It was one of the last places I’d ever expected to find myself. Here I was knelt before a table of random artifacts and stones in a small mud and grass hut in one of the most remote and far-gone places in the world. Seated in this earthen home in the middle of the Great Rift Valley I was moments from receiving a divination from a Maasai Iloibonok (ritual leader and Chief).
Back in 2006, I spent a month in Tanzania , working with local people and taking in the amazing wonders on various weekend excursions. One of these digressions was a chance opportunity to spend three days with a Maasai tribe that a local friend was familiar with. Who wouldn’t jump at that chance? Needless to say, it was one of the most unique experiences of my life. At dusk on the second day, before a ritual goat slaughter, I was presented with an opportunity to have a divination session with the Chief. It was surreal. This rugged old man, with skinny arms and leathery skin came into this dark little hut, his bright red and black robe accented by the stark white bones which pierced his nose and ears, causing them to sag like tired eyelids. He was an enigma to me. He sat down and shook a jumble of small bones, stones, and pendants out of a gourd and across his table, wary of the pattern they created. Speaking in his own deviation of Swahili, he explained that Eng’ai, their earth mother deity was displeased, delaying the rainy season with drought. Through a translator I was told our meal that night would be plentiful. Not much of a radical divination, but I was grateful nonetheless. We were later given a small lesson on Maasai culture, of which it became apparent that our translator was giving us only the footnotes. In his talk, I heard mention a word spoken with more ferocity than the others. The word Popobawa stuck with me, and later that night, while we danced around a fire, drunk on honey beer, I had to ask one of the tribesmen what it meant. The answer I received shocked me to my core.
It started back in 1972, in the island regions of Zanzibar and Pemba along the eastern coast of Tanzania. Political unrest was spreading throughout Tanzania, Zanzibar in particular, after the assassination of Tanzanian Vice President Abeid Karume. The uneasiness oozing across the country was peaked by strange stories coming out of Pemba. Reports of a very specific incubus began springing up around small villages. The demon was described as a dwarf like Cyclops with sharp talons, pointed ears, and bat like wings. It’s from the last description that natives named it Popobawa (Popo Bawa), popo the Swahili word for bat, bawa the word for wing. And so a legend was born. At the time of its first reported appearance, accounts of Popobawa were vaguely described encounters in which the cryptid sexually abused some island men in their homes. Reports were ambiguous, and skeptics wrote off the attacks as fear mongering during a time of political fragility. Tanzania’s independence was fairly new, less than a decade to be exact, and with a widespread belief of witchcraft and superstition in the country, the claims were easy to dismiss.
Tanzanians are not skeptics, so the legend of Popobawa only grew as reports sprang up various times throughout the 1980’s. It wasn’t until April of 1995 however, that the country really started paying attention. A wave of new attacks were reported from Zanzibar to the mainland, and the victims accounts were no longer vague, but vividly detailed, cautionary even. An almost gremlin like dwarf, described as having pointed ears, sharp crooked teeth, long barbed talons, a singular large eye, and dark bat-like wings was said to have preyed on a number of men as they slept in their beds. Each man described the same encounter; paralyzed in a dreamlike state, asleep in the comfort of their own beds, the Popobawa would sodomize the men as they slept, the feeling of pressure from the weight of the beast pressing down on their chest. Each man described the feeling during the attack as a moment of waking paralysis, a dreamlike trance during which the Popobawa had some kind of control over their consciousness. Claims of an acrid smoke was seen and smelled in each household, and oftentimes the victims themselves could not see the beast, only their family members could. Mjaka Hamad, a middle-aged peasant farmer reported his attack to the media.
“I couldn’t see it. I could only feel it. But some people in my house could see it. Those who’ve got the spirits in their heads could see it. Everybody was terrified. They were outside screaming Huyo! It means the Popobawa is there. I had this bad pain in my ribs where it crushed me. I don’t believe in spirits so maybe that’s why it attacked me. Maybe it will attack anybody who doesn’t believe.”
Media coverage fueled a widespread panic among many Tanzanians, as hordes of men feared sleeping in their own beds. Attack after attack were similarly accounted as taking place in the beds of men who were generally non-believing skeptics. Fear of being preyed upon in their own beds, many refused to sleep in their own homes, taking to the comfort of groups, sometimes beside huge fires to ward off the threat. Others tried to stay awake during nights of reported attacks, smearing their bodies in pigs oil as means to repel the Popobawa. Some even claimed that the Popbawa was a shape shifter who took the form of a man with narrowly pointed fingers. Descriptions of this shape shifted human form sounded very similar to the appearance of Count Orlok in Nosferatu. Sadly, a mentally ill man who claimed to be the human form of Popobawa was hacked to death with a machete by a group of fearful peasants. Public fear was at a boiling point.
Again in 2000 and 2001 reports of Popobawa attacks were on the rise. The pattern of fear continued, even causing reputable media outlets like the BBC to cover the attacks on worldwide news programs. The novelty of a story about a sex-crazed ghost, a sodomizing demon who preyed only on men may have seemed like a quirky news story, but to many Tanzanians, the threat was and is very real. While there are some that believe the Popobawa is one of a number of similar creatures, most perceive it as a singular being. It has also been reported that some women have been raped by the Popobawa, but the majority of recorded instances show that it has a proclivity for men.
Unlike other cryptids like Bigfoot, or Nessie, Popobawa has a history written across the countless hospital bills of its victims. A real and official record of emergency room visits document an assortment of broken hips, bruising, rape wounds, cuts and scratches all attributed to its strikes.
So what could it be? Is there in fact a Popobawa on the loose in Eastern Tanzania? Why does he only assault men, skeptical men at that? Tanzanian astrologers claim that the demon has been sent by witches, to afflict those who deny their existence. Skeptics claim that the attacks are hypnogogic hallucinations, or waking dreams. But how then, do others bear witness to the attacks? Tanzania is a very conservative religious country, made up of equal parts Muslims and Christians. Although many believe in superstition and witchcraft, most are devout in their Christian or Muslim beliefs. To hide the shame associated with rape, especially if it was homosexual in nature, it is not wrong to assume that such a god-fearing and superstitious people would latch on to a myth in order to avoid the unfortunate stigma that exists in the country.
This brings me back to that Maasai celebration, the honey beer not nearly a buzz to compare to the incredible story I was just told. Here, in the middle of nowhere, in the very cradle of life where it is thought that man first walked the earth, my own beliefs were challenged by a story that scared the hell out of me. Skeptical me decided to spend that night a believer, my sleeping bag pulled tightly over my head, the burning fire kept in constant eyesight. My divination from the Chief showed no sign of a one-eyed gnome with bat-wings and talons, so I figured I’d let that plentiful meal settle in my stomach, and trust my gut.
A year after I left, Popobawa attacks were again on the rise, this time closer inland near to where I slept that night.