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Popo Bawa
GroupingUrban legend
Sub groupingShapeshifting Shetani
Similar creaturesIncubus
First reportedPemba Island (1965)
Other name(s)Winged Bat
CountryZanzibar, Tanzania

Popobawa, also Popo Bawa, is the name of an evil spirit or shetani,[1] which is believed by residents of Zanzibar to have first appeared on the Tanzanian island of Pemba. In 1995, it was the focus of a major outbreak of mass hysteria or panic which spread from Pemba to Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago, and across to Dar es Salaam and other urban centres on the East African coast.

Meaning of the name[edit]

Popobawa is a Swahili name which translates literally as "bat-wing" (from Swahili popo, "bat", and bawa, "wing"). This name is said to have originated as a description of the dark shadow cast by the spirit when it attacks at night: it does not refer to the actual form of the spirit, which is liable to change. Swahili speakers also use a plural form of the name - mapopobawa - to refer to multiple manifestations of the feared spirit. This plural is anglicized as "Popobawas".[2]

Description and behaviour[edit]

Popobawa is a shapeshifter and described as taking different forms, not just that of a bat as its name implies. It can take either human or animal form, and metamorphose from one into the other. Popobawa typically visits homesteads at night, but can also be seen in the daytime. It is sometimes associated with the presence of a sulfurous odor, but this is not always the case. Popobawa attacks men, women and children, and may attack all of the members of a household, before passing on to another house in the neighbourhood. Its nocturnal attacks can comprise simple physical assault and/or poltergeist-like phenomena; but most feared is sexual assault and the anal sodomising of men and women.[3]

Victims are often urged to tell others that they have been assaulted, and are threatened with repeat visits by Popobawa if they do not. During Popobawa panics many people try to guard against attack by spending the night awake outside of their houses, often huddled around an open fire with other family members and neighbours.[3] Panics occur most often in Zanzibar, throughout the island of Pemba and in the north and west of Unguja island, including Zanzibar City. Episodes have also been reported in Dar es Salaam and other towns on the mainland coast of Tanzania.[4]

Origin and history[edit]

As legendary creatures go, Popobawa is of fairly recent origin.

Sightings of the popobawa only go back about forty years; Parkin states that the first reports date back to 1965 on the island of Pemba, appearing shortly after that island's political revolution. Better-known sightings followed in 1970, and the creature resurfaced periodically in the 1980s, reaching a peak in 1995. Five years passed without a sighting, but the popobawa appeared briefly in 2000 and again in 2007.[5]

A popular origin story of Popobawa proposes that in the 1970s an angry sheikh released a Jinn to take vengeance on his neighbors. The sheikh lost control of the jinn, who took to demonic ways.[5] It has been argued that because of Zanzibar's past as an Arab-run slave market, the story of Popobawa is an articulated social memory of the horrors of slavery (Parkin 2004). Many of the legends on Zanzibar came from the colonizers and traders of the past, including Arabs, Portuguese, Indians, Chinese, Britons, Persians and Africans.

TV personality Benjamin Radford, who investigated the Popobawa in 2007, reported in Fortean Times that the legend has its roots in Islam, the dominant religion in the area. According to Radford, "holding or reciting the Koran is said to keep the Popobawa at bay, much as the Bible is said to dispel Christian demons."[5]

Modern Popobawa panics[edit]

Reports of Popobawa attacks rise and fall with the election cycle in Zanzibar, although victims argue Popobawa is apolitical. Popobawa reports rose dramatically relatively recently, in 1995. A further spate of attacks was reported in Dar es Salaam in 2007.[6] One explanation put forth for the election cycle connection is the claim that the Popobawa is the vengeful ghost of the assassinated President Abeid Karume, or was summoned by the Chama Cha Mapinduzi political party.[7]

Villagers maintain that Popobawa becomes enraged if his existence is denied. Popobawa allegedly spoke to a group of villagers on Pemba in 1971 through a girl possessed by the monster. The girl, called Fatuma, spoke in a man's deep voice and then villagers say they heard the sound of a car revving and rustling on a nearby roof. Many of those on the islands believe in exorcisms, and place charms at the base of fig trees, or sacrifice goats.

