Popobawa is an evil spirit (shetani) in the folklore of Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is part of the United Republic of Tanzania in East Africa. It is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean consisting of several islands, including Zanzibar (also known as Unguja) and Pemba Islands.
Recurrent episodes of Popobawa mass hysteria in Zanzibar reportedly originated on the island of Pemba in the 1960s and spread to the other islands and, eventually, mainland Tanzania.
Popobawa is a bat-like demon
Popobawa means “bat wings” in the Swahili language (Kiswahili) of East Africa.
The reference to “bat wings” reportedly derived inspiration from the alleged manner of manifestation of the demon at night.
According to Zanzibari folklore, Popobawa manifests during night attacks as a dark, bat-like spectral entity that casts an ominous shadow over its intended target.
Folklore describes the bat form of Popobawa as a squat, winged figure, about one meter across, with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. It swoops down from above with its wings spread and alights on the sleeping victim.
However, the evil spirit may manifest in various ways in different circumstances. The different modes or forms of manifestation are referred to collectively as mapopobawa.
Mapopobawa may include deformed dwarves, old hags, beautiful women, handsome men, a man-dog, or a man-donkey chimera.
The Zanzibari also believe Popobawa may wander around as a naked humanoid with a cow’s tail. It carries a jar containing a magical potion. It smears the potion on its tail to “split walls” and gain entrance into people’s homes.
When a Popobowa enters a house, it may signal its presence with an unbearable stench, an unpleasant sulfurous or acrid odor that warns of trouble.
According to Gemma Pitcher in The Shetani of Zanzibar, during an episode of Popobawa mass panic in the late 1900s, a mob lynched a mentally disabled young man on suspicion that he was a Popobawa in disguise.
Pitcher noted that the mass hysteria abated after the lynching because the people believed they had killed a Popobawa disguised as a young man.
However, many expected it to return in the future.
Popobawa is a shapeshifter
Although Popobawa may manifest or take different forms, it is not a physical or corporeal entity. It is a supernatural demon or shetani (plural: Mashetani).
The word “shetani” comes from Shaytan or Shaitan (Satan), the Arabic word for the Devil. Folklore describes Popobawa as a shapeshifting entity because it is an evil spirit (shetani) that manifests in different forms.
The demon typically operates at night. What makes it especially feared is that it specializes in visiting people in their homes in the middle of the night when they are sleeping.
You can’t prevent Popobawa’s unwanted visits by barricading yourself inside at night. Being a spirit, it can pass through doors and walls.
However, you may attempt to protect yourself by hanging charms and other magical devices at the entrances to your premises, doorways, or ceilings in your home.
Most homes in Pemba and Zanzibar have such charms. They may include pouches containing paper or other objects with inscribed Arabic texts. Families hope that when Popobawa visits their home, the charms will repel it.
The mgangas or witchdoctors
If charms can’t protect a household, then Popobawa takes over. It may then attack household members and occupy their bodies.
If you believe, for any reason, that you have become an unwilling host to a Popobawa, you may seek help from a local herbalist-witch doctor known as a mganga (plural: waganga).
People believe the mganga have secret charms, magic potions, spells, or incantations that can help rid clients of shetani (evil spirit) attacks.
The witch doctor’s role is usually hereditary. The mganga’s secret remedies are family secrets passed down through generations.
Mgangas often specialize in treating certain types of shetani infestation. The locals believe specialists have partnerships with shetanis that help them drive out other shetanis from people’s homes or bodies.
Clients may have to pay a fortune to procure the services of the best mganga available.
However, not all shetani can be magically ordered to leave a victim’s life. Popobawa is one of the more powerful shetanis, so you may have to placate it rather than deploy magical force against it.
During the 1995 Popobawa hysteria, Zanzibari communities pooled resources to hire the most powerful witch doctors they could get to help persuade Popobawa to relocate across the sea to the Tanzanian mainland.
Popobawa scare as a social contagion
Popobawa usually does not limit itself to attacking only one household. Instead, it operates like a spreading gas or vapor, filling one house and then spilling over to the next until it has invaded an entire neighborhood.
Although it is a spirit entity, Popobawa’s attacks are intensely physical and may occur regardless of age and gender.
The demon also engages in violent poltergeist activity.
Joe Nickell’s sleep paralysis theory
Joe Nickell, a paranormal investigator, compared the alleged Popobawa attacks with sleep paralysis in which people awake from sleep but can’t move due to muscle relaxation that occurs during REM sleep.
