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The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar

The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar

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Published by Martin Walsh
Walsh, M. T. 2009. The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities, 1 (1): 23-33.
Walsh, M. T. 2009. The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities, 1 (1): 23-33.

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Published by: Martin Walsh on Jul 05, 2009
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M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-707923
 The Politicisation of Popobawa:Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar
Martin Walshmtw30@cam.ac.uk 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 startedon the island of Pemba and later spread from there to Unguja and Zanzibar town. Men, women andchildren 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 itsnocturnal attacks many people resorted to spending the night huddled together in anxious groups outsideof their homes. On both islands the panic produced incidents of collective violence, when strangerssuspected of being manifestations of Popobawa were attacked, beaten, and in some cases killed by theangry mob. Government efforts to calm things down were largely ineffectual, not least because mostPembans 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 todivert attention away from politics in the run-up to the country’s first multiparty elections in October1995.In this paper, based primarily on ethnographic research undertaken in Zanzibar, I will outline both theevolution 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 washappening, 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 intoisland 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 inZanzibar, especially on Unguja island, external commentators continue to reiterate the view that the 1995panic 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 closerexamination 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,
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-707924
Portuguese, Omani Arab, and British, and is now a semi-autonomous territory within the United Republicof 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 retaineda 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 andpolitical transition has, however, been a troubled one, and the islands remain deeply divided betweensupporters of CCM, the “Revolutionary Party” that has ruled all of Tanzania since the one-party era, andCUF, 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 inthe 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 rule1890 British Protectorate declared1897 slavery abolished10 December 1963 independence from the British12 January 1964 Zanzibar Revolution26 April 1964 Union with Tanganyika to form Tanzania
Late 1960s or early 1970s? first Popobawa panic on Pemba
7 April 1972 President Karume assassinated1984 economic liberalisation begun1992 multiparty politics introduced
February-May 1995 major Popobawa panic on both islands (with episodesalso in Dar es Salaam and other mainland towns)
22 October 1995 first nationwide multiparty elections9 June 1999 Commonwealth-brokered accord (‘Muafaka’)
October 2000 minor Popobawa panic on Pemba
29 October 2000 second multiparty elections27 January 2001 mass protests and violence
 July 2001 minor Popobawa panic on both islands
10 October 2001 second ‘Muafaka’ accord between CCM and CUF30 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 womenin and around the southern Pemban port town of Mkoani began to complain of nocturnal spiritualassaults. The culprit was subsequently identified as a spirit (Swahili
 ) and given the namePopobawa, a label which people remembered from a similar panic in the years following the Revolution.
M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33
© JH, The University of Dodoma ISSN 1821-707925
 A typical assault involved someone waking in the night to find themselves being attacked by anamorphous 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. Otherunusual 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 thekinds of abuse that westerners might associate with a poltergeist. In general all of the victims experiencedextreme 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. Thishappened to people who did not ordinarily have possessory spirits as well as those who did.1However,household members and neighbours who did have possessory spirits were liable to go into trance whenPopobawa 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.
 ) might attack many homessimultaneously, in the same or different parts of the town or countryside.
 Table 2: Chronology of the 1995 panicPemba
2 February holy month of Ramadhan beginsFirst week of February Popobawa attacks in Mkoani3 March Idd ul Fitr begins, fast ends12 March night of crisis in Limbani, Wete29 March only sporadic incidents
3 April ‘Popobawa’ killed at night in Zanzibar town4 April body of ‘Popobawa’ exhibited in town hospital6 April mob takes ‘Popobawa’ to police in Mazizini14 April Popobawa moves out of Zanzibar town28 April another ‘Popobawa’ killed in Nungwi2 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 tostay 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 ( 
, sg.
 ), to divinetheir troubles or help protect them. In some cases - and I am not sure whether this was during or afterRamadhan - individual communities were believed to have successfully repelled Popobawa because they possessed superior guardian spirits. Occasionally people took matters into their own hands, and localmobs beat up suspected manifestations of Popobawa - often unkempt and inarticulate men with mentalhealth 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 themain 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
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 televisionto verify that he was a mainlander who had come to Zanzibar to seek treatment for a mental health1For spirit possession in Zanzibar see Giles 1989; Goldman 1996; Nisula 1999; Larsen 2008. Zanzibar isin the middle of a spirit possession ‘complex’ that spreads from Somalia in the north to northernMadagascar in the south. Key references include Lewis 1966; Lienhardt 1968; Gray 1969; Gomm 1975;Lambek 1981; 1993; Giles 1987; Sharp 1993; Caplan 1997.

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