Shetani: The 'other side' of Zanzibar


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The 'other side' of Zanzibar

I'm sitting on a plastic chair on a piece of wasteground created by the collapse of two tall, previously imposing Arab townhouses in the old quarter of Zanzibar Town. Just outside the remains of one, my friend Hisdori is squatting next to a charcoal stove, stirring Masala curry in the glow of a naked lightbulb. The light cast from inside the ruined house casts an eerie glow on stray cats threading their way in and out of the shadows, and Hisdori sings along under his breath to a Swahili rap song playing on the radio inside. He's is my best friend in Zanzibar, one of the papaasi - beach boys - who patrol the town trying to persuade tourists to use their services as guides and middlemen for tour agencies and car hire firms. It's a precarious existence, and Hisdori, at 23, dreams of a better future - a visa for the UK, work as a cleaner or factory hand, and the chance to send good money home.

But for now, as we finish eating, the conversation turns to shetani - the spirits who inhabit almost every part of Zanzibar, and whose existence here no islander doubts. Zanzibar, and to a greater extent its smaller neighbour Pemba, have throughout the centuries been notorious centres of black magic, alongside their better-known role as centres of the spice and slave trades. Evelyn Waugh, visiting Pemba in the 1930s, reported: 'Zanzibar and Pemba are the chief centres of black art on the whole coast, and novices come from as far as the Great Lakes to graduate here. Even from Haiti, it is said, witch doctors will occasionally come to probe the deepest mysteries of voodoo.'

Today, by all accounts, the cult of the shetani is still going strong, a dark undercurrent entirely unknown to the 80,000 or so tourists who flock to the islands every year. On the glittering sliver beaches of the coast and in the picturesque, Arabic courtyards of the capital Stone Town, shetani, believe the islanders, wait and watch malevolently. Spirit carvings in ebony depict their many forms - a hunched, hideously twisted old woman, a man-dog hybrid, a young girl with the legs of a donkey.

Last night, returning late from a disco, Hisdori says he clearly saw a shetani, a shadowy, immensely tall figure, standing in the doorway of his room. He felt gripped by a great force and unable to move or shout for help, until he remembered to say a few verses from the Qu'ran, whereupon he was released from the spell and able to stand up and rouse a neighbour with his shouts. The man allowed Hisdori to sleep in his bedroom, and carefully locked the door, but to no avail. The shetani reappeared inside that room too, paralysing both Hisdori and the neighbour until it glided away.

Shetani have been in Zanzibar forever. They predate any of the foreign powers who, in successive centuries, sailed into the harbour on gunships and made the island their own. First came the Portuguese, rounding the Cape in their tall ships and happening on Zanzibar while searching for India. Then the Omani Arabs arrived, leaving their dry, barren homeland at the mouth of the Persian gulf and debunking to Zanzibar's greener and more welcoming shores, deploying thousands of slaves to build cool marble palaces and shady clove plantations. The last to arrive were the British, who reduced the Omani sultan to a puppet ruler - with the help of a naval bombardment or two - and set up a prim protectorate to go with their territories on the mainland.

But through three centuries of foreign domination, the Swahili inhabitants of Zanzibar had their own ruler, called the Mwinyi Mkuu, or Great Lord. The kings and queens who held this title enjoyed an uneasy truce with the invaders, being allowed to keep their status as spiritual leaders of the Zanzibari people provided they did not interfere in government. Although the Mwinyi Mkuu were nominally Islamic rulers, most of their power and status derived from their ability to control shetani and foresee the future. Hidden inside their stately palace at Dunga, in the interior, were said to be a set of magic drums that beat of their own accord whenever Zanzibar was in peril. The line of the Mwinyi Mkuu died out late in the nineteenth century, but the ruins of the palace still stand, innocuous enough in the daytime among tall, whispering plane trees, but said to be haunted at night by a host of fearful shetani.

As Hisdori finishes his story, the light goes out as if on cue, plunging us into pitch darkness. Electricity is rationed here, and the power is turned off every other night from 8 until 10. We find a stub of candle, and in its guttering light the whites of Hisdori's eyes glow dramatically as he regales me with tales of shetani he has known or heard of.

He begins with the best-known of them all - Popo Mbawa. Popo Mbawa, in fact, was more than just a run-of-the-mill shetani. He was a phenomenon. For a short time, back in 1995, American psychologists came to visit the island in order to write papers on the mass hysteria that gripped Zanzibar's population in the wake of Popo Mbawa's coming. Popo Mbawa began on the island of Pemba, where he terrorised the local population to such an extent that they called upon their fiercest sorcerers to drive him across the sea to Zanzibar. There his reign of terror continued - visiting people in their rooms at night, the foul-smelling demon paralysed them and then violated men and women alike.

People took to the rooftops and village squares, following a formless rumour that said safety could only be had by those who slept outside, in a group. But tales of the demon's progress around the island spread and spread, until the government was forced to take to the airwaves and plead for calm. A helpless, mentally handicapped young man was beaten to death by a mob that had become convinced he was the demon. This seemed to be the climax of the whole affair - after that, the hysteria abated somewhat and Popo Mbawa retreated. He is widely expected to return, however, and when local people talk of him, it is with a nervous laugh.

