Popobawa vs. the Skeptics

April 25, 2018


In her 2017 book Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings, Prof. Katrina Daly Thompson, Director of the Program in African Languages in the Department of African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, examines the curious chimerical bat/creature/ghost/djinn/legend called the Popobawa. I wrote about it in a 2008 article for Fortean Times magazine after researching the topic on the island of Zanzibar, where it has been reported.

Regionally reported on the East African coast, the Popobawa is known for attacking skeptics (that is, people who doubt its existence), and in her book Thompson takes much the same tack. I don’t have expertise in all aspects of Popobawa, but I can speak knowledgeably about specific issues and claims about the entity, among them ones that Thompson quotes me about. As I’ll discuss, some of her criticisms of what might be loosely called a “skeptical approach” are on target, while others are not.

Differing Approaches

The Popobawa is a complex and nuanced figure, and Thompson states, quite correctly, that “Popobawa has no single dominant meaning” (p. 2); it is “a tricky, ambiguous figure, who appears in different genres of talk and text, takes on different forms, and is labeled in different ways and used for different purposes. This, in turn, makes talking about him tricky as well” (p. 5).

The fact that fewer than dozen Westerners have previously written with any substance on the Popobawa allows Thompson to deep dive into each of them, picking them apart for criticisms. Her linguistic approach is a fascinating and valuable one, but it is not the only prism through which one can view Popobawa. Thompson writes that “I was not and am not at all concerned with Popobawa as a ‘real’ object ‘out there’ that can be grasped objectively. Rather, my interest lies precisely with the manner in which Popobawa is communicated” (p. 51).

This is a wholly different approach than most “skeptics” she references, and her dismissive disinterest is clear. A linguist and a sociologist can examine the same phenomenon (say, for example, the changing use of the word family or feminist over time) without one or the other being the “correct” approach. The approaches may be complementary instead of contradictory, especially with such a multifaceted mystery.

Recognizing the elusiveness and ambiguity of the Popobawa–as well as the remoteness of its home and the linguistic and cultural barriers to examining it–one might be tempted to give previous researchers who do not have Thompson’s resources and privilege (she speaks Swahili, was “adopted” by a Zanzibari family, and was married to a man in Zanzibar, allowing her great access to informants) some slack.

Thompson, however, will have none of it. Throughout her book she is dismissive of, and faintly contemptuous of, not only earlier writers on the topic (and skeptics in particular including myself and CFI Fellow Joe Nickell, and a handful of others) but, as we will see, also her own informants and interviewees.

Thompson vs. Western Skeptics

Thompson obliquely references “Western skeptics” who “present themselves as experts who understand Popobawa better than Swahili speakers themselves do” and who “contribute to an ethnocentric grand narrative that depicts the West as the font of science, rationality, and modernity and Africa as the font of fear, irrationality, and backwardness” (p. 15). She does not specify who she’s referring to, though as Joe and I are among the only self-identified “skeptics” she mentions, it’s likely one or both of us.

However–at least in my case–Thompson has erred twice over. Nowhere in my article on the topic have I ever suggested that I knew more about the subject than Swahili speakers, and in fact I explicitly wrote that the processes that helped drive the Popobawa are universal. Far from being a cultural product of distinctly African irrationality or fear, I made precisely the opposite point: “Westerners may dismiss the idea of the Popobawa being a political scare tactic as bizarre and quaint. But politicians have long used fear to control the masses, and hype social threats both real and imagined. In American politics and political advertising, the scary boogeyman is not a Popobawa, but instead a threatening outsider such as a terrorist, immigrant, or criminal. President Bush galvanized the American public around a manufactured war by demonizing Saddam Hussein, saying in effect: ‘If you don’t do as I say, Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction will attack you!'” It’s not clear how Thompson could have missed this.

Thompson mischaracterizes my work in other ways as well. For example she quotes a writer as saying that “the case of the Popobawa is simply a Zanzibari version of a phenomenon known as a ‘waking dream,'” to which Thompson adds, “others who went to Zanzibar to study Popobawa have made the same claim, including…. Radford” (p. 164-165). Yet even a cursory review of my article demonstrates that this is clearly false: At no point do I write or suggest that the Popobawa “is simply…a waking dream.”

