Every culture in this world has it’s ghost stories. On the islands of Zanzibar many people have a ghostish tale to tell here where the traditions of Islam and other influences have shaped the culture of Zanzibar, lies a fertile haunting ground for they shadowy frightening creatures of the super natural.
Zanzibar’s journey into the past
The people of the East Africa Coast Lands an Afro Oriental maritime Swahili Civilization which increasingly became dominated by descendants of those came from across the Indian ocean.
According to British Historian Mark Holton the ports and settlements extended 3,000 kilo meters a long the East African Cost line. Modern archeological surveys have discovered more than 400 sites along this line of coastal settlement that were occupied before the Portuguese’s arrival in 1498. Many of the sites were small villages of stone houses and with population not less than 10,000. These were the commercial centers where the ocean going dhows of the Indian Ocean made their calls. This coastal aggregation which was called Swahili corridor. By the end of 1800s numerous migration and intensive and extensive cultural contacts had enabled the Swahili culture to be firmly based on mercantilism and feudalism.
There is a strong belief among the local inhabitants that the Persians where the first visitors to the island, but the fact remains that Zanzibar was a complex metropolis that included visitors and immigrants of many religions, ethnicities and nationalities.
These were the Arabs ( Omanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Egyptians and even Syrians) Asians and Persians Turks, Indians, Indonesians, Chinese and Sri Lankans.
The Arabs brought their religion, Cultures, art of dressing and building. In fait the Swahili people are broadly defined to be a mix of Arab and
African blend even though Kiswahili is of Bantu origin, it is heavily loaded with Arabic and other oriental words.
Then came Indian immigrants from Cutch, Surat and from Bay of Bengal, Indonesians also came around 100 B,C TO 100 A.D. who are believed to have introduced the coconut to the East African Coast.
The Hindus joined other Asians to East African Coast to look for emerging markets and retail business. Zanzibar especially after 1821 had many Indians of different sects (Khojas, Hindus, Bohras, Goans and other minorities like Parsees.
Other Bantu speaking people came to the islands as slaves and immigrant workers, they came with their cultural practice’s like snake dancing and other witchcraft rituals.
The nyamulezi, Zigua, Manyema and Makonde are some of them they originated from the hinterland of East Central Africa.
Immigrants from the neighboring island in the Indian Ocean especially Commoros, Seychelles and Madagascar( Bukini) also highly contributed to the influence of their indigenous cultures superstitious beliefs and myths.
The Kibuki ghost dance was either imported by Commorians or people from Bukini ( Madagascar) to these island of Zanzibar.
The capital of Zanzibar the Stone Town was predominantly Muslim, belonging to different sects, Sunni, Ibadhi, Hanafi, Shia, Hambali and Ahmadiya which were the dominants sects. There were other religious minorities who practiced their worship such as Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism and even Budhism.
Almost all area in the Stone town are tombs and cemeteries surrounded by large trees. Tombs of different designs were scattered outside big mosques and even besides Sultan’s palace. According to the 1921 town survey, the Zanzibar stone town had more then 64 cemeteries* built to the backyards of many residential buildings. These buildings are so close to each other and it is to imagine how close are people between the dead and the living.
The thinking and the daily life were influenced by both folk stories and dark narrow streets at night.
Hence, there are now many myths, ritual words in Zanzibar regarding the presence of ghosts, sorcery and witch craft.
Here are few example:-
*The burial of the elite in Nineteenth Century Zanzibar Stone Town by Amina Ameir Issa.
According to local belief ghost can cause misfortunes if provoked. They are always the scape goat for peoples miseries diseases or even death. They have power to cause natural disasters like epidemics, accidents, floods, tornadoes or droughts.
They are potential enemies rather then friends and these frightening images are always cemented by frequent and repeated stories about devils and those who have seen these supernatural beings in addition to the ancient fear of them since the time of Adam and Eve
In Zanzibar a person may be possessed by either Arab, European, Bukindi or Nyamwezi ghost. This is proved by the witchdoctor.
When you are in Zanzibar if you are lucky you many come face to face with traditional rituals like kabuki ghost dance, Mwakakogwa and the frightening sex- maniac monster popobawa.
There are also chilling stories in Zanzibar town that certain people have been sodomized in their own homes when they were asleep. A rumour prevails for a long time that there is a one storey house at Mazizini road near the Zanzibar Airport which resident of the house had experience this horrible episode.
The Vampire Bat has landed
The first time the frightening rumour of the presence of the Popo Ubawa. The terrible nerue-racking alien creature was in 1970. The monster batman who was sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. The existence of this rumour of lurking monster predator called Popo Ubawa created a widespread panic and fear to most people in both Islands. It was real psychological horror across the Islands.
According to the rumour this vampire batman loved to sodomize people when they were sleep. He terrorized the people in Pemba for at least six months period then disappeared mysteriously. Then there was a long period of dormancy only to make a second comeback in early 1995. This dramatic comeback was also in the Island of Pemba in early 1995 astonishingly after 1995 general election.
