Hundreds of cultures worldwide have legends of dangerous mythical demons, beings that locals swear exist, but which science has yet to conclusively document. The chupacabra in Puerto Rico and Latin America, the yeti of the Himalayas, and the Jersey Devil of…well, Jersey, all fall into this category of creatures; locals blame them for everything from livestock slaughter to human abductions, and despite the lack of proof of their existence, whispers and rumors of their evil deeds keep them alive in the darkest corners of the imagination.
In Tanzania, specifically on the islands of Zanzibar, the demon that haunts locals’ dreams is the popobawa, or “batwing.”
The earliest recorded sighting of the popobawa occurred in 1965 on the island of Pemba, though accounts of the creature popped up more frequently by the early 70s. While this may seem shockingly recent, many mythical creatures have relatively recent origins; the first chupacabra sighting only occurred in 1995!
A shapeshifter, the popobawa is said to take on both human and animal forms at will. It gets its evocative name, however, from the distinctive shadow cast by its outspread wings when it attacks. Believers say the creature is a djinn released by a sheikh seeking vengeance. Unfortunately for the Zanzibaris, the sheikh quickly lost control of his spirit helper, who then turned to evil ways.
According to believers, the popobawa will creep into your room in the dark of night and attack you in your own bed. Sometimes a sulfurous smell accompanies the creature, and occasionally it is heard on the roof, claws scraping, before it enters.
But a single popobawa attack isn’t the end of the horror; legend has it that if you don’t tell others about the attack, the popobawa will visit you again, staying longer and attacking more violently on each subsequent visit. It’s also particularly fond of attacking popobawa non-believers. Because it’s a jerk.
Since the earliest sightings, several “popobawa panics” have broken out, most recently in 2007 in Dar es Salaam (though the panic of 1995 was by far the most widespread).
Strangely, the sightings seem to happen in waves; dozens or hundreds of individuals will report being attacked in a given year, then the creature flies under the radar, essentially unheard of, for several years before appearing again.
Some skeptics—notably the SyFy channel television show Destination Truth—have tied these intervals to the Zanzibari election cycle. Panics occur predictably, and exclusively, in years when Zanzibari officials are up for election…then fade away until the next major election year. The show concluded that opposition party members created—and regularly revive—the myth of the popobawa as a political tool. Like so many savvy politicians before them, these officials, according to the show, are using fear to garner votes.
Whether it’s the product of an evil sorcerer or a cunning politico, the popobawa has taken on a life of its own in Tanzania.
So if you see the outline of dark wings against the night sky, make sure to keep the lights on…