The experience of sleep paralysis can be very frightening. Experts believe it explains cross-cultural ideas about demonic incubus or succubus attacks during sleep.
Nickell’s analysis derived inspiration from alleged victims’ descriptions of their experience of Popobawa attacks.
Popobawa allegedly attacks in the night by descending bat-like over the sleeping victim. The victim wakes up to an intense feeling of paralysis and suffocation due to the creature alighting on them while they slept.
People consider the attack to be a sexual assault.
Sightings and Tales
Mass panic or hysteria
During episodes of mass panic, people live in constant fear of Popobawa attacks. According to folklore, skeptics who deny the existence of Popobawa are more likely to suffer attacks than believers.
To avoid being assaulted while sleeping indoors, entire neighborhoods sleep in the open, on rooftops, or spend the night awake.
They keep vigil in groups around fires. Families may hire a witch doctor to help them ward off Popobawa. If a manifestation of Popobawa approaches, the witch doctor senses it and screams.
A scream indicating a Popobawa approaching could end fatally for an innocent person who happened to be there.
During the 1995 episode, the mass panic became so intense that the government had to broadcast announcements over the radio to calm people down.
Episodes of Popobawa panic often ended with the lynching of individuals believed to be the demon in disguise. In 1995, mobs reportedly lynched seven people across the island on suspicion that they were Popobawa spirits in disguise.
Lynchings often reduced the intensity of collective hysteria. But the relief tended to be temporary, and another episode of collective panic erupted soon after.
Zanzibaris believe in witchcraft
The episodes of mass hysteria are reportedly intense among villagers in rural districts who hold strong beliefs in evil spirits, demonic activity, witchcraft, and black magic.
Traditional beliefs in the ubiquity of malevolent spirits promote cultural practices focused on magical rites to ward off evil spirits.
Villagers regularly perform ritual ceremonies, such as sacrificing goats and chickens and sprinkling their blood to ward off shetani attacks.
Popobawa hysteria has been recurrent
The spreading pattern of Popobawa attacks led sociologists to describe the phenomenon as a manifestation of mass hysteria.
A Popobawa mass panic first occurred on the island of Pemba in 1965.
The incident occurred soon after a violent political revolution. Thus, social scientists believe that the mass hysteria was due to collective fear and anxiety amid social and political upheavals.
The 1964 revolution in Zanzibar witnessed the violent overthrow of the minority government of the Arab Sultan of Zanzibar and its replacement by a majority Black African-controlled government.
Another major incident occurred in 1970. Several incidents occurred in repeated waves during the 1980s. There was also an episode of mass panic over alleged Popobawa attacks in 1995.
Relatively minor incidents reportedly occurred again in 2000 and 2007.
The worst incidents occurred on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. The panic sometimes spread to the Tanzanian mainland, including the capital city of Dar es Salaam.
Evidence that Popobawa mass panics were associated with political unrest and a collective sense of insecurity comes from the urban legends that spread in the 1970s about the demon’s origins.
According to folklore, after the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar, an aggrieved Sheik summoned a jinn (Arabic for evil spirit) to wreak vengeance on his opponents.
However, the Sheikh soon lost control over the jinn, and it went on a rampage across the island.
Some accounts claimed that Popobawa was the ghost of an assassinated former president seeking revenge. Others said that one of the contending political parties summoned the spirit to aid its bid for power.
Sociologists have noted that the episodes of Popobawa mass panic coincided with the country’s election cycles.
They also suggested that the mass hysteria was partly a social manifestation of the collective trauma due to the island’s slavery past.
|Popo Bawa, Shetani
|Humanoid, Hybrid, Spirit
|Cities, Countryside, Farmland, Human Society
The Rough Guide to Zanzibar, James Finke, 2002.
Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings, Katrina Daly Thompson, 2017.
http://www.zanzibar-travel-guide.com/bradt_guide.asp?bradt=1847, “The Shetani of Zanzibar,” accessed on February 19, 2023.
https://www.tzaffairs.org/1996/01/popobawa-is-dead/, “Popobawa is dead,” accessed on February 19, 2023.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6383833.stm, “Sex attacks blamed on bat demon,” accessed on February 19, 2023.
https://skepticalinquirer.org/newsletter/skeptic-raping-demon-of-zanzibar/, “The skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar,” accessed on February 19, 2023.