Africa at Noon on October 23, 2013

Swahili Talk about Supernatural Sodomy: Intertextuality, the Obligation to Tell, and the Transgression of Norms in Coastal Tanzania

Katrina Thompson
Associate Professor
Department of African Languages and Literature
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Time and Loca­tion

12:00pm, 206 Ingra­ham Hall, 1155 Obser­va­tory Drive, Madi­son, WI

Download poster (pdf)


Since the 1960s, Swahili-speakers on the coast of Tanzania have talked about attacks by Popobawa, a supernatural creature said to sodomize his victims. In this paper, I examine both narratives and metadiscourse about Popobawa, focusing on two salient features of this contemporary legend: intertextuality and a narrative frame that obligates Popobawa victims to spread the legend. People use Popobawa discourse for both conservative and transgressive purposes, not only reflecting and spreading moral panics about deviant sexualities and the violation of gender norms but also creating opportunities for Swahili-speakers to violate those very norms.


Thompson earned her Ph.D at UW-Madison in 2004, and recently returned to join the faculty in African Languages and Literature after working for eight years at UCLA, where she was Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and African Languages Coordinator for the James S. Coleman African Studies Center. At UW-Madison she coordinates the African languages program and is also affiliated with the Ph.D. program in Second Language Acquisition. Her research concerns the relationships between language and power in talk and texts in Shona, Swahili, and English from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Kenya. She is the author of Zimbabwe’s Cinematic Arts: Language, Power, Identity (Indiana University Press, 2012). Her current research concerns speech taboos and transgressive talk about sexuality on the Swahili Coast.