You are on page 1of 30

presentation to the Senior Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 4 February 2005

[1: title slide]

Diabolical delusions and hysterical narratives in a postmodern state
Martin T. Walsh
Department of Social Anthropology University of Cambridge

[2: quote from The Economist] In 1995 an extraordinary mass hysteria swept across Zanzibar. I happened to be living there at the time and came away with the ethnographic scraps that you’ll be hearing shortly. For most of the past decade these notes have been boxed away while I did other stuff, though I did bring them out a few years ago when internet access provided new material as well as a chance to explore some of the comparative literature. Now that I’ve been back in Cambridge for more than a year I’m running out of excuses not to write some of this up. This is my first attempt. My basic aim is to provide an overview of the events of 1995 and what I know about them, and to highlight 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 soon realised that almost everyone in the affected areas of Zanzibar was asking much the same question. And initially at least, they came up with a variety of explanations. So my second problem became how to explain these explanations and understand their role in the unfolding of events. The garbled account in The Economist that you see here represents a recent development of the explanation that has taken hold among foreign 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 the next 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.


[3: hysterical book covers]

My third problem - at least when I began thinking about these things - was to relate events on Zanzibar - and their explanation - to the wider literature on mass hysteria and related phenomena. I’ll make some connections today but not as many as I perhaps could, and I’ve become wary of attempts to establish typologies of these collective 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 the intellectual 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 the United 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, is located on Unguja, the largest island.

Zanzibar has been through a series of colonialisms, Portuguese, Omani Arab, and British. 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 (and to some dictator) 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 another 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 take effect and the government 2

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, the Civic United Front, which dominates Pemban politics and is now the nation’s main opposition party.

The Economist and other published sources make muddled reference to different episodes of diabolical terror and mass hysteria in post-Revolutionary Zanzibar. As far as 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 held in October of that year.

[5: Popobawa chronology, 1995]

In the first week of Ramadhan, the month of daytime 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 sheitani, evil spirit, and given the name Popobawa, a label which people remembered from a similar panic in the years following the Revolution.

A typical assault involved somebody waking up 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. (One of my favourites is the man who woke up with a start to the sound of an alarm bell, looked to one side and saw a tiny dog 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 and brighter. This whirling illuminated growing dog subsequently turned into a human giant so tall that his head and shoulders were invisible.) Sometimes the victims were children, subjected to the kinds of abuse that we might associate ourselves with a 3

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 didn’t ordinarily have possessing spirits as well as those who did. (Zanzibar is in the middle of a spirit possession ‘complex’ that spreads from Somalia in the north to northern Madagascar in the south). However, household members and neighbours who did have possessing 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 his presence. The general scene was often one of pandemonium breaking out until Popobawa moved on. The spirit or spirits (mapopobawa) might attack many homes simultaneously, in the same or different parts of the town or countryside.

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, people were unable to resort to waganga, local doctors, to divine their troubles or help protect them. In some cases - and I’m 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 - usually 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 his male and female victims, and several alleged Popobawas 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 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.

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 couldn’t 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.

[6: home in Limbani]

At the time of these events I was living in Pemba, at Limbani on the outskirts of the northern town of Wete. However, when Popobawa was working his way up the island I was away travelling, and didn’t hear about it until I was heading back after the end of Ramadhan. My first impression 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’m aware, no mention of Popobawa on state radio until the first killing in Zanzibar town.

In keeping with the finest standards of our profession, 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’d 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 hobbit it danced and hopped around the 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 5

account of these events he told me that he’d 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.

[7: Jamila’s notebook]

I interpreted this as a wake-up call and resolved to find out more. My principal source of information was another neighbour, 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 workmates, friends and relatives in Wete. I’m using this as the basis of my presentation today, though I’ve 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.

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

[8: Mkoani map]

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 evil 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 didn’t). Otherwise there is little agreement on the details of this episode including its dating during Karume’s rule. 6

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 an evil spirit (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 life.

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. (Although 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).

This labelling of Popobawa in 1995 didn’t 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 ‘80s, moving from community to community with a team of assistants and rooting out witches in classic fashion. In the early ‘90s 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’re just the subject of gossip and a mixture of fear and admiration for their powers. So, seeing their grandmothers turned out of their homes and humiliated in public was 7

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. When Popobawa went on the rampage people speculated that the devil 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.

