It is Ramadhan here in Zanzibar, and as usual last night I joined my family for the daily evening meal. What I love about these meals is that when we all sit together in the small courtyard in front of the house on straw mats, it is not just a meal that we share. There is deep sense of togetherness we all feel as night falls. I enjoy just sitting with the family after dinner and listening to the lively banter– only some of which I understand. Last night, the topic turned a bit serious when a relative brought up the recent news that 20 people in Kenya have died as a result of a mysterious phone call. I was told that if I received a phone call and the caller’s number turned red on my phone’s screen, I should not answer it. Why? I asked. Because if you do, you will die immediately, I was told.
I looked around at everyone’s faces, and I realized that they were telling me this in all seriousness.
Witchcraft is taken very seriously here, by even the highly educated. This got me thinking about mashetani, which are the malevolent spirits and demons of East Africa that I had heard about long before arriving here in May. I should say that they are mostly malevolent, with some being responsible for seriously terrorizing populations across the region and others more benign. Most mashetani are shape shifters, and many are depicted by twisted and distorted human forms sometimes with talons, horns, or fangs. The belief in mashetani (with shetani being the singular form) can be traced back to the pre-Islamic period in East Africa, and has persisted to the present day. The Bradt Travel Guide to the Zanzibar archipelago says the following on the subject:
“There is no real way, say the locals, of protecting yourself from the possibility of being haunted or attacked by a shetani. The best thing is simply to keep out of their way and try to make sure they keep out of yours – for example by hanging a piece of paper, inscribed with special Arabic verses, from the ceiling of the house. Almost every home or shop in Zanzibar has one of these brown, mottled scraps, attached to a roof beam by a piece of cotton.”
Within the past decade there have been increasing reports in Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania of a particularly horrifying and sinister shetani by the name of Popo Bawa. Stories place Popo Bawa’s origin somewhere in the early 1970’s, and in more recent years, there have been reports from hundreds across the Zanzibar archipelago and the mainland of abuse by Popo Bawa. The excerpt below from a 2001 BBC article details some of what is so distressing about this shetani in particular:
“Fear has struck residents of the Zanzibar Islands after rumours of the re-emergence of a sexually voracious ghost that attacks people while they sleep in their beds at night. Many Zanzibaris are now refusing to sleep in their houses as they believe it only preys on people in the comfort of their own beds. The ghost or genie goes by the name of Popo Bawa and people believe that it sodomises its victims, most of whom are men.”
Popo Bawa (which translates as winged bat) is said to appear as a bat which transforms itself into a man at night. Most recently there have been reports of attacks in 1995, 2001, and 2007. Zanzibaris say that when a person is visited by Popo Bawa, they must tell all of their neighbors the next day and that night everyone must sleep outside, or else Popo Bawa will return. Some claim that smearing the body with pig fat will ward off attacks. It has also been noted by locals that the attacks tend to coincide with voting and elections on the islands.
Psychologists explain the Popo Bawa phenomenon as a case of mass hysteria which has spanned decades. And with an election coming in the next month, one can never be too prepared.
See this paper written by Dr. Martin Walsh of the University of Cambridge for an analysis of the politics of the Popo Bawa phenomenon: The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar.