CHAKE CHAKE, Tanzania (Reuters) – Mohammed Juma starts to sweat and fidget as he recalls his rape by Popo Bawa, the most feared spirit-monster of the Zanzibar spice islands.
“We believe reading the Koran is our only defense, nothing else,” says the 41-year-old driver and father of four. “But Popo Bawa is real, and well prepared.”
Vacationers on the Indian Ocean islands tend to smile dismissively at accounts in guidebooks of the bat-like ogre said to prey on men, women and children. But for superstitious Zanzibaris a visit from the sodomizing gremlin is no joke.
Although no one ever has seen it, belief in the monster and his unnatural lust is so strong that entire villages will sleep out of doors for protection: Popo Bawa (Swahili for Bat’s Wing) prefers to attack behind closed doors at night.
In huts set amid rustling groves of jackfruit and mangoes on Zanzibar’s Pemba island, victims told Reuters in interviews that they detected a bad smell, became cold and went into a trance in the moments before they felt the creature’s inhuman strength.
Some attacks were heralded by the sound of giant wings and claws rattling and scraping on huts’ tin roofs. Others cringed in terror at what sounded like a car engine ticking over.
“We heard a rustling on the roof,” recalls Asha Saleh, in her late 50s, in Machomanne village near Pemba’s main town of Chake Chake. “I felt someone fondling me. I felt very cold. I felt weak,” she said, recalling the attack some 35 years ago.
“I couldn’t call out for help to my husband who was lying asleep beside me. Popo Bawa is strong: He really presses down on you. And it took such a long time: One hour! Eventually I lost consciousness. And I was one of many who were attacked.”
Successive waves of colonizers and traders — Arabs, Portuguese, Hindus, Chinese, Britons, Persians and Africans — left behind a multinational array of legends on Zanzibar.
Accordingly, many dismiss Popo Bawa as another of the satanic stories swapped over the centuries by migratory Indian Ocean peoples as they moved back and forth on the tides from Indonesia to the Comoros, from Madagascar to the Maldives.
Zanzibar’s distinctive past as an Arab-run slave market prompted some academics to speculate that the story of Popo Bawa emerged from a collective race memory of the horrors of slavery.
But Popo Bawa is unlike the many goblins believed by the islanders to populate the tall grasses that ring their huts.
Many on the islands are adept at exorcisms, placing charms at the base of fig trees or sacrificing goats to avert evil or draw favor from the spirit world.
So experienced are the isles’ traditional healers that they draw visitors from the Gulf and east Africa, with the successful amassing riches and prestige.
But no placatory offering or witch doctor can deflect Popo Bawa when he has made his mind up to strike, islanders say.
The monster favors Pemba, the poorer and more backward of the archipelago’s twin islands despite being home to the clove plantations that provide the mainstay of Zanzibar’s economy.
He also becomes active at election time: a habit that is testing nerves ahead of polls due in October.
His last major visitation was during elections in 1995, when Juma says he endured his terrifying ordeal, although some reported his presence again in 2000 and in 2001.
Pemba’s population are staunch opposition supporters. Many accuse the ruling party of Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa of neglecting the island since 1964, when Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.
But Juma says Popo Bawa is apolitical even though electoral emotions seem to summon him from the beyond. “He can strike even if the opposition wins the elections,” he said.
The driver vows to do his utmost to avoid what happened to him back in 1995 as he sat alone late one evening.
“Many were afraid and were sleeping outside. But I was confident and was alone in my room. I was reading the Koran for protection. After about 20 minutes I started feeling sleepy. I heard something falling on the roof. I continued reciting. I started feeling something in the room.
“I felt my mouth becoming bigger and bigger. I started losing my ability to form words. My feeling was that my lower lip had stretched to my lap. I felt weak in my body. I became very sweaty. My experience was like that of a neighbor of mine who said his head seemed to grow to an enormous size.”
Popo Bawa gets annoyed if villagers deny his existence — a fact to which Khamis Juma Hamad says he can testify.
Hamad, a retired village chief now aged 75, said that in 1971 Popo Bawa spoke to terrified villagers on Pemba through a girl possessed by the monster.
“I am Popo Bawa,” said the girl, called Fatuma, speaking in the unnaturally deep voice of a man. “You have challenged my existence so I have come to prove I am here.”
Seconds later, he says, the villagers heard the sound of a car revving and a rustle on a nearby roof — signs of Popo Bawa. “The people felt cold, almost paralyzed. They were terrified.”