[9: Chake Chake map]

This explanation didn’t follow Popobawa as the hysteria 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 spirit struggled violently with the phantom intruder until he fled. The good spirit then called for a local medium 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. Meanwhile a woman in Chake Chake went into trance and her spirit declared that this whale was in fact the child of a larger spirit, warning people not to eat it or else. Needless to say a lot of people took no notice. Returning now to the 1995: the good 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.

This revelation rejected any identification with the original Popobawa because he’d sodomised his victims whereas the phantom of 1995 didn’t. But the whale’s revenge was never more than another localised explanation.

[10: Wete map]

In Jamila’s narrative - and the accounts of everyone else I asked on Pemba - the real explanation for Popobawa didn’t emerge until the hysteria had reached Wete in the north. During one of many mini-hysterias in the town the possessing spirit of a local woman announced that the culprits were certain unnamed politicians, members of the 8

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 CCMcontrolled administration to be allowed to operate freely and prepare for the coming national elections. Indeed when the Wete District Commissioner 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 local doctor 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 big event 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 MP, and after Limbani’s worst night speculation grew in Wete that another vehicle, belonging to a CCM member of the 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 local doctors, who were called out to capture the evil 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 Popobawas were trapped and in some cases interrogated with the help of possessing spirits. On a number of occasions the evil spirits identified themselves as having been 9

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.

[11: Zanzibar town map]

When reports came back to Pemba that Popobawa had begun to sodomise his victims in Zanzibar town, some people interpreted this as just revenge on the CCMsupporting population that had sent the evil spirits to them in the first place. The spirits had been expelled from Pemba and were now turning against their owners.

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 and also across to Zanzibar town and north-west Unguja, where there were many Pembans living as well as other supporters of CUF (ditto particular neighbourhoods in Dar es Salaam and Tanga on the mainland). Although this became the explanation for Popobawa in most Pemban narratives, it wasn’t the only one. In the heart of Zanzibar’s Stone Town, a notorious focus of CUF activism, it was widely believed that the multiple Popobawas were the spirits that had possessed 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 with a larger than average penis and that women who slept with him (there were said to be many of them) would no longer desire other men.

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 statecontrolled media the government tried to curb the spread of the panic and the outbreaks of mob violence that went with it. It’s 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 counternarrative 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 hysteria 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’m 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 having 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 doctor-diviners 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 possessing spirits is especially noticeable, though the gender of these spirits as well as of other actors in Popobawa narratives 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 11

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. 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. This is not, however, how the international media treated Popobawa’s links to political prophecy, as we’ll see shortly.

[12: Guardian quote]

I’ve managed to get this far without using the words ‘globalisation’ and ‘modernity’ or ‘modernities’. The politicised Popobawa of mid-1995 was readily incorporated into offshore meta-narratives, and I’ll quickly take you through some chronologicallyordered slides to show you how this has happened.

An article by Chris McGreal in The Guardian in October 1995 set the ball rolling. 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 mangled and converted into more appealing narratives as it was copied by other journalists and writers. [13: ‘Buggered by Batman’]


This was especially so as the internet grew in importance. Popobawa stories took off big-time after the 2000 elections.

[14: French website]

[15: X-Project website]

As well as being a subject for the news and ethnocentric political comment, Popobawa was also admitted into the global pantheon of occult beings, and many of the websites that have Borgesian lists of strange and mythical creatures now include passages about the hybrid Popobawa shown in this fanciful artist’s image (which is based on McGreal’s description of how it was drawn in a Zanzibar market).

[16: ‘Sodomizing poltergeist’]

When you move down to more personal sites and blogs, salaciousness comes to the fore. The last of the sites here, with its reference to “the popobawa bumsex index to political stress” bring us back round to where I started this paper, the article in the The Economist.

[17: The Economist]

These external appropriations of Popobawa have taken place at some remove from local constructions. They speak to our own organising narratives, whether they be about politics, the occult, sex, or a combination of all three. As far as I know these haven’t impacted significantly on everyday Zanzibari discourses about Popobawa, though it’s quite possible that they will.

Let me move now into a quite different frame for explaining Popobawa.

[18: sleep paralysis images]

As you may know, there’s usually a biomedical explanation lurking somewhere in the vicinity of reconstructions of mass hysteria. In the case of Popobawa, and in 13

particular the experiences of many of his victims, this is sleep paralysis (SP). If the surveys are right - and most of them have been conducted with university students then 25-30% or more of the people in this room will have experienced mild sleep paralysis at least once in their adult lives, though far fewer may have suffered (or enjoyed) the intense hallucinations that can accompany SP.

SP happens in the twilight between sleeping and waking, and, as the name suggests, typically involves a feeling of complete bodily paralysis, including a perceived inability to cry out, even though the sufferer may be lucid and aware of people and objects around them. This is often accompanied by the terrifying sensation that someone or something evil is pressing down on your chest. A relatively small number of sufferers have the vivid hallucinations that I mentioned, sometimes elaborated into nightmare-like sequences which can include OBEs and other alarming phenomena. (If anyone wants to follow this up I recommend starting with Al Cheyne’s site; also a recent article in the journal Folklore by Owen Davies on the role of SP in European witchcraft accusations).

SP was first brought to the attention of the wider academic community as a possible explanation for folk traditions of supernatural assault by David Hufford and others in the 1980s, and it has since been invoked to explain everything ranging from the lamia of classical mythology, the incubi and succubi of more recent history, and contemporary reports of alien encounters, abduction and invasive experimentation. Although I’ve since had - or thought I had - ordinary SP just once, I wasn’t aware of SP and the literature on it until an anthropologist working for the Discovery Channel sounded me out on the possibility of including a segment on Popobawa in a documentary about alien abduction.

As it turns out, SP fits Popobawa experiences even better than it does alien abduction. Joe Nickell, writing in Skeptical Briefs (Newsletter, not underwear), was the first to make this connection after reading the Guardian article. Many of the narratives of assault collected by Jamila exhibit the phenomenology of classic SP, notably the general bodily paralysis and crushing pressure on the ribs that many victims complained of. A strong case can be made for the possible role of SP even without extending the argument to other experiences that could be interpreted as SP-linked 14

hallucinations. Although I wasn’t aware of its significance at the time, my watchman Salim one day told me that the unpleasant experience described by many of Popobawa’s victims also occurs in a kind of nightmare called and personified as jinamizi. Descriptions of this make it clear that it’s the local term for SP.

Better still, it’s known that SP is more likely to occur when subjects are anxious and/or their sleep patterns are disturbed; indeed disturbing them in the laboratory is a common way of inducing SP. The collapse of the clove economy in the early 1990s, most deeply felt in the south-west of Pemba and Mkoani district, left many households in dire economic straits, and people’s anxieties were further exacerbated by the worsening political situation as CUF and CCM waged an increasingly violent campaign against one another in advance of the first multi-party elections. Ramadhan is an especially stressful time for many people, in part because of its own economic demands, and sleep patterns are disturbed anyway because of the physical demands of fasting and the need to break sleep in order to eat.

Perhaps then Ramadhan was readymade for an increased incidence of SP, even more so once the fear generated by the interpretation of SP as diabolical assault had itself kicked in. Unfortunately this can be no more than supposition based on circumstantial evidence. And although some data exist on cross-cultural variations in the incidence of SP, there’s next to nothing on how the incidence in a single community might change in response to external events. Nonetheless, there are cases of mass hysteria in the literature that resemble Popobawa in that they also suggest a significant role for SP. One of these is that of another evil intruder, the Phantom Anaesthetist of Mattoon, Illinois.

[19: contrasting mass hysteria cases]

However you stretch it though, SP can’t easily explain all of the phenomenologies associated with Popobawa, including the frequent “possession hysteria” and incidents like Salim’s close encounter with Popobawa. My own interpretation of Salim’s experience is that he was most likely reinterpreting mundane events (like the appearance of a white dog) to match his fear of encountering Popobawa. My favourite example of this in the literature is the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic 15

of 1954, in which many people attributed the glass bubbles and other imperfections that they saw on their car windscreens to atomic fallout from hydrogen bomb tests. I don’t mean to suggest that all of Popobawa can be explained as mass delusion, but I do think we can ask what anxieties or other influences might have shaped the experiences that victims, witnesses, the spirits of the possessed, and others reported. One way of looking at this is as a search for the sources of particular images and plots in different Popobawa narratives and meta-narratives.

Already I can see several kinds of social and historical narrative, particular discourses, that seem to have influenced and brought their own anxieties and desires into personal narratives of Popobawa. I’ve yet to explore these in the kind of detail that I’d like to, and there may be more, not to mention a better way of describing them and how they overlap and intertwine.