Popo Mbawa was the daddy of them all, but lesser shetani come in all shapes, sizes and colours - beautiful Arabic women, hideous Ethiopian hags, or tall, handsome white men. Shetani can be forced to work for human beings, but it's a risky business. Dori has a friend called Sudi, whose father, a prominent businessman with a fleet of dala-dala taxis and a shopping centre on Creek Road, keeps a whole room of shetani in his house to promote material success and make mischief on his adversaries. A goat, a chicken or a cow must be sacrificed regularly and its blood sprinkled in the four corners of the room, or the shetani will take a terrible substitute - every year, it will demand one of its master's male offspring.

Perhaps that's the answer, I suggest, half-joking. Get a shetani of your own and tell it to bring you money, girls, presents. Hisdori fixes me with a horrified stare. Such things are best done only by very experienced waganga (sorcerers). Messing around with shetani will only get you into trouble - big trouble. The best thing is to keep out of their way and try to make sure they keep out of yours - for example by hanging a piece of paper, inscribed with special Arabic verses, from the ceiling of the house. Almost every home or shop in Zanzibar has its own brown, mottled scrap, attached to a roof beam by a piece of cotton, waving in the breeze.

In order to obtain or rid oneself of a shetani's influence, it is necessary to visit a mganga and pay handsomely for his services. To be a mganga is a trade that generally runs in families, with secrets and charms passed on from father to son or mother to daughter. Waganga meet periodically in large numbers to discuss trade and initiate new recruits. A committee of elderly, experienced practitioners will vet a younger, untested mganga before declaring him or her fit to practice. This is a sensible precaution because, as Hisdori points out, 'If you get something wrong with shetani, people can die...'

Each mganga is in contact with ten or so shetani, who can be instructed to drive out other shetani from someone who is possessed, or work their power in favour of the customer. Waganga are also herbalists, preparing healing medicines where spirit possession is not indicated, or combining both physical and occult treatment in severe cases.

After much persuasion, Dori agrees to take me to visit his local mganga. To find him, we must cross over the dividing line of the old creek which once separated the affluent quarter of Zanzibar town - known as the Stone Town - from the working class area, known as Ng'ambo - literally 'the other side'. In years past this was the part of town inhabited by the African community, while their Arab overlords, along with Europeans and Indians, inhabited the fine dwellings of the harbourfront.

We leave Arab mansions and Indian palaces behind us and are soon forced to pick our way across the rubble of half-built houses, knots of children playing and piles of refuse. A sharp turn takes us into a pitch-black corridor, filled with smoke. A charcoal fire illuminates a woman's face, wrapped in a veil. Dori speaks briefly to her in Swahili and we continue into a small room, eerily lit by smoking oil burners. I can just make out bunches of herbs and other nameless, shapeless bundles hanging from the breeze-block walls.

A dark shape rises from the floor to greet us. Mzee Kongo, the mganga we've come to see, looks suitably impressive. Snow-white hair crowns his head above an impressive pot belly, his eyes are narrow slits, and when he speaks his voice is alarmingly loud and hoarse. He is effusive in his welcome, however, and explains that he's well used to foreigners coming to see him, Last year, he says, he spent time with visitors from China, letting them see him at work and explaining the ingredients of his herbal medicines. He indicates a framed certificate on the wall, dated 1999 - his official licence from the government to practice as a mganga.

He waves us to a seat in the corner, and continues ministering to a dazed-looking young woman reclining on a mattress on the floor. Hisdori explains in a whisper that she's affected by a shetani that has paralysed her hands and arms. She's been to a hospital but they found nothing wrong with her, so she's come to seek the help of Mzee Kongo. He strokes her palms and fingers with an action that looks gentle enough, but she writhes and shrieks in pain, complaining in a strange, high-pitched voice. Mzee Kongo nods with satisfaction and breaks off to fondle a charm suspended from a leather strap around his ear. The shetani is coming out, but it's stubborn and is putting up a fight. He pats her head and she sinks back down, exhausted. Hisdori touches my shoulder and we rise to go. Mzee Kongo is affable as ever. Come back soon, he says, maybe he can show us a shetani in person.

Hisdori and I pick our way back over the crumbling walls onto the narrow street. Murmured greetings come out of the dark from the unseen figures of Maasai watchmen, crouched half asleep in vast doorways. The crackle and blue glow of an ancient TV set emanates from a half-built house, ten or twenty people gathered around the screen. Back in Stone Town, light from windows slants oddly across the street, shadows flicker in side alleyways, and I get that familiar uneasy, prickly feeling on the back of my neck. Footsteps, fast and urgent, come from behind us and I turn wildly, ridiculously, heart pounding in panic. Two drunken Italian tourists, flushed and sweating, emerge into the light and pound past, laughing shrilly. Hisdori and I grin ruefully at each other and move a little closer as we swing onwards through the hot night towards the safety of home.

Copyright Gemma Pitcher 2004