ASK ANY Zimbabwean adult who Mbuya Nehanda was, or is, and you will likely get some sort of response to your question. In fact, it is probably correct to assume that most Zimbabweans instantly recognise the name of Nehanda; and that many have an opinion about her. But do we know enough about her to make informed decisions about what place she should take, if any, in our nation’s feminist history, and more importantly, in our own lives as Zimbabwean women?
When the tree that Mbuya Nehanda was allegedly hanged upon, over a century ago, was accidentally struck down at the end of last year, conversations about the symbolic meaning of this were rife all over Zimbabwean online platforms.
While many asserted that the falling of the tree represented a bad omen for Zimbabwe, many also expressed views contrary to this, stating that the event bore no significance for the ordinary Zimbabwean; that the tree was old and as with everything on earth, it eventually had to come down. Others even celebrated the tree’s end, terming the event the end of Nehanda’s ‘evil and destructive’ legacy.
And what became evident from those discussions was that little consensus could be arrived at in relation to the facts of Nehanda’s death.
It has been argued that the tree that came down last year could not be the site of Nehanda’s hanging, with the site where the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe stands (along Samora Machel Avenue) being offered by some researchers and cultural commentators as the alternative, and more likely, venue for the murder of Nehanda and another spirit medium, Sekuru Kaguvi. Other sources state that the two met their end on a hill on the outskirts of Harare.
Furthermore, the death of Nehanda – the spirit – has been disputed, since it would be the spirit medium – the human being who sheltered the spirit of Nehanda – who would, in fact, have died.
And thus the questions return – who really was, or is, Nehanda? What did she stand for, and what role, if any, does she have to play in Zimbabwean society today?
A wooden sculpture of Nehanda at the National Archives of Zimbabwe.
A background to ancestors and spirit mediums
In pre-colonial Shona culture, there was great emphasis on ancestry with the general belief being that when a woman or man died, they became a mudzimu (ancestor) who could be communicated with and provide protection for living family members. Upon death, chiefs and founders of clans, were elevated to a higher order of ancestors whose protection and guidance extended beyond the jurisdiction of their immediate descendants.
These spirits where known as mhondoro. A person possessed by such a spirit earned the privilege of also being referred to as a mhondoro. Nehanda, Kaguvi and Chaminuka are all acknowledged as important and revered mhondoro. The reason why the Nehanda mhondoro is so important is that it provided an exception to many cultural codes; particularly because it allowed for a woman to take up a position of authority and leadership in the spirit realm.
Nehanda: The beginning
It is said that the original Nehanda was the daughter of Mutota, the first Monomotapa (Shona king) in the 1400s. Mutota is said to have founded the Mutapa state. He had a son, Matope Nebedza Nyanchwe, who later became the second Monomatapa. In order to increase Matope’s power, his father encouraged him to have incestuous and ritualistic sexual relations with his sister, Nehanda. This is said to have increased Matope’s power, leading him to offer a part of his empire to Nehanda who became so powerful that her spirit continued to live within various spirit mediums after her death.
Other accounts state that Nehanda was the daughter of the founder of the Monomotapa dynasty, Murenga Sororenzou, who founded the empire between 1000 and 1050 AD. His children are said to have included Chaminuka (another well revered mhondoro referred to above), Runji, Mushavatu and of course, Nehanda.
Nehanda is said to have died before the family reached the Zambezi area where the empire would eventually stretch out to, and her spirit is alleged to have possessed a n’anga (a traditional healer through whom spirits communicate). The n’anga is then said to have taken up a wooden rod and caused the waters (presumably of the Zambezi River) to part to allow the family to cross over to the other side.
Accounts give Nehanda’s full name as Nehanda Nyamita Nyakasikana. Nehanda, it is thought, means ‘of Handa’, or ‘at Handa’, with Handa being a territory in the north-east of the Dande region of the nation (Dande is in the extreme north of Zimbabwe, in the Zambezi Valley which borders Mozambique).
The most popular manifestation of Nehanda is to be found in the late 1800s through the spirit medium, Charwe Nyakasikana. At that time, Charwe is believed to have been in her mid-to-late 30s and to have been the mother of two daughters and a son. She is also said to have had a husband whose name remains unknown.
It is only later, in the 1950s, that reference to her as ‘Mbuya’ Nehanda (Grandmother Nehanda) is made, giving Nehanda the position and authority of mother of the nationalist revolution.
Nehanda, operating through the medium of Charwe, played an important role in mobilising the black masses against white rule in what is now popularly referred to as the First Chimurenga which took place between 1886 and 1897. Along with her messengers, Nehanda travelled from village to village encouraging the people to rise up and kill the white man. While predicting that the people would not conquer the colonial masters at this time (rightly so), she still called for a stand to be taken against the colonisers’ curtailment of rights and freedoms.
Upon realising her influence, the colonial forces decided to take action against Nehanda. A death warrant issued against her states that during a criminal session of the High Court, held on March 2 1898, Nehanda was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The warrant goes on to give the scheduled date of Nehanda’s execution as the 27th of April 1898. The execution is said to have taken place at the Gaol (Jail) of Salisbury.
It is claimed that it took three attempts before Nehanda eventually succumbed to her death. But before she did, she prophesied that her bones would rise again; a reference used by the guerrillas in resistance songs during the war for independence, commonly referred to as the Second Chimurenga. Some researchers state that the British forces immediately buried the bodies at an undisclosed site to avoid their being exhumed and reburied.
Mbuya Nehanda Street in downtown Harare.
So what happened to Nehanda after Charwe’s execution?
After the execution of Charwe, there is mention of other Nehanda spirit mediums. One well-documented manifestation of Nehanda, during the Second Chimurenga, is through Nehanda of Dande.
