Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings

Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings

Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings

Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings


Since the 1960s, people on the islands off the coast of Tanzania have talked about being attacked by a mysterious creature called Popobawa, a shapeshifter often described as having an enormous penis. Popobawa's recurring attacks have become a popular subject for stories, conversation, gossip, and humor that has spread far beyond East Africa. Katrina Daly Thompson shows that talk about Popobawa becomes a tool that Swahili speakers use for various creative purposes such as subverting gender segregation, advertising homosexuality, or discussing female sexuality. By situating Popobawa discourse within the social and cultural world of the Swahili Coast as well as the wider world of global popular culture, Thompson demonstrates that uses of this legend are more diverse and complex than previously thought and provides insight into how women and men communicate in a place where taboo, prohibition, and restraint remain powerful cultural forces.


“Texts haunt each other.”

—Karin Barber, Anthropology of Texts, Persons, and Publics

On a warm June night in Los Angeles, just after UCLA’s spring quarter had ended, I was at a party hosted by one of my graduate students. We were speaking Swahili and drinking Tuskers over Swahili food we’d all brought to share when a young woman from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (the wife of one of my students), told me a story that has haunted me for a decade.

“Have you heard of Popobawa?” she asked. Her voice was full of laughter. This giant bat-like creature, she said, is known to slip into people’s homes at night, paralyzing men and raping them. After he rapes a man, Popobawa tells him, “You must tell ten people what I have done to you or I will make you my wife.” Men use conversational narratives, phone calls, text messages, and radio broadcasts, she said, to spread the word that they have been sodomized. These stories are then taken up and circulated by both men and women through various genres of legendry, the “range of expressions that gravitate around [legends that take the form of] narratives,” including belief, rumor, ritual, and “commentary and debate about the event that the narrative recounts,” which is often expository rather than narrative.

In the decade that has passed since I first heard of Popobawa, I have had countless conversations about Popobawa and collected other versions of this legend and related legendry in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. I have also gathered print versions published and illustrated in Tanzanian popular magazines and books, a feature film for sale or rent in dvd shops and kiosks, as well as references to and images of Popobawa published on the Internet by people all over the world. Popobawa attacks are shrouded by mystery and speculation, which makes them a popular subject for conversation, rumor, and gossip, widespread among male and female Swahili-speakers of all ages, education levels, and class backgrounds. the Popobawa legend exhibits a great deal of diversity across time—from 1965 to the present—and space—from Pemba to Unguja, from Dar es Salaam on the east coast to the rest of Tanzania, and beyond Tanzania’s borders through global media. What may have begun as narrating real experiences of . . .

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