In February 1995, during the holy month of Ramadan, a collective panic caused by the presumed presence of a shape-shifting spirit took hold of the island of Zanzibar. In local folklore 'popobawa', or bat wing in Swahili, is an evil spirit that descends on people in the night and casts a harmful shadow. It is said to enter rooms where people are sleeping to carry out acts of violence on innocent victims.

People who reported being visited by popobawa recall frightening apparitions preceded by an unpleasant smell. While under the influence of the spirit, they were in a state of lucid wakefulness but unable to move their limbs - a type of sleep paralysis and out-of-body experience. The harm inflicted by the popobawa ranged from suffocation to anal rape of men and women, according to those who reported encounters. The spirit would also force the victims to report what happened to them to their village community, threatening to come back if they didn't obey. As reports of attacks mounted, a general panic set in.

Fearing visitations from popobawa, residents of towns and villages started to gather in groups to sleep outdoors, in forests and in mosques for months on end. Some villages sought the assistance of 'waganga', or witchdoctors, to confront and eradicate the apparitions. In the search for culprits, local people were often accused of being popobawa, interrogated by the community and witchdoctors and subjected to acts of violence to get them to confess.

There had been incidents of popobawa panic on Zanzibar and neighbouring Pemba island before but the outbreak of communal panic in the 1990s, which preceded the first multi-party elections in the history of the islands, quickly took a nasty turn with foreigners, soothsayers, the mentally ill and itinerant labourers blamed for the attacks and publicly lynched by villagers desperate to make the attacks stop. Since 1995, only a couple of bouts have been reported in 2000 and 2007.

During the months of panic, numerous narratives spread to explain the terrifying phenomenon. People speculated that they were caused by conflicts between magic forces, sorcerers battling each other. Others thought that an angry sheikh had released a jinn in the 1970 which he soon lost control of. Though most agree that the phenomenon was not politically motivated the first incidents happened shortly after a the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964, when the mainly Black African population overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar and his mainly Arab-dominated government. The outbreak in 1995 coincided with the islands' first multi-party elections and some speculated that the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party used the general panic and disorder to disrupt the election process and distract the population from voting for its rival, the Chama Cha Wanachi (CUF).

Interestingly, Zanzibar functioned as East Africa's predominant slave market in the 19th century and the notion of popobawa could also be explained as a collective trauma that resides in the unconscious, recalling the horrors of slavery trans-generationally. In the grey zone between wakefulness and sleep, people might recall stories of slavery and the anxiety of political upheaval, economic transition and a turbulent time in the country's history.

Lorenzo Maccotta, who has spent much time on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, explored the dusky hours to visualise the environment surrounding these events.
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