Nehanda: Tracing the roots of the great Shona spirit medium


MUCH speculation and mystery still surrounds the origins of the great Nehanda spirit medium of the Shona people.
We have already shown in previous articles, that the Shona, like other Bantu (Vanhu) groups, migrated from the north crossing the mighty Zambezi River in its lower reaches where there are fewer cataracts and the flow of the stream is not so strong.
The country where the mighty Zambezi River had many crossing places came to be called ‘Kumazambuko’.
The Portuguese lusophonised (changed it to sound Portuguese) the Shona word and named the country ‘Mossambique’ or Mozambique, in English.
If all the great spirits were already among the people by the time they crossed Mazambuko, it should be possible to find traces of their existence north of the Zambezi.
The legend of Nehanda Nyakasikana seems to throw more light on the roots of the Shona people.
Recently, in a discussion of the liberation war fought by our gallant comrades, the role of the spirit medium of Nehanda was highlighted.
In discussions with people who have intimate knowledge of the country north of the Zambezi and just above the Caborra Bassa Dam, I was made to understand that there is a mountain area known as ‘Gumbi Nehanda’.
I became curious to find out if ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ located close to the Zambia-Mozambique border and not far from the northern banks of the Zambezi, had any links with our great Zimbabwean spirit medium, ‘Mbuya Nehanda’.
What did the name mean and how did it arise?
And here I narrate what I was told by people who either lived near or travelled through the ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ area.
The information has been passed orally from generation to generation.
Some of the detail relating to physical locations comes from people who have lived and hunted in the so-called ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ area.
I believe some of our comrades might have lived in or passed through the ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ area during the liberation war and might be able to add other details.
Legend has it that ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ is actually the name of a young girl who came to live in this remote mountainous area alone.
Apparently she had left her home and family in Guruuswa in Tanganyika having become possessed by a powerful ancestral spirit while still in her teens.
This spirit led her to leave her home in Chigon’o Village in Tanganyika.
She travelled alone southwards ending up on the Matemwe Mountains on the northern banks of the Zambezi River in present day Mozambique.
She is said to have been permanently possessed by the spirit.
Her parents made frantic efforts to look for her with no success.
It is said those looking for her would ask people if they had seen ‘kasikana’ (a young slender girl).
Although she was sighted at various places by many people, somehow her parents never located her, as it appears the spirit possessing her somehow hid her from those looking for her.
She then was generally referred to as ‘kasikana’.
‘Kasikana’ seems to have lived for quite some time on the Matemwe Mountains.
She fed on the bark of the ‘mukonde’ tree, a plant with thick fleshy stems that produce a bitter milky white sap.
It is said that using the ‘mukonde’ tree bark as food is a common practice among spirit mediums.
She was always dressed in a short skirt made of beads that reached just above the knees, and a top, also made of beads, that reached just above the navel. She was adorned with bracelets (Shona = ndarira) on both feet and hands.
When asked her name she called herself ‘Gumbi’.
Interestingly, it turns out that ‘gumbi’ means a skirt, an apparent reference to her unique skirt made of beads.
It is said that whenever and wherever people met ‘Gumbi’ she was accompanied by a young lion.
When asked why she kept the ‘handa’ (Shona = young dog), she replied it was not a ‘handa’, but her gombwe (messenger).
But people would report that they had seen ‘Gumbi nehanda yake’, that is Gumbi with her young dog, (handa).
The young lion was said to have great powers and was her messenger (gombwe) that Gumbi sent to carry out various errands and tasks including summoning people to visit the spirit medium.
Eventually, people came to call the young spirit medium ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ which literally translates to ‘the one with a skirt and a puppy’.
The area in which she lived in the Matemwe mountains also came to be known as Gumbi Nehanda, a name that has persisted up to the present day.
We have shown that a spirit medium named ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ lived in a mountainous area on the northern banks of the Zambezi where the river crosses into Mozambique.
We have indications that ‘Gumbi Nehanda’ shares many similarities with our Mbuya Nehanda not least of which is the name.
Gumbi Nehanda’s place of origin, Guruuswa, in Tanganyika, coincides with the area where the Shona people of Zimbabwe are thought to have originated as discussed in earlier articles.
In the next episode we shall provide more information on the mystery of the Gumbi Nehanda spirit medium and its possible links to the roots of the Shona-speaking people of Zimbabwe.


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