Tag Archives: africa

169 – Hunting The Witch’s Familiar: Dr. Martin Walsh And The Zanzibar Leopard

The last time we had Dr. Martin Walsh on we discussed his experiences in Zanzibar during the Popobawa panic in the mid-90s and we knew that there was more that we wanted to talk to him about. Not only is Dr. Walsh an anthropologist who has studied social phenomena for decades, he’s also one of the leaders of the search for the Zanzibar Leopard, a unique species of big cat thought to be possibly extinct.

zanzibar leopard martin walsh
A stuffed version of the Zanzibar Leopard

Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania and because of that separation, it’s thought that the leopard native to the island developed in isolation for thousands of years. It became smaller than mainland leopards as well as literally “changing its spots”,  but it also was a victim of local folklore and that has contributed to its disappearance.

As Dr. Walsh wrote with his partner in the quest for the leopard, Dr. Helle Goldman in their work, “Killing the king: the demonization and extermination of the Zanzibar leopard“, while there has always been friction between humans and leopards (with documented attacks on livestock and even children) a legend that the leopards belonged to witches made the beasts a feared animal much of the time.

martin walsh helle goldman zanzibar leopard
Helle Goldman reviewing camera trap footage in September 2017

But that ended after the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. A witch-hunter named Kitanzi led a movement to eliminate these witches from the island, and slaughtering the leopards was one way of getting that done. This extermination continued all the way to the 1990s and by that point a researcher hadn’t documented a wild Zanzibar leopard sighting since the 80s. In rural areas of the island though, reports of the leopard still turn up and that’s where our heroes have to look.

martin walsh helle goldman Zanzibar leopard
Another view of the faded stuffed leopard in the Zanzibar museum

Walsh and Goldman are following the case of the Zanzibar leopard like a Bigfoot hunter or a Nessie aficionado, they’re cryptozoological investigators who are hunting a mysterious animal and trying to find any evidence of its continued existence. That’s what this interview is all about and if you’re interested in cryptozoology or African culture,  there is a lot for you to enjoy in this episode.

martin walsh zanzibar leopard
Walsh interviewing local wildlife expert Shabani Imani in September 2017 (he’d recently fallen out of a coconut palm!)

In fact, in this interview, Martin talks about how sometimes people claim to have the leopards and they’ll contact Tanzanian wildlife officials saying they’ve captured one. One time they even said that they had leopard cubs in captivity, but when the proof was required, all they really seemed to be were a couple of (admittedly very cute) kittens.

martin walsh helle goldman zanzibar leopard
These look like leopard cubs to you?

If you’re academically inclined (and even if you’re not, it’s a fascinating read), please check out  Drs. Walsh and Goldman’s papers on “Cryptids and credulity: the Zanzibar leopard and other imaginary beings” and “Chasing imaginary leopards: science, witchcraft and the politics of conservation in Zanzibar“. We encourage you to check out their blog as well, it’s an awesome resource in learning how to hunt cryptids scientifically!

dr martin walsh zanzibar leopard
Dr. Martin Walsh

Now, not that this obsession consumed Martin (that we know of!) because the Zanzibar Leopard was killed off by superstition and political unrest, but the song this week inspired by the conversation is a little more about the Captain Ahab-esque hole that you can dig yourself into when your interest becomes an obsession, this is a new Sunspot track called “Chasing Devils”.

You dreamed of danger
you dreamed of risk
You dreamed of chasing devils dusk to dawn and waiting for their kiss
You wished for abuse
Hoped for neglect
Wishing for an oppressor you could fight and a cause you could insurrect

You want to roam
far away from home
but these imaginary devils
are all better left alone
And when they’re found
they won’t make a sound
because the creatures of the night will be gone
when you finally come down

You wanted action
You made it hot,
But the more you got the more you needed and the more that you got lost.
The taste of danger
the sweet of risk
When you’re busy chasing devils you’re too high to know you’re sick

You went to roam
far away from home
but these imaginary devils
were all better left alone
When they were found
they made no sound
because the creatures of the night were all gone
when you finally came down

And, hey, we’ve got a double dose of art this week, Allison from Milwaukee Ghosts was so inspired by the conversation that she wrote a poem, check it out!

Imaginary Animals

The leopard in the dark,
Was it ever really there?
Eyes dilate to welcome the night,
Body bristling,
Holding your breath,
Shuddering,
As it passes beside you,
Close enough to brush your skin.
That is certain.
Isn’t it?
Some sensation fanned out within,
Tasting it,
Feeling the heat,
Fingers of energy,
Reaching out and scalding,
Wheels of light,
Spiralling deep inside,
Spinning,
Dizzying,
Then nothing.
Conspicuously alone,
Again.
Left wondering,
What remains,
When the sacred night crumbles?