To the contrary, the entire point of my article was to explain that no single explanation–including waking dreams, to which I devote only four paragraphs of the five-page article–can fully explain the Popobawa. Instead the waking dream (particularly its aspect of sleep paralysis) is discussed as only one component of a complex phenomena which includes culture, politics, djinn belief, and religion. As Thompson herself admits on the very next page, “Radford… [argues] that the sleep paralysis metanarrative is not the whole story”–while failing to notice her contradiction: Which is it? Do I argue that the Popobawa “is simply…a waking dream,” or do I argue that a waking dream is “not the whole story” of the Popobawa phenomenon?

Joe Nickell

Thompson criticizes Joe Nickell at length, devoting page after page to cataloging his real and imagined mistakes, including an entire table (8.1) devoted (somewhat pedantically, in my opinion) to comparing versions of his Popobawa articles. Many of the editorial changes, Thompson suggests, were made to “diminish the role of his colleagues and keep the focus on Nickell himself” (p. 163).

In an insightfully-titled “Investigative Briefs” column “Zanzibar’s Popobawa Demon Still Attacking Skeptics,” Nickell responds that Thompson “points to a couple of textual simplifications I made in republishing my article and hints at some ulterior motive. Actually, the changes were practical ones in transitioning from a newsletter for fellow skeptics to a book for a general audience (Nickell 2010). Another example of her accusatory tendency is her finding–wrongly–that I was unfairly ‘associating Zanzibaris with fear and Westerners with skepticism’ (Thompson 2017, 174). To the contrary, I actually gave several examples of Western waking-dream panics.” (As noted above Thompson made the same mistake about that topic in my work; she is clearly struggling to marshall evidence for her assumptions.)

Regarding his discussion of the Popobawa and its links to waking dreams, “What I find interesting about Nickell’s explanation is that he provides so little evidence to support it,” Thompson writes (p. 160), presenting his view “as a truth that needs only be realized, not a hypothesis that needs proof” (p. 164). Thompson also accuses Nickell of cherry picking information and references; for example “he ignores McGreal’s reference to the Popobawa’s possible link to politics, a hypothesis that might undermine his own” (p. 160). As scathing as Thompson is about Joe Nickell’s work, she’s not much more impressed with me.

Mistakes and ‘Misreadings’

Thompson quite rightly chides me for ambiguity in citing one source I briefly quoted, a man named Hamad. Despite the decade-long lapse since I wrote the article in question, I think I can piece together what happened. In the process of adapting the article for publication, the origin of the quote was dropped. Like all articles I write, the formatting and references were originally composed according to the Chicago Manual of Style (it’s the standard for most publications in my field). The magazine where the Popobawa article that Thompson cites is a British magazine which uses an entirely different system, one of endnotes and Further Reading instead of reference citations. The formal references I originally provided–and that were attached to the end of each quote per Chicago style–were stripped out in the process of adapting it for a British audience, and that included one from Hamad, who was originally quoted in another source (David Parkin, fully referenced in Note 1 of my article). I can understand how a reader might have read the ambiguously-attributed passage and assumed I interviewed Hamad (the quote comes after a person I had interviewed in Zanzibar, Juma Haji Juma). I accept full responsibility for the error, but I did not state or intentionally suggest I had personally interviewed Hamad.

Other criticisms of my work, however, are on shakier ground. For example Thompson takes issue with my comment that the Popobawa was “a lurking terror that few tourists have ever heard of” (p. 166). Here Thompson ignores the fact that Fortean Times is a mass-market publication with a somewhat sensational slant (the October 2008 cover describes “Zanzibar’s Bat-Winged Terror”) instead of a scholarly journal or book, and that a touch of hyperbole is to be expected in such a medium. But is it wrong to suggest that in 2008 “few tourists” ever heard of it–and certainly as compared to other mysterious creatures such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, Mothman, and so on?

Thompson thinks so, and as evidence she argues that “By the time Radford’s article came out, at least two tourist guides to Zanzibar had discussed the Popobawa” (p. 166). I was surprised, as I had tried to do due diligence in seeking information from tourist guides. There are of course many guides, among the best known are the Lonely Planet series, Let’s Go, the Rough Guide, Rick Steves, Footprint, Michelin, Bradt, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Insight. Admittedly I hadn’t checked every single guide from all previous years to merely justify a short phrase suggesting that the Popobawa was not widely known to tourists, but I had checked most of them, and from my survey only one contained any mention of Popobawa: the Bradt guide.

Thus, since only one out of ten guides seemed to have a reference to it–and of course not every tourist reads every page or sidebar of a book–I felt comfortable in saying that it was likely that few average tourists to Zanzibar had heard of the legend (folklorists and anthropologists focusing on East Africa, of course, might be more likely to have). I was curious to see the many tourist guides Thompson had found that included discussions of Popobawa; I followed endnote 44, which had two references: Outram and Pitcher. This is where Thompson’s mistakes seem to have emerged. The Pitcher reference Thompson cites (p. 213) is to an article titled “The Shetani of Zanzibar” in a Bradt series book titled The Zanzibar Travel Guide, but I can find no record of such a book existing. From what I can tell, the correct book title containing Pitcher’s piece is actually Zanzibar, by Chris and Susan McIntyre, a Bradt publication (and, incidentally, the same one I found); the ISBN is 978-1841624587. Thompson’s confusion about the correct title is understandable, as sometimes materials are repurposed online from print and correct citations can be confusing.

The second reference, Outram, is more of a puzzler and clearly an error. Thompson cites (also on page 213) a publication called Profotos Magazine, but it seems to refer not to a tourism guide (nor even to a printed magazine), but instead an online publication/website. I mention this distinction not to be pedantic but because Thompson specifically refers to Profotos as a “tourist guide to Zanzibar,” which it clearly is not (see the “About Profotos” section).

It is instead explicitly and specifically a photography resource, which like many of its ilk sometimes includes photos and descriptions of exotic places but is hardly an obvious place for tourist information, nor a site tourists could be assumed to consult (unless Thompson assumes that people planning a vacation to Hawaii, for example, would obviously pick up a back issue of Popular Photography magazine featuring photos of the islands). The online reference cited does have a brief discussion of Zanzibar, and an even briefer mention of Popobawa, but Thompson’s suggestion that a single guidebook and one passing mention on a photography website implies that many tourists would certainly have heard about Popobawa in 2008 strains credulity.

Because Thompson’s thesis requires that the work of “skeptics” be seen as somehow impugning or dismissing earlier information, she returns to this theme several times. I’ve noted her issues with Nickell, and as for me she states that “When Radford does engage with earlier Popobawa sources he often does so dismissively through negative evaluation” (p. 167).

I remain baffled by this comment; even a cursory reading of my article shows respect for, not dismissal of, earlier Popobawa research. The sole example she offers of my alleged “dismissal” of previous research is when I note that Josh Gates, host of the Destination Truth television show, assumed that Popobawa “is some sort of strange animal, such as a monstrous bat” (p. 167). Thompson states that “I haven’t found any references to the legend that assume Popobawa is a real animal except in jest” (p. 167). She dismisses my reference to the television show Destination Truth depicting Gates as engaging in an active search for the creature as “willfully ignoring the extent to which the Destination Truth episode uses over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek humor” (p. 167); in other words Thompson claims I intentionally mischaracterized the show as depicting a “real” search when it was obviously a joke. (Note the irony in Thompson’s dismissal of earlier Popobawa research–Gates’s in this case–as a “jest” in the context of complaining that I am dismissive of Gates because I assume he is not joking!)

Thompson’s assertion is demonstrably false, as a review of the Destination Truth episode reveals. In fact Gates and his crew spend about half of the fifteen-minute segment (from about 34:08 to 41:25) devoted to the topic actively searching for a presumably real Popobawa animal in, around, and above the capital of Stone Town. Gates sets up multiple stationary infrared cameras around the city and monitors them through a laptop. He goes on patrol with four members of his team (not including additional camera crew for the show itself) with flashlights, headlamps, handheld FLIR devices, and so on. For hours they climb stairs, survey skies, scan neighborhoods, use radio communication devices, and so on (see below).

To demonstrate that their equipment would be able to detect the Popobawa they’re searching for, they include clips of cats and other small animals showing up on their cameras monitors. Whether they’re actually doing useful investigation or not is beside the point; Gates and his Destination Truth team certainly portray that they are. Their search is not presented as satire or an inside joke with a wink and a nod as Thompson claims, but a sincere attempt to find a real animal or creature. Eight minutes is an eternity in television time, and the idea that Gates and the show’s producers would waste half their airtime on an extended jest pretending to look for a real animal is simply bizarre.

