Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33
The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar Martin Walsh firstname.lastname@example.org University of Cambridge Abstract 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 1995. 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,
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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 Arabdominated 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 exmainland (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 postRevolutionary 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 1890 1897 10 December 1963 12 January 1964 26 April 1964 Late 1960s or early 1970s? 7 April 1972 1984 1992 February-May 1995 22 October 1995 9 June 1999 October 2000 29 October 2000 27 January 2001 July 2001 10 October 2001 30 October 2005 February-March 2007 heyday of Omani Arab rule British Protectorate declared slavery abolished independence from the British Zanzibar Revolution Union with Tanganyika to form Tanzania first Popobawa panic on Pemba President Karume assassinated economic liberalisation begun multiparty politics introduced major Popobawa panic on both islands (with episodes also in Dar es Salaam and other mainland towns) first nationwide multiparty elections Commonwealth-brokered accord (‘Muafaka’) minor Popobawa panic on Pemba second multiparty elections mass protests and violence minor Popobawa panic on both islands second ‘Muafaka’ accord between CCM and CUF third multiparty elections 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.
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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 Pemba 2 February First week of February 3 March 12 March 29 March Unguja 3 April 4 April 6 April 14 April 28 April 2 May Dar es Salaam Tanga, Mombasa
holy month of Ramadhan begins Popobawa attacks in Mkoani Idd ul Fitr begins, fast ends night of crisis in Limbani, Wete only sporadic incidents ‘Popobawa’ killed at night in Zanzibar town body of ‘Popobawa’ exhibited in town hospital mob takes ‘Popobawa’ to police in Mazizini Popobawa moves out of Zanzibar town another ‘Popobawa’ killed in Nungwi the last dated report (possibly relating to the Nungwi incident) undated incidents following those on Unguja 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.
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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.
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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 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. 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.
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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
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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.
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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 them. 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).
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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.
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M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33 Acknowledgements 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. References Anon .(1996). ‘Ouch Ouch Ouch! Buggered by Batman’, Fortean Times, May 1996. http://www.forteantimes.com/articles/086_batman.shtml (accessed 17 April 2007). Anon. (2003). ‘Terror, Tourism and Odd Beliefs’, The Economist, 13 December 2003: 57. Anon. (2004-08). ‘Popobawa’, Wikipedia, archived back to 18 September 2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popo_Bawa (accessed 14 December 2008). Anon. (2007). ‘Sex Attacks Blamed on Bat Demon’, BBC News, 21 Feb. 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6383833.stm (accessed 17 April 2007). Arnold, N. (2003). Wazee Wakijua Mambo / Elders Used to Know Things!: Occult Powers and Revolutionary History in Pemba, Zanzibar, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University. Cameron, G. (2002a). Protest and Cooperation in Post-Revolutionary Zanzibar, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Cameron, G. (2002b). ‘Zanzibar’s Turbulent Transition’, Review of African Political Economy, 92: 313-330. Caplan, P. (1997). African Voices, African Lives: Personal Narratives from a Swahili Village. London and New York: Routledge. Giles, L. (1987). ‘Possession Cults on the Swahili Coast: A Re-examination of Theories of Marginality’, Africa, 57 (2): 234-257. Giles L. (1989). Spirit Possession on the Swahili Coast: Peripheral Cults or Primary Texts? Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin. Goldman, H.V. 1996. A Comparative Study of Swahili in Two Rural Communities in Pemba, Zanzibar, Tanzania, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University. Gomm, R. (1975). ‘Bargaining from Weakness: Spirit Possession on the South Kenya Coast’, Man, 10 (4): 530-543. Gray, R. F. (1969). ‘The Shetani Cult among the Segeju’, in J. Beattie and J. Middleton (eds.) Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 171-187. Gray, B.(2008). The Nightmare, documentary film directed by Adam and Andrew Gray and produced by Para Docs Productions (JS Feature Films Inc.) for the Enigma series, VisionTV, Toronto. First aired in Canada on 5 March 2008. Jansen, H. (1996). ‘Popobawa is Dead!’, Tanzanian Affairs, 53: 22-24. Lambek, M. (1981). Human Spirits: A Cultural Account of Trance in Mayotte. London and New York: Cambridge University Press. Lambek, M. (1993). Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery and Spirit Possession. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Larsen, K. (2008). Where Humans and Spirits Meet: The Politics of Rituals and Identified Spirits in Zanzibar. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Lewis, I. M. (1966). ‘Spirit Possession and Deprivation Cults’, Man, 1 (3): 307-329. Lienhardt, P. (1968). The Medicine Man: Swifa ya Nguvumali, by Hasani bin Ismail. Oxford: Clarendon Press. McGreal, C. (1995). ‘Zanzibar Diary’, The Guardian, 2 October 1995: 11. Maclean, W. (2005). ‘Belief in Sex-Mad Demon Tests Nerves’, Reuters, 16 May 2005. http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=oddlyEnoughNews&storyID=8503707 (accessed 8 June 2005).
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M. Walsh. Journal of Humanities (JH), Volume 1(1) 2009, 23-33 Nickell, J. (1995). ‘The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar’, Skeptical Briefs, December 1995. http://www.csicop.org/sb/9512/i-files.html (accessed 17 April 2007). Nisula, T. 1999. Everyday Spirits and Medical Interventions: Ethnographic and Historical Notes on Therapeutic Conventions in Zanzibar Town. Saarijärvi: Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy. Parkin, D. (1996). ‘Landscaped Memories of Violence: Prelude to Political Elections in Zanzibar’, unpublished paper, January 1996. Parkin, D. (2004). ‘In the Nature of the Human Landscape: Provenances in the Making of Zanzibari Politics’, in J. Clammer, S. Poirier and E. Schwimmer (eds.) Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 113-131. Russell, D. (2001). ‘The Popobawa - A Zanzibari Incubus’, X-Project Paranormal Magazine, 26 July 2001. http://www.xprojectmagazine.com/archives/paranormal/popobawa.html (accessed 17 April 2007). Saleh, A. (2001). ‘Sex-mad 'Ghost' Scares Zanzibaris’, BBC News, 19 July 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1446733.stm (accessed 17 April 2007). Walsh, M. T. (2005). ‘Diabolical Delusions and Hysterical Narratives in a Postmodern State’, paper presented to the Senior Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 4 February 2005.
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