133 – Popobawa: Dr. Martin Walsh and The Idea Virus

Martin Walsh is a social anthropologist with a PhD from the University of Cambridge.  He has extensive field experience in East Africa including the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar.

popobawa dr. martin walsh
Look at the red star to find Zanzibar

We first heard about Dr. Walsh in the Gray Brothers’ documentary about sleep paralysis, The Nightmare, (check out our interview here!) where he was the liaison between the people of Zanzibar and the filmmakers. They were exploring the mystery of Popobawa (literally translated to English as “bat-wing”), an evil shapeshifting spirit who would visit people in the night and poke them where the Sun don’t shine.

Of course, we’re being flippant, but that’s part of it. The very intimate nature of the violation is one of the reasons of the legend was so scary, funny, and fascinating to the Tanzanian people. As Dr. Walsh describes it, there was a period in 1995 where that’s all the people talked about, a national obsession.

popobawa dr. martin walsh
An artist’s rendition of Popobawa, often portrayed as a one-eyed demon with bat wings, in the real legend, it was a shapeshifter and appeared in many different forms.

Much like the Clown Hysteria hit in 2016 in the United States and it spread through the news and social media, stories of Popobawa’s nocturnal visits spread through word of mouth where people would tell personal stories of waking up paralyzed and seeing a terrifying shapeshifter pressing on their chest. In fact, the stories very often resemble alien abduction tales. In one of the wildest tales that Martin talks about in the interview, there’s a spinning dog with a police siren on its head. And of course, accompanied by a fetid stink (shades of Joshua Cutchin’s Brimstone Deceit?)

popbawa martin walsh the grey brothers
Dr. Martin Walsh with The Gray Brothers filiming “The Nightmare”

But this wasn’t just harmless sleep paralysis, the panic that spread through the community caused several deaths. Since Popobawa could appear as anyone, that means that anyone acting strangely or just a little unusual could be the evil spirit in human form. Some poor mentally ill folks ended up being mistaken for Popobawa and were killed by the mob.

Dr. Walsh wrote an academic paper about this phenomenon shortly after it all went down, you can even read it online (and I recommend it, it’s not stuffy or difficult and gets into some real fascinating detail.) Click here to check out “Killing Popobawa: collective panic and violence in Zanzibar”

popobawa dr. martin walsh
Dr. Martin Walsh

Dr. Walsh goes into several reasons as to why this idea virus might have spread so quickly and such a ridiculous legend became so popular in our discussion, but one of the things that he brought up really made me think about our interview with Jack Hunter, another British student of Anthropology.

One of the things Martin believes is important to the story is that the panic took place during the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan, and that’s a month where everyone is fasting, they’re not sleeping as much, they’re praying more, etc… they’re engaging in rituals. One of the things that Jack is studying is how people across the world have used rituals to facilitate paranormal experiences.

popobawa dr. martin walsh
Dr. Martin Walsh on location in Tanzania

The inhabitants of Zanzibar were doing exactly that when Popobawa came for a visit. Whether or not people were really visited by a single-eyed bat demon with a penchant for you know what, Martin mentions that they could very well have been setting themselves up for being more likely to have a sleep paralysis experience.  Especially once the first one happens and people start hearing about it and you might manifest it in your own bed.

Martin, of course, is featured in The Nightmare (which you can watch above) but he also has some authors he can recommend if you’re interested in learning more about this topic:

And don’t forget that Dr. Walsh has lots of work available online where you can learn more about Popobawa and Tanzania!

Martin also works with Oxfam, an organization dedicated to poverty eradication, health, and human rights in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. You can find more about their mission and his work right here.

This week’s song was inspired by a couple of the things Martin said in the interview. Number one, he talked about the “twilight zone” between waking and dreaming. Number two, the widespread panic that spread throughout his village one night that was probably started  by his night watchman who got scared and ran away. Nothing actually happened but the whole village was terrified. Those two things put together really reminded me of the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”.

There’s a great line at the end of the episode where two aliens are talking to each other discussing how their simple mindgame of turning electricity on and off selectively down the street has made the formerly friendly neighbors turn on each other. ”

“They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find,” one of the aliens says, “and it’s themselves.” And in the end, he chillingly adds, “The world is full of Maple Streets.” The Popobawa panic was one of those instances. This song is titled after its inspiration, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”.
What do we do
the switches won’t respond
point our fingers to
a 5th column from the vast beyond
who’s hiding what
another wild theory
Who can you trust
when we’re yelling in the streets
and behind every picket fence
you’ll find your own worst enemy.
the monsters are due on Maple Street.
A simple pattern
It’s always the same
When the unknown appears
We find someone to blame
A trigger in plain sight
Agitates the hive
It’s just a matter of time and
We’ll eat each other alive
What are you guilty of?
What are you waiting for?
Who’s the little green man
inside a meteor?
and behind every picket fence
you’ll find your own worst enemy.
the monsters are due on Maple Street.
Inside every closed door,
there lies a new conspiracy
the monsters are due on Maple Street.
And our world is full of Maple Streets.