Panic In Zanzibar: Nocturnal Sodomy & Demon-Bats
The Legend of the Popobawa, the 1995 event and Swahili spirit-sex
“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.”
This story has been on my mind for a while, and having previously covered the phenomena of both spirit-spouses and nocturnal terror syndromes, we can at last approach an event which seems so outlandish as to be a bad science-fiction story. The setting is Zanzibar, a collection of islands off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. The antagonist is the mythical and terrifying demon of Swahili folklore - the Popobawa - a winged-bat creature who apparates over its victims in the dead of night, either crushing or raping them, both men and women alike. Collective memories of previous Popobawa attacks, dating back to the 1960’s, were linked to the terrible violence during the Revolution. This time the havoc wrought by the bat-demon would rupture all manner of social and political taboos - the role of governmental repression, fears of homosexuality and deviancy, blatant superstition, opportunistic outsiders and the immiscibility of particular African and Arab worldviews on the archipelago.
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Zanzibar: the good, the bad & the queer
At 8.55am on August 27th, 1896, Admiral Sir Harry Rawson of the British Royal Navy checked his watch and ordered the signal to engage. HM ships Thrush, Raccoon and Sparrow unleashed a volley of artillery fire at the sultan’s palace in Zanzibar Town. After a few more rounds and a momentary skirmish, which saw the sultan’s yacht sent to the depths, the flag was removed from over the palace ruins. The time was 9.46am. The Anglo-Zanzibar War was over, the shortest war in history. British suzerainty over Zanzibar ended a centuries-long ruling Sultanate of Omani Arabs over a Bantu population, closing the door on the ancient slave and ivory trade routes from the Sea of Zanj.
Despite soaking up valuable blood and treasure at the time, contemporary Britons care very little about the efforts which were made to stamp out the slave trade from central Africa out to the coastline. Arab-Swahili warlords had sank their teeth deep into the Congo, extracting both elephants and humans destined for export. Wars for African, European and Muslim interests had raged within the rainforests, leading to unknown numbers of deaths and producing characters like Léon Rom, Tippu Tip, Stanley & Livingstone, the ‘Mad Mahdi’ and Leopold II. The Pax Britannica in Zanzibar lasted until 1963, when the islands became independent. The Arab elite quickly regained control through a parliamentary election, setting the scene for an almighty backlash. In 1964 the Zanzibar Revolution came like a thunderbolt from the blue, the black majority no longer willing to tolerate the patronising racism of their Arab rulers. A mix of racial resentment and anger quickly turned into an all-out massacre of Zanzibar’s Arab population - an event dubbed ‘a forgotten genocide’.
a Ugandan who called himself John Okello was traveling around the island preaching revolution. Twenty-six years old, he was about five feet, nine inches tall and weighed about 170 well-muscled pounds. He might as well have been invisible to the British colonial police, for they were unaware of his presence, much less of what he was doing. He was a strange but compelling man who said that he received in dreams messages from God, who he believed had chosen him to lead a revolution of the Africans in Zanzibar against those who oppressed them. Okello, who had come to Zanzibar Island from Pemba in February 1963, became the catalyst of the revolution. It was he, not the leaders of the African or radical Arab opposition, who would lead the ragtag force that killed thousands of Arabs, overthrew the Zanzibar government, and caused the sultan to flee into permanent exile
He told his men that when the fighting began, they were to kill all Arabs between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five. Young, old, and pregnant women were to be spared. Europeans, he ordered, were not to be attacked. Virgins and women whose husbands had been killed or detained should not be raped (all others, presumably, were fair game)
-Revolution in Zanzibar (2002) Don Petterson
Somewhere between 13 - 20,000 Arabs were killed, and many beaten, raped and humiliated. Abeid Karume became President of Zanzibar, and eventually led the merger with Tanganyika to form Tanzania. Black African interests had won out, and the archipelago was detached from the Muslim sphere of control. Its hard to see the Revolution as anything other than a racial rebellion, leading to the expulsion and disenfranchisement of one race for the benefit of another. However, it is interesting to note that a large number of the new ruling elite came from a distinct ethnic group, the so-called Shirazi, a largely Bantu African people with some male Persian ancestry. The Afro-Shirazi Party, the ASP, was instrumental during the Revolution, and Karume himself was a member.
