Popobawa, also Popo Bawa, is the name of an evil spirit which is believed by residents to have first appeared on the Tanzanian island of [1]. In 1995 it was the focus of a major outbreak of collective 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. Popobawa has since joined the global pantheon of occult beings, a development fuelled by journalists' reports and the dissemination of these on the internet.

Meaning of the name[]

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".[1]

Description and behaviour[]

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 pungent 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 sodomising of adult men and women. 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. Panics occur most often in Zanzibar, throughout the island of Pemba, and in the north and west of Unguja (Zanzibar) island, including Zanzibar town. Episodes have also been reported in Dar es Salaam and other towns on the mainland coast of Tanzania.[2]

Origin and history[]

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

A popular origin story of Popobawa proposes that in the 1970s an angry sheikh released a djinni to take vengeance on his neighbors. The sheik lost control of the djinni, who took to demonic ways.Template:Fact

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, Hindus, Chinese, Great Britain|Britons, Persians and Africans.

Modern Popobawa panics[]

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[2] in Dar es Salaam in 2007

Villagers maintain that Popobawa becomes enraged if his existence is denied. Popobawa 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. [3]



  • Anon. (2003). "Terror, Tourism and Odd Beliefs", The Economist, 13 December: 57.
  • Jansen, H. (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.

See also[]

External links[]

The following is a selection of online articles about Popobawa:

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  3. Reuters, May 16, 2005