2014-15 Research Report
Popobawa as Text: Taboo and Transgression on the Swahili Coast
Since at least the mid-1960s, people on the islands of Zanzibar, Tanzania, have talked about being attacked by a mysterious shapeshifting creature called Popobawa. Variously thought of as a djinn, spirit, demon, beast, monster, or an embodied form of witchcraft, Popobawa differs from other Swahili occult figures in that he does not possess people nor form long term relationships with them, but rather sexually assaults them and leaves them to tell their story to others, sometimes even demanding that they do so. While other spirits such as “love spirits” typically possess and have sexual intercourse with humans of the opposite gender, Popobawa tends to prefer male victims. Reoccurring periodically, Popobawa attacks are shrouded by mystery and speculation and thus are a popular subject for conversation, gossip, and humor. The story has even spread beyond Tanzania through the internet and is now a popular joke among Italians and other citizens of the West who have visited Tanzania.
In my book project on Popobawa, I analyze talk and texts about this mysterious figure, arguing that he is a contemporary trickster that allows those who talk about him either to support or transgress social norms. The texts I examine include written narratives, a novelette, films, cartoons, websites, and recordings of conversations—both Popobawa narratives and metadiscourse that comments upon those narratives, discourse produced from 1995 to the present. Situating Popobawa discourse within the wider sociocultural context of coastal Swahili society as well as within global popular discourses from and about Africa, my aim is to understand the social significance of Popobawa discourse both within Tanzania and beyond. In contrast to previous research on Popobawa that has focused on the relationship between Popobawa scares and coastal electoral politics, this book reveals how Popobawa discourse enables not only Swahili speakers but also global “fans” to construct their own identities and to critique others, as well as to establish, critique, and/or circumvent speech prohibitions about taboo topics such as women’s sexuality, and African or Muslim homosexuality. Thus the uses to which people put Popobawa discourse vary widely, incorporating but not limited to commenting on politics. Popobawa’s ability to shapeshift, characteristic of an African trickster, becomes a metaphor for the different uses to which he is put by both Tanzanians and others as they navigate linguistic and cultural ideologies about what it means to be African, Muslim, Swahili, Tanzanian, women, gay men, experts, or combinations of these categories.
The book, to be published by Indiana University Press, contributes to scholarship in three areas: folklore, language and gender, and Islamic Studies. Outside of South Africa, there is little scholarship on contemporary legends (a more accurate name for what are popularly called “urban legends”) in Sub-Saharan Africa, and this project thus fills a geographic gap in folklore studies. The fields of applied linguistics and linguistic anthropology have a rich literature on language, gender, and sexuality, but very little has been done on these topics in Africa. While there is a great deal of anthropological research on Swahili women, and some on queer Swahili men, local ideologies which would silence both groups are often treated as fact, which has led to a scholarly focus on women’s non-verbal communication and an unfortunate lack of research on the talk in which both groups do participate. My work suggests that talk about Popobawa and other spirits who have sex with humans are not only important means for accessing the voices of Swahili women and queer men but also important means that they use to communicate about their own sexuality. Essentialist Islam is on the rise in Tanzania, leading to even more silencing of women and queer men’s voices. Existing research has obscured the role that Islam plays in the lives of women and queer men as they negotiate their relationships to their religion in ways both orthodox and not. Examining Tanzanian discourses about sexuality and gender through this contemporary trickster tale will make an important contribution to these overlooked aspects of Swahili culture and to our understanding of Muslim gender roles.