Despite the physical expulsion of Zanzibar’s Arabs, their influence has remained in a myriad of ways, one of the central being the power of Islam. Swahili civilisation in general is the product of the Islamic Arab and the African Bantu worlds, along with Persian, Somali and Indian inputs. Even today the majority of Zanzibaris are Muslim, many speak Arabic dialects and their kinship networks resemble Islamic patrilocal and cousin marriage patterns. Culturally Islam has introduced a far stricter set of gender norms than is typically found in Sub-Saharan Africa:
there is a common belief that there are many more women than men, and men seem to see double or triple when they see women. As a foreigner walking around in Stone Town it is however clear that there are not many more women, and men are much more visible than women are. Men are seen on barazas, they go shopping on the market, they hang out in Forodhani Gardens, they sip coffee in public places and they go exercising all around the town while women spend most of their time inside the houses or the inner yards. Stone Town is thus in many ways a sex segregated town. Larsen, Associate Professor at the Ethnographic Museum, University of Oslo, even writes that “sex segregation is an explicit moral ideal” in Stone Town (1995:61)
Both Larsen and Vatne underline women’s different access and movements because of the time of the day (Larsen, 1995:62-67; Vatne, 1999:31). While men sometimes go to the mosque already at five o’clock in the morning, women stay at home to prepare meals, do the laundry and everything else that has to be done in a home, and does not, generally, get outside until the afternoon, which is the time for visiting friends and relatives (Larsen, 1995:62-67)
Men and boys can also wear the galabiyya and the kufi, characteristic for Muslim men, but they do not have to and they do not wear these garments in the same extent as women wear the buibui. In addition, your expected behaviour is decided by sex and Larsen writes as follows: In Zanzibar Town, gender is assigned by biological sex. Moreover, people’s perceptions of who she/he is and is not, what she/he can do or cannot do are informed by their gender images. The physical and social qualities ascribed to girls and boys, women and men are presented and perceived as natural. Physical gender differences are reinforced by gender names, ways of dressing, ornamentation, conduct, practices, gestures, body movements and manners. (Larsen, 1995:195)
-In The Streets Of Zanzibar – Constructions of Gender and Place (2004) Ulrika Gunnarsson and Emma Johansson
In common with human life everywhere, such segregation and normative differences includes the sexual lives of the archipelago’s inhabitants. One of the interesting points that recurs often in the literature is the above-average prevalence of homosexuality in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. Amusingly interviewees hold the ‘other’ cultural vector responsible for this:
Mohamed and Wieringa (2005) noted that it was common in inland Tanzania to believe that “homosexuality originated from the coastal region” (p. 53) whereas Baumann (2001 ) was in no doubt that the high frequency of same-sex relations he described on Zanzibar was “attributable to the influence of Arabs…together with Comorosans and the prosperous Swahili mixed-breeds” (p. 63). Among the Kaguru, Beidelman (1997) reported that it was assumed that men who “enjoyed homosexual relations…had learned such sexual proclivities from outsiders” (p. 273), especially from “Europeans and Arabs in towns and markets.”
-Same-Sex Practicing Men in Tanzania from 1860 to 2010 (2014) Kåre Moen, Peter Aggleton, Melkizedeck T. Leshabari & Anne-Lise Middelthon
Perhaps because of the many cultural, religious and racial frontiers on the Swahili coast, men and women found themselves able to engage in socially deviant behaviours on the other side as it were, without necessarily threatening the social order. Child prostitutes, gay and bisexual men and women, transexuals, cross-dressers and occult sex practices are all documented in the literature of colonial Zanzibar. To give but a taste from the short essay “Occurrences of contrary sex among the Negro population of Zanzibar”, originally published in German in 1899 by M. Haberlandt:
Their [love] objects belong almost exclusively to the black slave population; only rarely do the poor freeman, Arabs, “Belutschen” and others submit to it out of greed. The adolescent slaves that ate selected are kept away from any work, well pampered, and systematically effeminized (ku/ainishwa). In the beginning they take pleasure in normal sex acts, as well, and remain normal if they aren’t used for too long as catamites [Lust-Knaben]. If this happens however, then the scrotum gradually shrinks, the member loses the capacity for erection, and the individual finds pleasure only in passive pederasty. In parallel to this custom the Negroes of Zanzibar also come to engage in contrary acts.
Most of them get rectal problems, which they seek to hide in the beginning through kerchief pluggings and applications of perfume. All, active as well as passive pederasts, are considered sturdy drunkards to such an extent that the Swahili designation Walevi (= drunk) in many cases can be used for “pederast.”
Homosexuals of both sexes are designated in the Swahili language as mke-si-mume = (woman, not man). However, the expressions mzebe and the Arabian-derived hanithi, which actually mean an impotent person, also apply. Arabic law is somewhat “tolerant” in the persecution of male contraries, although the Qur’an strenuously forbids pederasty. Female contraries are punished, as are the craftsmen who supply the ebony penis, which is consequently acquired only with difficulty and at a considerable price. Of other perversions, bestiality (with goats) occurs here and there; on the other hand, masochism and sadism are unknown; also I was never able to hear of an occurrence that somehow could recall necrophilia.
Spirit-Sex & Occultism
Much as the architectural, religious and linguistic pluralism of Zanzibar is responsible for its material being, so the swirling mix of Islamic, African and more exotic supernatural belief systems generates unusual hybridity for people’s spiritual lives. The Arabic-Muslim acceptance of shetani demons and djinn collides with Madagascan kibuki Christian spirits and African spirit-spouses. Belief that a person can be possessed seems universal, despite the denominational differences. In fact, such possessions often take the shape of social transgressions - such as a Muslim Zanzibari woman being temporarily taken-over by a kibuki spirit, who insists she remove her headscarf. With so many rules of conduct and social boundaries of race, religion, sex and sexuality, perhaps these spiritual intrusions are something of a safety valve? Examples in the literature include people violating the taboos on alcohol consumption, forcefully refusing their husband’s advances, shouting at their in-laws, flirting with spirits during ceremonies and even marrying and/or having sexual intercourse with a spirit-being.
our talk turns to other djinns that have sex with human beings. The women began telling me about ruhani, heterosexual demons that possess people of the opposite gender and can have sex with them. To my surprise, Amina makes an intensely personal disclosure:
AMINA: Even I have had those problems.
KATRINA: What was it like?
AMINA: I was sleeping at night. First I was feeling like every few days I get a fever, again and again. I go to the hospital, I’m checked for malaria, I don’t have malaria. I go home. I stay. Sometimes the fever returns. I go to the hospital, I’m checked for malaria, I don’t have malaria. I go home. When I get home and I’m sleeping at night with my husband, but I’m sleeping at night, I feel like it’s my husband with whom I’m doing the act [tendo].
AMINA: Yeah. I’m doing the act with him. Moreover, you feel pleasure even greater than when you do it with your husband.
-Occult Sex as a Conversational Resource (2010) Katrina Daly Thompson
One act in particular seems to be a focal point for sexual morality and deviancy - anal sex. Zanzibari Islam seems particularly keen to eliminate the practice, forbidding it between husband and wife.
Talk during sex instruction constructs anal sex not only as a sin but also as something highly desired by (even normative) men. Zanzibaris—who mainly practice Sunni Islam—construct Shia Muslims as deviant for allegedly allowing anal sex between husband and wife during a woman’s menstrual cycle, and there seems to be a fear among Zanzibaris that this practice will enter Sunni Islam. Sodomy is constructed by many Zanzibaris as a forbidden fruit, a temptation that Sunni Muslim men must struggle to avoid. Stephen Murray argues that the belief that sodomy is addictive is common throughout the Muslim world. In hegemonic Zanzibari discourse, a man who is anally penetrated only once, even if against his will, will develop a taste for sodomy and eventually become a hanithi.