Though some writers claim that the popobawa is likely to be real because "Zanzibar's main hospital treated numerous alleged popobawa victims,"[8] Benjamin Radford interviewed doctors at Zanzibar Medical Group (Zanzibar’s main hospital) and none reported ever treating popobawa victims.[5]

After the incidents involving Popobawa in 1995 were reported an article was published in the Skeptical Inquirer by Joe Nickell regarding the phenomenon. In the article Nickell compared the experiences described of a visit from Popobawa with the symptoms of a waking dream, also known as sleep paralysis or a hypnopompic or hypnogogic hallucination. Nickell went on to describe some of the symptoms of a waking dream as including "a feeling of being weighted down or even paralyzed. Alternately, one may "float" or have an out-of-body experience. Other characteristics include extreme vividness of the dream and bizarre and/or terrifying content".[9] Nickell also compared these symptoms with those experienced by people who claim to have been attacked by incubi, succubi or Hags from western folklore, and in more modern cases, with alien abductions. A book released in 2017 entitled "Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings" by Katrina Daly Thompson[10] was critical of Nickell, claiming that he was "associating Zanzibaris with fear and Westerners with skepticism".[11] Nickell responded that he agrees "Westerners should be wary of imposing simplistic patterns on another culture, but they also should not shy away from making scientific observations where appropriate".[12]

In popular culture[edit]

  • It was also in the show The Secret Saturdays in the episode "The King of Kumari Kandam".
  • In 2008, it was featured in an episode of the American paranormal reality television series Destination Truth titled Bat Demon.
  • One of the stories in Mame Bougouma Diene's Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night[13] centers around the popobawa.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gemma Pitcher, "The Shetani Of Zanzibar", Zanzibar: The Bradt Travel Guide (Sixth Edition)
  2. ^ Walsh, M.T. (2005). "Diabolical Delusions and Hysterical Narratives in a Postmodern State". Presentation to the Senior Seminar, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 4 February 2005.
  3. ^ a b Jansen, Henriette (1996). "Popobawa is Dead!". Tanzanian Affairs (53).
  4. ^ Walsh, M. T. (2009). "The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar". Journal of Humanities. 1 (1): 23–33.
  5. ^ a b c d Benjamin Radford (November 2008), Popobawa, Fortean Times
  6. ^ "Sex attacks blamed on bat demon". BBC News. 2007-02-21. Retrieved 2010-04-29.
  7. ^ Finke, Jens. The Rough Guide to Zanzibar. The Rough Guides Series. Rough Guides Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84836-132-4.
  8. ^ Michael Newton. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology. ISBN 978-0-7864-2036-0.
  9. ^ Nickell, Joe. "The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar". Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Archived from the original on 13 April 2018. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  10. ^ Thompson, Katrina Daly (2017). Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings. Indiana University Press. p. 174. ISBN 978-0253024565.
  11. ^ Nickell, Joe. "Zanzibar's Popobawa Demon Still Attacking Skeptics". Center For Inquiry. Archived from the original on 13 April 2018. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  12. ^ Radford, Benjamin. "Popobawa Vs. The Skeptics". centerforinquiry.org. CFI. Archived from the original on 16 October 2018. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  13. ^ "Mame Diene - Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night". CLASH BOOKS. Retrieved 2018-10-25.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anon. (2003). "Terror, Tourism and Odd Beliefs", The Economist, 13 December: 57.
  • Jansen, Henriette (1996). "Popobawa is Dead!", Tanzanian Affairs, 53: 22-24.
  • McGreal, C. (1995). "Zanzibar Diary", The Guardian, 2 October: 11.
  • Mohamed, A.A. (2000). Zanzibar Ghost Stories. Zanzibar: Good Luck Publishers.
  • Parkin, D. (2004). "In the Nature of the Human Landscape: Provenances in the Making of Zanzibari Politics", in J. Clammer, S. Poirier & E. Schwimmer (eds.) Figured Worlds: Ontological Obstacles in Intercultural Relations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 113-131.
  • Radford, Benjamin. (2008). "Popobawa". Fortean Times, October 15
  • Thompson, Katrina Daly. (2014). "Swahili Talk About Supernatural Sodomy", Critical Discourse Studies, 11: 71-94.
  • Thompson, Katrina Daly. (2017). "Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings", Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0253024565
  • Walsh Martin (2014). "Killing Popobawa: collective panic and violence in Zanzibar". Rethinking Violence, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation 57th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association. Indianapolis, IN, 20-23 November 2014

External links[edit]