[20: Zanzibar Ghost Stories]

First there are other narratives of unusual and often frightening phenomena and events, those that we ourselves would classify as “occult” and that the western-influenced author of Zanzibar Ghost Stories has also recognised. This, incidentally, is the only Zanzibari source I’ve seen or heard that uses the name “Dracula” in referring to Popobawa. The local term for cinematic vampires (nyonya-damu, literally “bloodsucker”) is otherwise never used in this context. However, there have been cinemas on both islands for many years, and Zanzibar had one of the first television stations in Africa, which still broadcasts to the town and shows pirated videos borrowed (I assume) from local stores. So it’s quite possible that images from horror films crept unannounced into Popobawa experiences and the narratives of them. Scenes and themes from folktales and stories about strange happenings clearly do recur in Popobawa; and I’ve shown here one of those that does (about a child mysteriously transported outside of the house at night).

[21: homosexuality in Zanzibar]

A second obvious category is discourses about homosexuality, especially those that centre on Zanzibar town, where the 1995 Popobawa turned to sodomise his mainly 16

male victims. If the enactment of legislation is anything to go by, then homophobia is growing in Zanzibar, at least in some of the corridors of power both political and religious. This evident anxiety about homosexuality both male and female is especially marked in a town in which flamboyant gay men are welcome to participate and flaunt themselves in women’s taarab dances and where a small number of wellknown cross-dressers can - or until recently could - walk the streets at night and meet with you and me in bars. These local celebrations of difference have a long history that links them to similar practices in Oman. I won’t speculate now on exactly how and why discourses about homosexuality have penetrated Popobawa, but this is clearly an important influence and one which is both separate from and connected to the more overtly political discourses that I’ll come to shortly.

It must also be significant in this context that Popobawa has become the subject of jokes and other kinds of humour and verbal mischief. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fear that Popobawa generated in 1995, his name was already then being domesticated in this way, as McGreal’s early Guardian article makes clear. Many of the jokes play upon the sexual content of Popobawa narratives - “Have you heard the one about the hanithi, the passive male homosexual, who ran out into the street complaining that he’d been sleeping in the nude all week but still hadn’t been visited by Popobawa?” Some playful usages turn more subtly on the idea of Popobawa as an unwanted intruder or invasive agent, similar to our own use of “bugger” and “bugger up”. (There’s an internet chatroom restricted to expatriate and other Zanzibaris in which guests are referred to as Popobawa). All this is consistent with the way in which Zanzibaris usually joke and talk about sex with people they know well, including people of the opposite sex. But I also think that it suggests a demotic scepticism about the original hysterical narratives of Popobawa, and one that undermines their overt politicisation.

[22: domestic slaves]

My third major source for Popobawa narratives are historical memories of suffering. David Parkin has already speculated on this aspect of Popobawa in a paper published last year in a collection edited by John Clammer and others called Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations. Parkin uses the events of 1995 to 17

frame his discussion of “Provenances in the Making of Zanzibari Politics”, this being the subtitle of his paper. He asks, and I quote:

“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 forumlaic 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)

I don’t agree with the statement that Zanzibaris normally find their historical sufferings “too delicate to be mentioned”. The problem rather has been that since the Revolution there have been some topics that government has forbidden open discussion of, in particular the events of the Revolution itself. And this relates, of course, to people’s readiness to see Popobawa as another means by which the government was trying to silence them. More importantly, though, 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). My argument rather is that Popobawa was progressively politicised in 1995, but didn’t start out as an explicitly party political animal. However, I do agree with Parkin’s argument that historical memories of suffering have infused understandings of Popobawa, and 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.

[23: Okello’s book and Makonde]

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 do seem to echo the terrors that the Revolution brought. I’ve 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, nonbelievers 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 on a Makonde? (Or blamed at least in Jamila’s narrative - so far I haven’t been able to find archival or other confirmation of the story of his arrest and punishment). There are too many ifs and buts here, but nonetheless a possible link with the political terror, if not just everyday representations of savagery. [24: Zanzibar Revolution massacre] Another possible connection can be drawn with the widely reported story that during the 1995 hysteria 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. 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.

Let me then try to wind up. Contemporary anxieties may or may not help to generate sleep paralysis and other experiences that lend themselves to “occult” interpretation. But historical and other social memories, phobias, terrors, and related anxieties most likely do influence the content of hysterical narratives, and in the case of Popobawa some of these - but by no means all - prefigured their subsequent explanation in narrow political terms. Whatever imaginary flapping or flickering shadow of a bat’s wing, or diabolical delusion, conjured up Popobawa in 1995, later narratives suggest that the hysteria 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 frightening - but perhaps never-to-be-repeated-in-quite-the-same-way - episode in Zanzibar’s collective political nightmare.