It is within these anxieties and norms of engaging with the supernatural that we can now turn to the main villain of our story - the Popobawa. This entity translates as ‘bat-wing’, and is described as a sort-of folk enemy, taking on aspects of Islamic and African demonology: a shapeshifter, a creature of the night, an outsider. What marks him out though is his externality. Unlike other spirits he does not come to possess, to engage in conversation or mutual business. Instead his single-minded purpose is to cause terror and to sodomise his victims, both men and women. The Popobawa is also intimately connected with the politics of Zanzibar, which is partly why so many researchers find the phenomenon so engaging - a collective psychosis or manifestation of something external, that predates using one of society’s greatest taboos, who arrives precisely when minds are preoccupied with political struggle. Much like the Hmong nocturnal deaths, the Popobawa strikes at night, sometimes crushing his victims’ chests in a manner not too dissimilar to other sleep demons.
The Popobawa strikes!
The violence of 1964 did not dissipate overnight; that kind of violence never can. Instead it was quickly buried and silenced, even today there is no official memorial or discussion of the subject. Interestingly the first documented appearance of the Popobawa was the very next year - 1965. The origins of the monster are murky. One story holds that a tribal elder summoned a genie to attack his rival neighbours, but he lost control of it, and it now lurks in shadows of the night. What seems to be true though is that the first mass panic began in the town of Mkoani on the main island of Pemba. Up to ten people a night, for a whole month, reported being raped by an evil spirit. The fear didn’t end until Karume himself, the future President of Zanzibar, came to Pemba and challenged the demon, shouting into the night for it to face him. No further attacks followed, but a government investigation held a Mozambican wizard responsible for conjuring the beast-spirit. The man was paraded around in the back of a truck and then imprisoned for the rest of his life.
The 1980’s saw a spike in witchcraft activity, in particular an infamous case involving a professional witchfinder from the mainland called Tekelo. Tekelo had a reputation for brutal methods, and his visit to Pemba did not go well. Zanzibaris are less hysterical about the existence of witches, and typically shun them rather than inflict violence or harm (Karume’s anti-witchcraft campaign of the 1960’s aside). As Tekelo began throwing old ladies from their houses and humiliating them in front of crowds, objections were raised. Eventually Tekelo was ejected from the archipelago. Some say he resurrected the Popobawa in revenge.
1995 was a major year - the first multiparty elections - and tensions were running high. The first appearance of the Popobawa began just after Ramadan started, in the second week of February. As before the initial assaults were focused on Mkoani. This time they crossed the water to Unguja, ravaging the island, before possibly moving onto the continent in Dar es Salaam and even Mombasa (unconfirmed). The whole event lasted until the end of April, with Popobawa attacks sweeping from one town to another. A full chronology can be found in scholar Martin Walsh’s 2014 paper: Killing Popobawa: collective panic and violence in Zanzibar:
After a couple of months the panic died down on Pemba. By the last week or so of March 1995 it had spread to Zanzibar town on the main island of Unguja. Here the assaults took a more violent turn and both male and female victims reported that they had been forcefully sodomised by Popobawa (or one of its manifestations, claimed by some to number up to 70, sometimes more). By mid-April the focus of the panic had shifted into the plantation areas north of the town, and up to the northern tip of the island at Nungwi. But by the beginning of May the attacks had fizzled out without spreading to villages in the south and east of Unguja island. They did, however, spread to at least one quarter in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, where many Zanzibaris live. Popobawa was also rumoured to have appeared in Tanga on the north Tanzanian coast and Mombasa in Kenya.
I have reports of six different incidents in which men are reported to have been assaulted by mobs because they were believed to be Popobawa, two on Pemba and four on Unguja island. Three of the latter cases are said to have led to death, though two of these accounts are uncorroborated
The details reveal a form of mass psychosis, with terrified residents sprinting from their houses in the dead of night. People took to huddling together around campfires, trying to stay awake. Some with guardian spirits became possessed, speaking of a demon haunting their town. Others saw green light, a dark shadow with glowing eyes, many reported a foul smell. Most commonly victims described a horrifying evil presence, sitting on their chest, crushing and suffocating them. Testimonies hint at sexual assault, although the taboo is so great that people insist it happened to others, not to them:
One 1995 victim was a quiet-spoken peasant, a farmer named Mjaka Hamad, who said he does not believe in spirits. He first thought he was having a dream. However, “I could feel it,” he said, “something pressing on me. I couldn’t imagine what sort of thing was happening to me. You feel as if you are screaming with no voice.” He went on to say: “It was just like a dream but then I was thinking it was this popobawa and he had come to do something terrible to me, something sexual. It is worse than what he does to women.”
