The Popobawa (or Popo Bawa) is a mythical cryptid originating in Eastern Africa, specifically in and around the Tanzanian area. Popobawa is an alleged evil shape-shifting being which is said by witnesses to take both human and bat-like form, causing instances of panic to spread among affected communities.
Popobawa is unusual in cryptid terms in being a relatively recent phenomenon, the first specific reference being from 1965 on the Tanzanian island of Pemba, perhaps pertinently just after the island’s political revolution. Named from the Swahili for Popo (“bat”) Bawa (“wing”) due to the shadow it casts when flying overhead, it is the most recent “shetani” , the collective of mostly malevolent mythical spirits originating in the Eastern Africa area. As a shape-shifting creature, it takes the form of a human by day and as a hunched or dwarfen humanoid with a variety of characteristics at night – these can include:
- A hunched or dwarf-like human body
- Long, pointed ears
- A mouth crammed with fangs
- Grey skin
- A single eye in the centre of its forehead
- Huge, bat-like wings, folded when not in flight into a cape
- A large penis (up to six feet in length!)
- Emission of a sulphurous smell
- Appears in a puff of smoke
- Occasionally seen with a tail and a bird’s talons
Many of these elements seem interchangeable, with daytime sightings and metamorphosis into animals also reported. With no ascribed motive for the Popobawa’s attacks on men, women and children, it is notable and quite shocking that the majority of the creature’s attacks are not only violent but also see the sodomitic rape of the victim, lasting up to one hour. The victim, if left alive, is told by the spirit to tell others of what has happened, lest the beast to revisit them and re-enact the assault.
It would seem likely that a strong history of homophobia in the region has made a significant impression on this element of the story – others have suggested that the area’s history as colonial hotbeds of slavery is responsible to some extent. The night-time attacks have left communities (though most tellingly, usually the men) staying awake at night to guard against the Popobawa visiting their homes.
By the 1970’s, Popobawa was given something of a backstory, an angry sheikh having released a djinn (genie) to take vengeance on his enemies. However, he lost control of the creature and the djinn took its current form, demanding its victims believe in its existence. More sightings began to appear, particularly in Tanzania and Zanzibar, though it was 1995 when the first of two notably widespread panics were attributed to attacks.
Reports of the 1995 attacks were investigated by prominent American sceptic, Joe Nikell who reported that there was evidence that the likely cause was some kind of sleep paralysis, rather than an actual physical encounter. Accounts from people said to have been victims regularly tell of feeling they are being held down whilst being attacked, in common with many alien abduction stories and out of body experiences – this would certainly lend itself to Nikell’s theory.
Mjaka Hamad, a peasant farmer in his mid-fifties and an apparent victim of the Popobawa’s attacks in 1995, has related his ordeal to the media:
“I could feel it,” Hamad said, “…something pressing on me. I couldn’t imagine what sort of thing was happening to me. You feel as if you are screaming with no voice. It was just like a dream but then I was thinking it was this Popobawa and he had come to do something terrible to me, something sexual. It is worse than what he does to women.”
The most recent wave of widely-reported Popobawa sightings came in 2007 in Tanzania’s former capital, Dar es Salaam, significant enough that even BBC news covered it. Some locals anointed themselves with pig oil to protect themselves from the Popobawa, whilst steel and salt are also said to repel the creature.
TV Personality Benjamin Radford, who investigated the Popobawa in 2007, reported in Fortean Times that the legend has its roots in Islam, the dominant religion in the area. According to Radford, “holding or reciting the Koran is said to keep the Popobawa at bay, much as the Bible is said to dispel Christian demons.”
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA