Sunday, February 22, 2015

Popobawa - Zanzibar, Africa

Okay, I'm going to give a content warning here: This entry is probably not fit for younger readers, people who are sensitive to discussions of sexual assault, and it is definitely not fit for twelve-year old boys who will just use it as an excuse to crack inappropriate jokes about anal sex*. You have been warned.

Also, I can see some readers getting into a racist "oh, these primitive Africans" rant, and I'll talk about why you shouldn't be so confident in the Commentary section.

There is something haunting Tanzania.  Called the Popobawa - a bat-like creature that is said to sexually assault people in the night. In addition to these assaults, it is also said to generally haunt the home of its chosen victims, making noise, moving objects, and trying to frighten them. Once it has gotten it's fill of terror in one home, it moves on to the next one, usually in the same neighborhood.

Although the Popobawa may attack anyone in the household, it is alleged to prefer to anally rape men, and then threaten to return to repeat the action if the men do not tell others about the attack. As a result, men who have been attacked must confess the violation to others, compounding the trauma of the event.

Popobawa, which appears to translate to "bat wing" in Swahili, is a shape-shifter and can appear in many forms, but it's natural form is said to be that of a large bat-like creature with one eye and a gigantic penis, though this "natural form" may be more a creation of western media than an aspect of the Tanzanian folklore regarding the creature. In Tanzanian folklore, it appears that the creature has no true shape, and that the name refers to the shadow that it casts when it appears. The creature's appearance is said to be accompanied by scraping noises on the walls and roof, and a sulfurous smell.

The Popobawa prefers to attack people in their homes when they are alone, and so, during Popobawa panics, many men choose to spend their nights outdoors, sometimes in the streets (often the only open place in some of the crowded towns and cities), which has led to fatalities from automobile traffic.

It is also said that the Popoabawa may be frightened away by gatherings of people, or by recitations of passages from the Koran.

The origins of the Popobawa are unclear. While many people in Europe and the Americas like to think of it as a cryptid (that is, a creature not formally discovered by science but alleged by believers to exist, a'la Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster), it's pretty clear that the people of Tanzania consider it to be a spirit or demon of some sort. One story holds that a sheikh (a respected member of the community with informal authority) summoned a djinn (an spirit in Islamic folklore, in many ways comparable to the demons of Christian folklore) in order to attack neighbors with whom he was having difficulties, but that he lost control of the djinn and that it is now loose as the Popobawa.

*I was a twelve-year-old boy once. I know how you work.

Commentary:  Okay, let's get the first thing out of the way - I know that there are people reading this and thinking "oh, those primitive/superstitious Africans/Muslims! They have such dumb beliefs!" To which I will point out that panics regarding spectral sexual assault are not in any way unique to Africa or to the Muslim world. Christian and general European folklore is filled with stories of spectral rapists - Succubi, Incubi, "old hag", and many a faerie story - not to mention more recent stories about aliens abducting people and subjecting them to various sexual probes and experiments. And massive panics regarding this sort of thing are not unheard of in the west - consider the amount of claims of "Satanic Ritual Abuse" that appeared during the late 1970s and early 1980s. So, if you are inclined to look at this as a sign of gullibility or foolishness in a poor and underdeveloped part of the world, just be aware that your own culture is perfectly capable of producing very similar things.

Alright, that rant done, it's time to talk about this story. We have a story about a creature that goes about terrorizing households, and sexually assaulting members of the household (though allegedly prefering the male members). Let's assume, as I am inclined to, that this is all folklore. What does it mean?

Well, a number of different hypotheses have been put forward. Including:

- That this story is used to describe or cover up actual sexual assaults.

- That this story simply reflects a local variation on folklore surrounding the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

- That this story reflects feelings of male inadequacies in a changing and poor region of Africa, with the metaphorical rape being used to metaphorically describe fears of emasculation.The insistence by the creature that mean admit to their violation in order to prevent further violation seems very much in line with this.

- That the story reflects fears of political instability. In fact, Popobabwa panics, during which many people report encounters and men often take to sleeping outdoors, typically accompany elections.

- That the story is a metaphorical discussion of Zanzibar's past as a slave market used by Arab traders. While plausible, the Popobawa first appeared on the island of Pemba in the 1970s, and so it seems unlikely that it would reflect directly the experience of 19th century slaves and slave traders.

Of course, none of these explanations are exclusive of the others, and it may well be that the Popobawa is a folkloric conglomeration of the anxieties, concerns, and very real assaults experienced by people living in Tanzania. It would appear to be a way in which ghostly folklore represents real-world issues, a phenomenon known the world over.

Sources: Podcast, BBC NewsWikipedia, Center for Inquiry, Cryptid Wiki, The Demon-Hunters Compendium,

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