Saturday 26 June 2010


One of the places I now wish I’d visited when I lived on Pemba island in 1994-96 is Kojani. It's one of the least accessible villages, located on an islet off the eastern coast of the main island. At the last count Kojani was home to more than nine thousand people. New arrivals are liable to be met by throngs of excited children wading into the water to ogle at them. The menfolk of the village are often absent for months on end fishing up and down the East African coast, while their wives and other family members are left behind to farm and eke out a bare living. And bare it is, because this is the region of Pemba most prone to periodic drought and famine and recurrent problems of public health and nutrition (Walsh 2009b).

Kojani is one of a handful of comparatively remote Pemban villages that has resisted the spread of Kiunguja, the dialect of Swahili that is spoken in Zanzibar town and throughout the plantation areas of both Unguja and Pemba (Whiteley 1958: 8). When the late John Middleton surveyed the systems of land tenure in Zanzibar in 1958 he thought that Kojani was probably the part of Pemba “least affected by clove growing and modern change” (1961: 56). Another mark of this is the survival of various aspects of traditional political organisation and community ritual. A few days ago I stumbled across Odile Racine-Issa’s (2001) fascinating description of the annual mwaka or New Year ceremony in Kojani, a three-day rite of passage and communal cleansing during which the islet is effectively closed to visitors.

One of the explicit purposes of this and other Swahili mwaka ceremonies is to refresh the relationship between the community and its guardian spirits. Interestingly, Kojani was one of the few villages on Pemba that resisted penetration by Popobawa, the malevolent entity that caused mass panic on the island in the run-up to the first multi-party national elections in 1995 (Walsh 2009a). I heard two different versions of what had happened. The first was related by Salim, my watchman-cum-gardener in Limbani, who’d been told this story at Chwale junction. A mainlander from the Tanga area had appeared there one day asking the way to Kojani. He had a scar right round his neck and spoke in a faint throaty voice. People asked him who he was going to see in Kojani and he said a local mganga or healer. But no one believed this and they accused him of being Popobawa, following which he was seized and brought to the police at Wete. Salim didn’t know what had subsequently happened to him, but thought it likely that he really was an innocent visitor in search of traditional treatment.

The second, much longer version, was recorded by my research assistant, Jamila. On this account a stranger had appeared one day on the shore by the ferry crossing to Kojani. For a long time he just stayed there watching people being ferried to and fro. Eventually an old man approached him and asked if he wanted to go across to Kojani himself. “Yes, I do want to go there” he replied, pointing towards Kojani. But he didn’t budge, and was still there clutching his bag when the sun went down. Meanwhile, in Kojani itself, a local man had fallen into a possession trance and his possessory spirit announced that Popobawa was trying to cross to the village. However, the benevolent spirits of Kojani had tied up his tongue and the rest of his body, and he was unable to move. “If you want to confirm that he really is Popobawa, then go and open his bag and look inside!”

Hearing this the men of Kojani jumped into their canoes and sped across to the main island. Without further ado they laid into the stranger on the shore, some with sticks and stones, and he was thoroughly beaten. Some of his assailants grabbed hold of his bag and found that it was full of the paraphernalia of local medicine and perhaps sorcery: the roots of plants, charms, and something that looked like a face-mask. Eventually sailors from the local detachment of the Anti-Smuggling Unit (KMKM, Kikosi Maalum cha Kuzuia Magendo) intervened to stop him from being beaten further.

The Kojani men wanted to finish him off, and told the sailors to examine the contents of his bag. They were shocked by the horrible smell of one of the charms: the same stinking odour that was said to follow Popobawa during his nocturnal assaults. When the sailors quizzed the roughed-up stranger he claimed to be on his way to Kojani to seek traditional treatment after a long period of hospitalisation and the prescription of modern medicines had failed to cure him of illness. But he was unable to name anyone in Kojani or explain satisfactorily why he hadn’t crossed to the islet. And he was unable to explain the contents of his bag, claiming that he hadn’t visited any mganga since falling ill.

Following this the local KMKM commander decided that he should be handed over to the police, and his staff telephoned the station in Wete. The police came in a vehicle at around 9 o’clock at night and interviewed everyone present before taking the stranger away. Afterwards it was said that the police only kept him in gaol overnight for his own safety. He was released early the next morning and – or so many people thought – allowed to continue his nefarious activities as a manifestation of Popobawa. This just helped to confirm the widespread belief that the authorities were themselves responsible for bringing Popobawa to the island, to punish Pembans for supporting the opposition and distract them from political campaigning.

Thus ends Jamila’s account. This wasn’t the only occasion in 1995 when a stranger was identified as Popobawa and attacked by a mob. In Zanzibar town and elsewhere on Unguja island this led to a number of deaths, the most notorious of which was widely reported (Jansen 1996). Whatever the truth behind the Pemban narratives of victimisation and/or political conspiracy that I’ve paraphrased here, it’s striking that they support the perception that Kojani is indeed a spiritual fortress, guarded by the very spirits that the annual mwaka rituals are intended to appease. And they carry a warning to would-be travellers to Kojani: don’t go there without good reason, especially if you look weird and have strange stuff in your bag.


Jansen, Henriette 1996. Popobawa is Dead! Tanzanian Affairs 53: 22-24.

Middleton, John 1961. Land Tenure in Zanzibar (Colonial Research Studies No. 33). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Racine-Issa, Odile 2001. Le Mwaka de Kojani (Pemba). In Bridget Drinka and Derek Nurse (eds) African Language and Culture in Historical Perspective: Essays in Memory of Edgar C. Polome. Special Issue of General Linguistics 38: 199-229.

Walsh, Martin 2009a. The Politicisation of Popobawa: Changing Explanations of a Collective Panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities 1 (1): 23-33.

Walsh, Martin 2009b. The Use of Wild and Cultivated Plants as Famine Foods on Pemba Island, Zanzibar. Etudes Océan Indien 42-43: 217-241.

Whiteley, W. H. 1958. The Dialects and Verse of Pemba: An Introduction (Studies in Swahili Dialect IV). Kampala: East African Swahili Committee.

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