[25: Zanzibar Leopard]

However, this isn’t every Zanzibari’s narrative of terror and is treated quite differently when many of them now talk and tell jokes about Popobawa. On both islands there are other narratives of oppression by what we - but not me - might call “the occult”; narratives that have been woven in and out of moral and political discourse for much 20

longer. These include elaborate narratives about witchcraft and zombies that Pemba in particular has been famous for since at least the period of Omani Arab hegemony, and conceivably before. And the villages of south and east Unguja, where Popobawa failed to penetrate in 1995, have their own folk devil, an endemic but probably now extinct subspecies of leopard that is the instrument of witches and whose persecution peaked in a government-sanctioned campaign of witch-finding and leopard-killing that followed the 1964 Revolution…

[26: advertisement for forthcoming seminars]

…and, as you can see, that’s something else that I’m working on.


Slide 1

Diabolical delusions and hysterical narratives in a postmodern state
Martin Walsh

Slide 2


The Economist, 13 December 2003

Terror, tourism and odd beliefs
Superstition as a political barometer FEW readers of The Economist, one would imagine, have seen a one-eyed dwarf with bat-like wings, pointed ears and sharpened talons. Even fewer are likely to have been sodomised by one. Many of the people of Zanzibar, however, sincerely believe in Popobawa, an incubus who supposedly rapes men who doubt his existence. Isolated sightings are reported every year. Locals say that Popobawa appears accompanied by a puff of smoke, usually on Pemba, the smaller of the spice islands that make up this semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. At times of stress, Popobawa seems to go on a rampage. So many people report seeing him that ordinary life in some villages stops. Men sleep arm-in-arm outside their houses, in the belief that not being in bed makes them less vulnerable. There were said to be numerous attacks before and after Zanzibar's president was assassinated in 1972, and again in 2000 and 2001, coinciding with a rigged and violent election. Popobawa may be mythical, but reports of sightings give a useful insight into the Zanzibari mood. The incubus was seen in November, prompting a local spiritualist to predict that “bad men will do bad things here next year [and] people will die.” It is possible. Tensions have been simmering in Zanzibar since the police killed 39 opposition supporters in early 2001. The island's mostly poor and Muslim population feels marginalised. Secessionist mutterings are growing louder...

Slide 3


Slide 4

Some milestones:
mid-19thC: heyday of Omani Arab rule 1890: British Protectorate declared 1897: slavery abolished 1963: Independence (10 Dec.) 1964: Zanzibar Revolution (12 Jan.) 1964: Union with Tanganyika (26 Apr.) 19??: original Popobawa (Pemba) 1972: Karume assassinated (7 Apr.) 1984: economic liberalisation begun 1992: multiparty politics introduced 1995: mass Popobawa (Feb.-May) 1995: general election (22 Oct.) 1999: Commonwealth agreement (9 June) 2000: 2nd multiparty election (29 Oct.) 2000-01: ‘election’ Popobawa (Pemba) 2001: mass protests and violence (27 Jan.) 2001: CCM-CUF agreement (10 Oct.) 2005: 3rd multiparty election (Oct.)

Population of Zanzibar: 1998: 640,685 (Pemba: 264,812) 2002: 984,625 (Pemba: 362,166)

Slide 5

Popobawa chronology, 1995
Pemba 2 Feb: holy month of Ramadhan begins ? 1st week of Feb: Popobawa attacks in Mkoani 3 Mar: Idd ul Fitr begins, fast ends 12 Mar: night of crisis in Limbani, Wete 29 Mar: only sporadic incidents Unguja 3 Apr: ‘PB’ killed at night in Zanzibar town 4 Apr: body of ‘PB’ exhibited in town hospital 6 Apr: mob takes ‘PB’ to police in Mazizini c.14 Apr: PB moves out of Zanzibar town 28 Apr: another ‘PB’ 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

Slide 6


Slide 7

re Limbani, night of 12 March 1995

Slide 8

1. An earlier manifestation of Popobawa in Mkoani 2. Popobawa terrorises a pregnant woman in Mkoani 3. Popobawa terrorises a doubter in Mkoani 4. Popobawa terrorises a sceptical visitor from Unguja 5. Different theories about Popobawa in Mkoani 6. Popobawa crushes a helpless child in Mkoani

Slide 9

7. A giant Popobawa in Chake Chake 8. Popobawa as a whale’s revenge 9. Popobawa administers a good hiding in Vitongoji 10. Popobawa tricks a wife in Birikau 11. An innocent man is beaten up in Miti Ulaya, Wete 12.Children precipitate an attack in Taifu 13. A pious woman is embarrased 14. Popobawa attacks a Kangagani woman in broad daylight

