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.
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.
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?)
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”
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.
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:
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
- The works of Simon Wessely
- The writings of Robert Bartholomew
And don’t forget that Dr. Walsh has lots of work available online where you can learn more about Popobawa and Tanzania!
- “The politicisation of Popobawa: changing explanations of a collective panic in Zanzibar”
- “Kojani Vs. Popobawa”
- Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings (a book that uses a lot of Martin’s research)
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. ”