-“Zanzibar Diary,” McGreal, Chris. 1995. The Guardian
The response was panic. As more reports and rumours swirled, communities began to turn on outsiders who might be the Popobawa in disguise, or a witch controlling its actions. Six mob-type attacks on individuals have been documented, three resulting in the person being killed. Almost all were strangers, some suffering from clear mental health problems, and many carrying a worryingly large number of amulets or charms. One man is suspected by Walsh to have been a Mozambican Makonde:
The suggestion in one account that the man in the mortuary at Mnazi Mmoja hospital had scars on his body like those of a Makonde may also be significant in this context. The Makonde originally came to Zanzibar as slaves and immigrant labourers from Mozambique. They are often represented in the islands as archetypal savages, non-believers with a penchant for deep facial scarification and the wearing of large lip-plugs. During the Zanzibar Revolution a number of Makonde were employed as thugs by the self-styled Field Marshal Okello, who used them to terrorise the inhabitants of Mkoani and the south Pemba. I have suggested elsewhere that it may be no accident that the first Popobawa panic on Pemba was blamed on a man of Makonde origin
One account of the killing of the Makonde man includes a salient little detail. As the crowd gathered around the Mnazi Mmoja mortuary, demanding to see the body to check for scars, a man proclaimed his desire to rape the corpse as revenge for the Popobawa attack on his wife.
Of course, not all towns and households reacted in such a way. The majority did not, and there were clear differences between the main islands, with all three deaths occurring on Unguja. The unified belief that it was the Popobawa responsible for the attacks only came later, at the time each region had its own ideas about the cause. Some insisted that the ruling party had let loose the Popobawa to terrorise people thinking of voting for someone else. In Chake Chake there was a story involving a whale. In the early 1990’s a dead whale had washed ashore, and many locals started harvesting it for food. A local woman went into a trance, possessed by a spirit. She warned that the whale was a child-spirit to a greater, more powerful spirit out to sea, and that eating it would cause great offence. Nobody listened. Now in 1995 people were reporting that their local spirits were fighting off some kind of malevolent being, a being identified as the vengeful mother of the whale-child. Residents ran to the beach to offer food to placate the attacks.
Explaining the Popobawa is no easy task. It combines so many different tropes as to defy logical categorisation, although many have tried. Some writers have focused on the Popobawa as a political beast, representing the suppressed violence of the Revolution. Others focus on the sexualised element, the taboo of homosexuality, of occultic sex. Yet others have looked at neoliberalism; the impact of global media like Dracula and Batman; the obvious Freudian resonances; the fear of the ‘savage’ Makonde outsiders; the historical legacy of slavery and the hybridisation of different cultural beliefs in the supernatural.
Some of these are more convincing than others. A combination of collective memories of violence, gender and sex norms and sleep paralysis seems to roughly cover all the bases, although it doesn’t seem very satisfying. Entire books have now been written about the Popobawa and specifically about interpreting the Popobawa. Katrina Daly Thompson’s Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings, does a good job of thoroughly interrogating practically every source of information and later discourse on the subject - including how modern Tanzanians have blended Western and African themes with humour and ridicule. One reason to study the Popobawa phenomenon is to get a great insight into Zanzibar, into its history, customs, mores and divisions. It also remains a contemporary example of a living monster - in 2007 it was reported in Dar es Salaam. What we fear is sometimes revealing, especially in how a story can end up physically manifesting in people’s bodies. I’ll end with a quote from Thompson’s book.
The Swahili have a proverb: Lisemwalo lipo; ikiwa halipo, lipo nyuma linakuja (What is talked about exists; if it doesn’t exist, it’s not far behind [and] on its way). For some Swahili-speakers, talk about Popobawa is evidence for his existence, which is thus taken for granted.
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