, they came up with a variety of explanations. Somy second problem became how to explain these explanations and understand theirrole in the unfolding of events. The garbled account in
The Economist 
that you seehere represents a recent development of the explanation that has taken hold amongforeign journalists and other commentators. It presents “the occult” as a mirror of anxiety and perhaps even a predictor of political terror (the article winds up in thenext paragraph by referring to Zanzibari links with Al-Quaeda and the threat of terrorist attack in this tourist mecca). These are topical themes - they have to be for
The Economist 
- and I’ll return to them later.
 
 2[3: hysterical book covers]My third problem - at least when I began thinking about these things - was to relateevents on Zanzibar - and their explanation - to the wider literature on mass hysteriaand related phenomena. I’ll make some connections today but not as many as Iperhaps could, and I’ve become wary of attempts to establish typologies of thesecollective events or standard templates of explanation. In this talk I’ll use the words‘hysteria’ and ‘panic’ in a loose and largely colloquial way. Ditto ‘narrative’ and‘discourse’, though I guess that I can’t and probably don’t want to cast off all of theintellectual baggage that comes with them.Anyway, let me take you there.[4: Zanzibar historical milestones]First some background information. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous state within theUnited Republic of Tanzania. It comprises two main islands - Unguja and Pemba -and a number of smaller islets in the Indian Ocean. The capital, Zanzibar town, islocated on Unguja, the largest island.Zanzibar has been through a series of colonialisms, Portuguese, Omani Arab, andBritish. The British abolished slavery but retained the sultanate that had built itssuccess on the back of slave trading and slave labour. When the British departed theyhanded power over to an Arab-dominated government which was overthrown thefollowing month in a bloody revolution, the defining event of Zanzibar’s modernhistory. Zanzibar became a quasi-socialist state ruled by President (and to somedictator) Abeid Amani Karume and his Afro-Shirazi Party, originally named for theislands’ mixed indigenous and ex-mainland (including ex-slave) population.Shortly after the Revolution Karume agreed to the union of Zanzibar with Nyerere’sTanganyika, establishing what some Zanzibaris see as another colonialism. ButKarume and his immediate successors retained a tight grip on the internal affairs of Zanzibar. The islands remained largely closed to outsiders (including foreignresearchers) until economic liberalisation began take effect and the government
 
 3started to welcome significant numbers of western aid workers and tourists in the1990s. Zanzibar’s economic and political transition has, however, been a troubledone 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,the Civic United Front, which dominates Pemban politics and is now the nation’smain opposition party.
The Economist 
and other published sources make muddled reference to differentepisodes of diabolical terror and mass hysteria in post-Revolutionary Zanzibar. As faras I know there have only been three, and the mother of recent spiritual plagues took place in 1995, in the run-up to Tanzania’s first multi-party elections, which were heldin October of that year.[5: Popobawa chronology, 1995]In the first week of Ramadhan, the month of daytime fasting, men and women in andaround the southern Pemban port town of Mkoani began to complain of nocturnalspiritual assaults. The culprit was subsequently identified as a
sheitani
, evil spirit, andgiven the name Popobawa, a label which people remembered from a similar panic inthe years following the Revolution.A typical assault involved somebody waking up in the night to find themselves beingattacked by an amorphous or shape-shifting intruder, which was most frequentlydescribed as “pressing” or “crushing” their chest and ribs, and of suffocating themuntil they had difficulty in breathing and passed out. Other unusual events mightprecede or accompany or perhaps replace this standard experience: including strangesights, sounds, smells and other sensations. (One of my favourites is the man whowoke up with a start to the sound of an alarm bell, looked to one side and saw a tinydog with a rotating green light on its head. He then watched in silence, struck completely dumb, while this dog itself began to revolve, turning faster and faster,getting bigger and bigger as it did so, and the light on its head becoming brighter andbrighter. This whirling illuminated growing dog subsequently turned into a humangiant so tall that his head and shoulders were invisible.) Sometimes the victims werechildren, subjected to the kinds of abuse that we might associate ourselves with a

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