This Vampire half bat – half man would land at amazing speed on his prey under the cover of darkness an make his scathing sexual attack using his claws and long teeth. These shocking rumous spread very quickly to both Islands. A mass hysteria gripped the people especially women and children.
Then another rumor this vampire bat has come to Zanzibar Town. It was a season of fear all over the towns and even to remote villages. When night falls every one in the Island was trembling. People began to sleep in groups outside their homes or even in the roof tops because there was a belief that sexual predator do not attack a group of people who sleep with underwear or naked. Early in the morning all people were anxious to know what happened last night.
There were sometimes screams in many houses due to fears nervousness people became truly scared even of marauding dogs and cats especially at night.
The worst thing this vampire batman brought to the Island was the cause of ruthless killing of an innocent harmless mentally sick young man, who was mistakenly identify as a Popo Ubawa by a frienzed mob. The illfated man was hit by a matchet on his head. May God rest his soul in heavenly peace. Aamin.
The local television and radio station try to broadcast and appeal to come the public not to panic to the unfounded rumour and made huge effort to convince the public that this vampire bat monster that’s not exist at all.
Some old people believed by that by reciting certain verses of the Holy Quran. The devil could be expelled. Other narrated story that had come face to face with the predator made incredible manuvoure to escaspe.
Fortunately, as time passed, this terrible sex maniac presence began to fade out in peoples minds. Up to this moment there is no scientific proof to his existence. Whether the vampire bat man was real of fiction. We plead to the peoples of Zanzibar not to rekindle the resurrection of Popo Ubawa.
An Inside Look at witchcraft and sorcery.
In my own experience and investigation witchcraft or sorcery is deliberately or maliciously done by the witch to hurt a person or to destroy property. There is no doubt the crime of witch craft and sorcery is immense.
Sometimes, the excesses and brutalities that have characterized witchcraft are unthinkable in fact, there is no fine distinction between the superstition of sorcery and heresy of witchcraft or between white and black magic. We have come of age to face the facts and not just to rush to conclusion.
During his era, the first President of Zanzibar, Mr Abeid Karume took a stern action against black magic in both Island Unguja and Pemba. This was in the late 1960 when he made a vigorous effort to purge and cleanse all the witches among the people. He gave order all to be arrested after being proved guilty to executed for the public interest. Before their executions they were cross-examined and very shocking answers they gave were the absurdly trivial nature of the motive for using sorcery and bewitching people.
Some of the witches were caught with their tools of trade like bones and limbs of their victims. This obviously reflects the low value placed by sorcerers on human life. They use the evil power to kill, destroy wealth or turn people permanently insane.
In Unguja Island there were cases where witches used local tamed leopards in their sorcery. They trained these animals to go to a particular person and harm him or her.
Sometimes, the sorcerers go too far by wanting their bewitched patients to bring to them very peculiar things for their cure and in fact it involves a great risk to their lives, e.g tiger milk, lions forehead hair, eggs of the mermaid or even their mothers public hair.
They tell them to burry live cats and dogs while sewing their eyes, which is high form of cruelty to animals. They persuade their patient to walk naked outside their homes as part of their cure.
To cap it all they even force their patients to drink harmful liquids or to swallow inedible objects like hard paper or stones. It will suffice to say in the end that alcoholic drinking and fornication is in the middle of these horrible and indecent conducts.
Witchcraft is also at the center of love affairs, sex and problems in marriage. Most of the time even natural deaths or death causes by illness like malaria may too be related to witchcraft. People aspiring for high post and better pay or seeking employment opportunities may sometimes consult a witchdoctor, for the superstitious life has no meaning without sorcery no can one trust any explanation of existence. To these people the natural is also the supernatural most of the local people, especially in rural areas interpret ordinary activities and behavior in terms of witchcraft.
It is an integral part of their life, from child hood to the grave
Incredible skills of witchdoctors.
One of the secret of their reputation is most likely due to good memory and a system of cross-questioning all those who consult them and it is obvious that they possess a wide knowledge of numerous trick and deceits when tackling the problem of the believers, and in some cases they can astonish even educated people and perform wonders which would almost convert a person to believe in witchcraft.
Yet one has only wonder the comparatively vast amounts of money thrown away in this evil business and to realize how easily the uneducated fellows can be taken or in other words brain washed.
I hope a scientific approach can help very much to diminish the powers of witch doctors, especial the prevention of the worst type of it. We must confess the society has still no potent weapons with which to tackle this huge problems of witchcraft to win easy victories against these evil forces is still far from reality.
Witchcraft is no doubt the disease of mind which must be fought on all fronts, if we aim to achieve the true liberation of mankind. Open policies towards witchcraft and sorcery may bring about useful knowledge for public use and perhaps societies will find means to counter attack black magic which is in my opinion the dirtiest and oddest of things found in the Kingdom of Nature.
By Amir Ali Mohamed
Author of Zanzibar Ghost Stories.
First Edition 2000
Photos by Robin Batista Photography