by Henriette Jansen
APRIL 4, 1995
This morning, when I arrived at the Ministry of Health, here in Zanzibar where I work, I saw hundreds of people on the road outside the hospital. There were also policemen from the field force unit with weapons and loudspeakers. When I asked Fatma, my secretary, what was going on, she said “Popobawa is dead”. The crowd was gathered around the mortuary; everybody wanted to see the body of Popobawa, the cause of public hysteria for the past couple of weeks.

Popobawa formed part of a group of allegedly seven ‘persons’, who for several weeks have been terrorizing the islands and giving everybody sleepless nights. ‘A Popobawa’ wanders around at night , practically naked, with a cow’s tail and a jar containing magic medicine. The approach of one of them is always preceded by an intolerable stench. With the tail covered with magic medicine, Popobawa can split walls and doors open in such a way that it can not be noticed afterwards. Men and women inside their houses are raped from behind while they sleep. It seems that in the act, Popobawars sexual organ enlarges enormously , and the next morning when the victim awakes, the pain is unbearable. If you wake up at night, you can not see Popobawa, because he is not human. Whole neighbourhoods are shaken in terror; most people do not dare to sleep in their houses any more. Instead, they stay outside, sitting in groups around fires for security. Among them there are usually people acquainted with witchcraft and able to communicate with devils. Whenever a Popobawa comes near, the people with special powers start screaming loudly. The whole group then chases the Popobawa, until he disappears. If you have been the victim of Popobawa you should talk about it with other people. If you don’t, he will attack you again. One man, living on the island of Pemba, did not say anything to others, and so was repeatedly taken by Popobawa. Finally, his aggressor asked him why he kept quiet. The victim relied that he liked it and usually had to pay for it; now he could get it for free!

Last night, on the street corner, Popobawa undressed himself. One of the men with magic powers saw the Popobawa, covered with stinking medicine. The man chased him, and in a struggle, took away Popobawa’s jar and cow’s tail. At that moment Popobawa turned into a human. A raging mob with pangas and sticks plunged upon Popobawa.

The body of the man the mob had attacked was taken to the mortuary. By the morning, the story of the death of Popobawa had spread throughout the town, drawing the large crowd I saw when I arrived at work. My secretary, who was in the crowd this morning, told me that “he looked like a normal man”.

Last night, on the Day that the whole of Zanzibar was under the spell of the recently murdered Popobawa, a long programme on Popobawa was shown on local television. There were eyewitness accounts of the murder, shots of the crowd at the hospital, and of the corpse in the mortuary. The body of a young man was lying face down on the autopsy table. He was naked, except for a piece of rope around his waste. His back and head were covered in gashes, and stained with blood. The people interviewed in the crowd were relieved and happy that Popobawa was dead.

Yet this morning at the office, the word ‘Popobawa’ was buzzing again. My colleague, Habiba, was moody because she had been awake the whole night. Her neighbourhood had been visited by Popobawa that night. She also upset, as it had just been announced that the man who had been killed last night was Popobawa, but was a mental patient, originating from the mainland, who had come to Zanzibar for treatment. Suleiman, a colleague and a respectable old man, had been visited by Popobawa that night. In the office, he told the story again and again. He was at home and heard his wife yelling in the next room, “Toka, toka” (“Go away, go away”). He rushed to help her, and saw a strong and handsome young man, almost naked, squatting next to the bicycle that was parked in the room. Suleiman also started shouting, “Toka, Toka”. All the neighbours came running but by the time they arrived, Popobawa had gone up onto the roof and had disappeared.
One day after ‘the death of Popobawa’, nothing has changed; the mass-hysteria continues.

A couple of days after the first Popobawa-murder, I was driving to work, when I saw that the whole primary school around the corner from where I live, was turned out onto the street. There were children everywhere, in their blue and white uniforms and, for the girls, white headscarves. Somebody waved at me. It was Seif, the cook of friends of ours. I slowed down and stopped next to him.
“What’s going on?”
“Popobawa was in the school. An old woman saw him and ran after him. They say she caught him.”
Fifty metres down the road, I could see a crowd gathered at the police station.
“They say the woman was taken there”, Seif told me. It was unclear whether she was with or without the Popobawa she was supposed to have captured. Later some people said that the woman herself was the Popobawa! The accusations get more ridiculous.

Is the hysteria purposely created and now feeding on itself? Who started all the chaos and why? Some point towards important people in the Government, eager to distract attention from mounting political uncertainties in the run-up to the impending multi-party elections, planned for October of this year. How could it otherwise be explained that the Government was not taking any action?

In the nineteen sixties, shortly after the revolution there was another Popobawa affair, on the Island of Pemba. Zanzibar’s first president Sheikh Abeid A. Karume, challenged Popobawa: “Don’t harass these people any longer. Come to me if you dare”. Popobawa dared not, peace returned, and Karume took the credit.

The English language newspaper of Tanzania remains remarkably silent on this subject, except for one letter to the editor, in which the writer states that ‘a respectable newspaper should not pay any attention to this Popobawa nonsense!’ On the other hand, I heard that BBC radio recently broadcast an item on the Popobawa scare in Zanzibar, in which Popobawa was referred to as ‘the election genie’; another clue towards a possible political connection. But nobody knows for sure, and the phantom leads his own life, supported by a culture in which a world full of spirits and magic cuts right across our ‘sober reality’.

Now, one month after the first murder, in the town, the Popobawa scare has calmed down somewhat. Popobawa has moved to the shamba (rural areas). Though it may seem quieter, the day before yesterday, yet another unfortunate person was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a second Popobawa was murdered.
Henriette Jansen

2 thoughts on “POPOBAWA IS DEAD!

  1. Pingback: Speak of the Popobawa – with Dr. Katrina Daly Thompson - The Weirdo Collective

  2. Pingback: Popobawa - Fairytales and Myths

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