Mbuya Nehanda (1863 – 1898)
Under Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the people of Zimbabwe have no democracy and no basic human rights. In 2005 we saw the latest atrocities called Operation Murambatsvina – throw out the trash – demolish the houses people have struggled to build for themselves. This was very reminiscent of South Africa under apartheid.
Yet, it was under Mugabe that Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980, after an armed struggle against the white settler regime. This war of liberation, known as Chimurenga Two, ended in 1980 and was inspired by the first Chimurenga that took place in 1896. Chimurenga One was led by Nehanda, a young woman who was a spirit medium.
Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) was colonised in the 1880s and became a British colony. It was part of the British colonial empire in Southern Africa, stretching from the Cape (South Africa) to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Nyasaland (Malawi). It was the imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes’, dream to run a railway line from the Cape to Cairo to consolidate British control of Africa, her wealth and her people.
Under British rule, the land in Zimbabwe was occupied and people were pushed into reserves similar to the Bantustans of South Africa. The indigenous cultures, civilisations and religions, including their political, economic and social orders which existed before the British occupation, were destroyed. Once the land was expropriated, the reserves could not provide the people with any adequate livelihood. At the same time, the British needed labour for the mines and the farms. Through the imposition of taxes such as the Hut Tax, they forced people to work for them.
Ancient beliefs and Spirit Mediums
The God of the Shona is known as Mwari. The Shona honour their ancestors and believe in spirit possession and reincarnation. The Shona believe that the spirits of their ancestors remain with them and protect them in present day society. The spirit mediums are called mhondoros or lions. It is believed that the mhondoro would wander the forests till it found a suitable medium. These spirit mediums look after specific regions and are believed to give advice to chiefs and elders.
The story is told that sometime during the 14th century; Prince Mutota left present-day Great Zimbabwe and founded the Mutapa state. Traditional society in Zimbabwe was patriarchal. Although taboo in Shona culture, he ordered his son, Matope, to commit incest with his half-sister, Nyamhika, who became known as Nehanda, or the ruler of Handa.
At Mutapa, Matope announced that upon his death, his spirit would enter a mhondoro. Matope’s sister-wife also became a guardian spirit with supernatural powers. Later, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, born in 1863, was believed to be the female reincarnation the spirit of Nyamhika Nehanda.
Chimurenga One & Nehanda
The first war of liberation, Chimurenga One, was started in May 1896 in Matebeleland. That same year the people of Mashonaland joined the uprising. Three spirit mediums participated in Chimurenga One: Mukwati in Matebeleland, Kaguvi in Western Mashonaland and Nehanda (the only woman) in Central and Northern Mashonaland.
Nehanda inspired her people to rise up against the colonisers and drive them out of Zimbabwe. This was the first popular countrywide armed struggle against British colonisation. The British retaliated and killed many villagers. However, Nehanda maintained her strength and leadership. Everyone, including men, accepted Nehanda’s leadership and she was able to unite all the people of Zimbabwe, from both Matebeleland and Mashonaland.
Nehanda was born in a birth-hut where only women were permitted. It is believed that Nehanda’s spiritual leadership extended over the whole of Zimbabwe. Nehanda’s spirit mediums were only women. Nehanda was so respected that it is believed that rather than speak directly to her, people sought advice through her assistant, Nechombo. The women who came to possess Nehandas spirit were respected in society as leaders.
In her poetic book “Nehanda”, the acclaimed author, Yvonne Vera, describes Nehanda calling to her people to resist:
“Spread yourselves through the forest and fight till the stranger decides to leave. Let us fight till the battle is decided. Is death not better than submission? There is no future till we have regained our lands and our birth. There is only this moment and we have to fight till we have redeemed ourselves. What is today’s work on this land if tomorrow we have to move to a new land? Perhaps we should no longer bury our dead…
Who are these strangers …these gold hunters? Our men helped them hunt for gold and we thought they would leave. Now they have discovered that our land is the gold they sought?
Raise your spears. Move into the mountains, I say. Worship your ancestors. Your ancestors shall protect you when you begin to release yourselves from his bondage.”
“…I will Rise Up Again!”
In 1897, Nehanda and Kaguvi were captured and sentenced to death. They were hanged on a hill near the present day city of Harare. Before she was hanged, Nehanda promised that her bones would rise up again to lead the struggle against European colonialism. Although only 35 years old, Nehanda was portrayed as an old woman and always referred to as Mbuya (Grandmother) Nehanda. Nehanda inspired the second Chimurenga which ended white minority rule in Zimbabwe in 1980. Nehanda belongs to all the people of Africa and her spirit lives on. We need Nehanda’s spirit, her clarity of vision and the unity that she encouraged, amongst all working people. This is Chimurenga Three: the struggle against neo-liberalism and imperialism.
As sure as the sun rises, Nehanda’s bones will rise up once again through working women and men and once again Africa (and Zimbabwe) will be free.
Information! This article was first published in 2005 in the October edition of Khanya Journal: a journal for activists in the Nehanda/Africa Supplement. This article has been republished (with slight variation) with permission from the Editorial Collective of the KHANYA: A Journal For Activists to subscribe to the journal or get more information visit www.khanyacollege.org.za