She is said to have been a woman of the Korekore people who provided wisdom and support to the nationalist guerrillas fighting colonialism. She is described as a frail old woman, well over the age of 80, who never bathed and ate once or twice a week. Reference to her as ‘Mbuya’ Nehanda is therefore apt. It is also said that she, “hated all European things”.
Nehanda of Dande is credited with giving guerrillas who passed through the Zambezi region instructions on how to navigate its forests, what food to eat in the area, which parts of the forest were safe to rest in and which parts were safe to fight from, and also, how to interpret the various signs that the forest would yield. As the guerrillas generally did not know the area and the landscape of the Zambezi Valley well, this was invaluable guidance.
When the leader of the Rhodesian government, Ian Smith, discovered (in 1972) that there was a build up of nationalist guerrilla forces in the Zambezi Valley region, patrol searches were ordered. Fearing her capture, particularly due to her frailty, it was arranged for Nehanda of Dande to be taken to Mzoambique where she eventually died and was buried in 1973.
So where is Nehanda now?
There is mention of a Karoi Nehanda who is said to have been recognised and acknowledged by Zimbabwe’s government as an authentic medium of Nehanda. For this, she received financial support from the government. Her popularity, however, progressively diminished due to the challenge of yet another spirit medium who claimed to house the ‘real’ spirit of Nehanda.
Shona culture states that when mhondoro do not choose a spirit medium through whom to dwell and communicate, they reside within friendly lions. This might then be the case with Nehanda.
Nehanda: A hero for all?
Because of her association with the First and Second Chimurengas, and because of the current association of the Chimurengas to the state, Nehanda is often viewed as a symbol of state rule, or a possession of a nationalist history which has been claimed for and by certain political interests.
For this reason, some have been reluctant to associate or identify with Nehanda and her principles. It has also been argued that Nehanda exclusively represents black Shona interests and that her symbolic prominence in non-black and and non-Shona cultures is limited due to this. Some, therefore, see her as a divisive character in a nation in need of reconciliation. But others view Mbuya Nehanda as an instantly recognisable symbol of Zimbabwean women’s courage and resistance to oppression; a founder of the nation she died for.
Regardless of what individuals may believe or feel about Nehanda, what is striking is that no permanent public memorial to her legacy has been erected in the almost 32 years since independence, particularly at the site where she was allegedly hanged. For many people, the existence of the ‘Nehanda tree’ only came to attention with its fall.
However, this doesn’t mean that Nehanda has not been venerated in other ways. The following are some of the popular references to Nehanda to be found in Zimbabwe.
The now-famous Nehanda tree after it fell.
Mbuya Nehanda statue, Parliament of Zimbabwe
“It is fitting that she should stand guard in this place as a symbol of the new Zimbabwe, for she played a significant role in the struggle to build it. In many ways, she is also the symbol of the African woman who, like her, suffered in the name of freedom.”
Author, Ruth Weiss, describing Mbuya Nehanda’s statue within Zimbabwe’s Parliament Building
Mbuya Nehanda wooden sculpture, National Archives of Zimbabwe
The sculpture, created by Barnabas Ndudzo in 1984, depicts Nehanda as a pensive but resilient character. It is accompanied by a sculture of Sekuru Kaguvi.
Mbuya Nehanda Maternity Hospital, Harare
Previously known as Lady Chancellor Maternity Hospital, the renaming of this maternity hospital after Nehanda is said to have been in celebration of her symbolic status as mother of the nation.
Mbuya Nehanda Street, Harare
Renamed after independence from Victoria Street, Mbuya Nehanda Street is today a symbol of the hustle and bustle of down-town Harare with its array of walking crowds, shops and perhaps most significantly, its permanent knot of chaotic traffic.
Ambuya Nehanda Boeing Aircraft
In 1986, Air Zimbabwe named one of its fleet of Boeing jets after Nehanda. (Whether this aircraft has been in operation in recent years is unknown.)
‘Feso’, the Shona novel written by Solomon Mustwairo
Published in 1956, the novel tackles the themes of injustice and freedom against the backdrop of the pre-colonial 17th century kingdom of Monomotapa. The novel, which makes direct reference to Nehanda, was banned by the Rhodesian government which feared the publication’s potential influence on the black masses. One passage in the text, for instance, states:
Where is our freedom Nehanda?
Won’t you come down to help us?
Our old men are treated like children
In the land you gave them, Merciful Creator!
They no longer have human dignity,
They possess nothing.
The 1993 novel, ‘Nehanda’, by Yvonne Vera
In this novel, which revisits the First Chimurenga, Vera explores the political agency of women throughout the struggle for independence. The book was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Nehanda Radio is a Zimbabwean radio station that draws its inspiration from Mbuya Nehanda and her principles.
Her Zimbabwe would like to thank the National Archives of Zimbabwe for allowing us to photograph the Mbuya Nehanda Sculpture.
References used in this article:
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Chopamba, L. (2010). The Struggle for Economic Support of the Indigenous Business Women in Zimbabwe. Xlibris Corporation.
Kahari, G. P. (1990). The Rise of the Shona Novel. Gweru, Mambo Press.
Keller, M. (2002). The Hammer and the Flute: Women, Power and Spirit Possession. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lan, D. (1985). Guns & Rain: Guerrillas & Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.
Lyons, T. (2004). Guns and Guerilla Girls: Women in the Zimbabwean National Liberation Struggle. Asmara, Africa World Press, Inc.
Mazikana, P.C. and Johnstone, I. J. (1984). Zimbabwe Epic. Harare, National Archives of Zimbabwe.
Prentiss, C.R. (2003). In Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York, New York University Press.
Weiss, R. (1984). The Women of Zimbabwe. Harare, Nehanda Publishers.