Readers need not take my (or Thompson’s) word for it, but can watch the episode and decide for themselves whether Gates treats his team’s search for a corporeal Popobawa seriously or as “tongue-in-cheek humor”; you can find an episode here, starting at 34:08.

Thompson’s mischaracterization (not only of the Destination Truth episode but my description of it, which she uncharitably describes as “willful ignorance”) is minor and would not be notable except for the fact that it illustrates a running theme in the book: finding real or imagined fault with previous researchers. Nickell’s reference to Thompson’s strong “accusatory tendency” regarding other researchers (and their motives, competence, etc.) is spot-on, and evident throughout the book. Given that the book’s subtitle refers to “Global Misreadings” such an emphasis is not surprising, though the glee with which Thompson corrects (and “corrects”) others is evident throughout.

Thompson vs. Zanzibaris

Thompson rarely misses a chance to remind readers of other people’s mistakes, including those of her own colleagues; for example when she mentions work in a dissertation by Jamie Thomas, Thompson is quick to note that “not all of the context she offers about the Popobawa legend is accurate,” (p. 96), and on the following page she take care to call out an unnamed Mexican professor for an inaccurate detail.

Thompson reminds the reader of her superior understanding of Popobawa, showing how “previous writing… has failed to capture its dialogic, storied, and polyphonic nature” (p. 17). Thompson refers to herself repeatedly throughout the book, reminding the reader that it’s often as much about her as it is about Popobawa (she references herself at least fifteen times on page 23 alone). Thompson notes that one of her informants, Mustafa, spoke not so much “about Popobawa but about Mustafa himself” (p. 42)–a condition that appears to be contagious.

In another case Thompson impugns the commentary of Zanzibari history professor Abdul Sheriff, saying he is wrong about his insights of a political metanarrative origin to the Popobawa stories, and suggesting that Sheriff is merely parroting back Western ideas about the phenomenon (p. 171). Elsewhere Thompon writes without irony that “We can only escape the trap of ethnocentrism that currently dominates global Popobawa discourse by accepting and valuing the integrity of Swahili-speakers’ own commentary on Popobawa” (p. 174).

The dismissal by Thompson of others’ expertise–even that of Swahili-speaking locals who claim first-hand knowledge–is a running theme of the book. In the introduction, for example, she describes how her second chapter examines the “self-aggrandizing narrative of two men who claimed expertise” in the Popobawa (it’s not clear why the gender was specified). One man who Thompson interviewed, named Hassan, is described dismissively as “a self-proclaimed ‘culture expert'” (p. 45).

For a professor who is concerned about honoring and respecting local knowledge and not imposing global metanarratives on Popobawa lore, Thompson often dismisses the words of local Zanzibari informants and sources. Like virtually all the other sources in her book, Thompson goes out of her way to note Hassan’s mistakes and errors. This, by itself, is not unusual when recording folklore verbatim, but a full transcript is not offered and Thompson seems to delight in noting the errors. She then discusses her interview with a man named Sharif, and once again makes a point of telling readers how self-important and self-aggrandizing he is, referring to his “apparently world-renowned expertise” (p. 48) and carefully noting her corrections of his mistakes.


Despite an overall tone of disdain for (and occasional misrepresentations of) previous researchers Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings is an important and valuable addition to the limited literature on the legend. Thompson has done a remarkable job of collecting information, especially on the linguistic and sociocultural aspects of the phenomenon. Nickell notes of Thompson’s view of the Popobawa, “She seems to grudgingly accept the psychological explanation of the waking dream, while insisting on the obvious: that it only applies to those cases where the evidence warrants, and that there are also the powerful influences of popular discourse and even jokes. Indeed, I suggest the list could well include hoaxes, journalistic distortions, elements of mass hysteria, and so on and on. Yes, Westerners should be wary of imposing simplistic patterns on another culture, but they also should not shy away from making scientific observations where appropriate.”

In the end, as Thompson writes, it “becomes difficult to justify making a sharp distinction between the metadiscourse of Swahili-speakers and that of Western commentators. While they may speak from different vantage points, use different languages, and say different things about the legend, they are nevertheless doing the same kinds of discursive actions: interpreting the Popobawa legend, evaluating it as true or false, and using it for their own varied ends” (p. 176).  Indeed.