15. Popobawa terrorises a CCM supporter in Pandani 16. Popobawa terrorises children sleeping alone in Limbani 17. Popobawa is kept out of Shumba Mjini 18. Popobawa fails to cross to Kojani island


Slide 10

19. Popobawa attacks another child in Limbani 20. A man is attacked while bathing and CCM is accused by a possessed woman in Kizimbani, Wete 21. Popobawa is recognised by his foul odour at Weni 22. CCM politicians are accused in Limbani and their involvement is confirmed 23. Another child is attacked in Limbani and CCM is further implicated 24. A final and fatal incident: Popobawa kills a man in Chake Chake

Slide 11

25. Popobawa arrives on Unguja with a vengeance 26. Popobawa kills a child on Unguja 27. A lunatic is killed by a mob in Zanzibar 28. The government responds but to no avail 29. A young man fights off Popobawa 30. Popobawa is bottled up in Vikokotoni 31. A mysterious stranger is killed by a mob in Bumbwini 32. Popobawa terrorises a co-wife in Kwahani

Slide 12

Chris McGreal, ‘Zanzibar Diary’, The Guardian, 2 October 1995, p.11 MJAKA Hamad is a quietly spoken peasant farmer not given to overstatement. So as he firmly and deliberately tells of his ordeal, even some of the sceptics crowded around him begin to wonder is such a man could imagine such a thing. At first, Hamad said, he thought it was a dream. But the stifling force pushing him deeper into his mattress dragged him from his sleep, and then he fought with a fury for he knew the reputation of Zanzibar’s infamous “popobawa”. Only a few Zanzibaris claim to have seen the beast. Sketched impressions scattered through the market portray it as a dwarf with a single, large eye in its forehead, small pointed ears, bat wings and talons extended as it hovers over a prostrate prey. But even those islanders who have never seen it can tell you what it does. The popobawa is notorious for swooping into houses at night and raping men…


Slide 13

May 1996

19 July 2001

Slide 14

22 July 2001

Slide 15

26 July 2001


Slide 16

20 April 2004

Slide 17

The Economist, 13 December 2003

Slide 18

December 1995


Sleep Paralysis and Associated Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences


Slide 19

The 'Phantom Anesthetist' of Mattoon: A Field Study of Mass Hysteria
Donald M. Johnson The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Jan. 1945) The story of the "phantom anesthetist" begins in Mattoon, Illinois, on the first night of September, 1944, when a woman reported to the police that someone had opened her bedroom window and sprayed her with a sickish sweet-smelling gas which partially paralyzed her legs and made her ill. Soon other cases with similar symptoms were reported, and the police organized a full-scale effort to catch the elusive "gasser." Some of the Mattoon citizens armed themselves with shotguns and sat on their doorsteps to wait for him; some even claimed that they caught a glimpse of him and heard him pumping his spray gun. As the numbers of cases increased--as many as seven in one night-and the facilities of the local police…

The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic: A Famous Mass Delusion of the Twentieth Century
by Robert Bartholomew The episode of phantom windshield pitting began on March 23, 1954, when press accounts began to appear in newspapers in Seattle. The stories reported damage to automobile windshields in a city 80 miles to the north. Police initially suspected vandals, but as the number of cases spread, it soon became evident that this was not a viable explanation. As the days passed, reports of damaged windshields moved closer to Seattle. By nightfall on April 14th when the mysterious agent had first reached the city, until April 15th, police had logged 242 telephone calls from concerned residents across Seattle, telling of tiny pit marks on vehicles numbering over 3,000. In some cases, entire parking lots were reported to have been struck. The most common report of damage involved claims by astonished witnesses…

Slide 20


Slide 21

14 April 2004

Haberlandt 1899


Slide 22

Domestic slaves c.1890 (Zanzibar National Archives)

Slide 23



Slide 24


Slide 25

Zanzibar Leopard, Panthera pardus adersi, stuffed (Zanzibar Museum)

Slide 26

ADVERTISEMENT: forthcoming presentations
Tues. 8 February:

The Zanzibar Leopard: Wild, Domesticated and Hybridized
Political Ecology of Development Research Group, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge Weds. 20 April:

Science and Rumour: Conflicting Discourses and the Disappearing Leopards of Zanzibar
School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia


Related Interests