Mbuya Nehanda the legend

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WHEN people talk of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, many picture men in military fatigues, wielding rifles and dodging bullets and bombs from Rhodesian forces. 

Some call these men ‘guerillas’, ‘comrades’ or ‘vanamukoma’.

While these men played a crucial role in the liberation struggle, women who were also instrumental in the fight against the oppressive white rule are often forgotten.

This week, Zimbabwe commemorated Heroes’ Day as it remembered the suffering and sacrifices made by our heroes and heroines in the fight against colonial imbalances.

This year’s commemorations came on the backdrop of the construction of a three-metre statue for Mbuya Nehanda at the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way in the capital city, Harare.

Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, popularly known as Mbuya Nehanda, was Zimbabwe’s foremost spirit medium and heroine who led the 1896-1897 First Chimurenga against British settler-colonialism.

Mbuya Nehanda stayed in the Mazowe administrative district near Harare.

She is one of the greatest African female heroines who shaped and influenced the early African liberation struggle against colonialism.

She used her religious authority to mobilise the masses against the settlers and was later killed.

After her, there were also other women who played a pivotal role during the Second Chimurenga.

Erecting a statue of Mbuya Nehanda is, therefore, a national celebration of her courage and all other heroines who worked in a bid to defeat colonial occupation. 

Mbuya Nehanda wrote her own piece of history by standing up against the white colonial regime.

She was falsely accused of murdering the Native Commissioner of her district, Henry Howlin Pollard, who in fact was killed in a battle during the uprisings.

“While the jail at that time was in the general area of the Harare Central Police Station, the court that tried her was at what is now the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, a stone’s throw from the intersection where the statue will be 

erected,” said National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe executive director Dr Godfrey Mahachi. 

Some oral tradition also notes that this is the site where Mbuya Nehanda used to rest and drink water from a mashy stream on what today is Julius Nyerere Way.

In his virtual address on the 40th Anniversary of Heroes’ Day at State House this Monday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said: “Be that as it may, our commemorations are uniquely significant in that we are combining the recognition of heroes and heroines of both the First and Second Chimurenga/Umvukela. 

“In this regard, the mounting of the statue of Mbuya Nehanda in Harare, our capital city, will immortalise the supreme sacrifice that was paid by our forbearers. 

“The location of this statue carries added historical meaning because the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way is the spot where Mbuya Nehanda used to rest and drink water from a river that flowed at the site.”  

Mbuya Nehanda was arraigned in the High Court of Matabeleland that sat in Salisbury on February 20 1898 and subsequently convicted on March 2 1898 in a case entered as ‘The (British) Queen against Nehanda’. 

In one of the shortest murder trials in history, Mbuya Nehanda was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Once the British High Commissioner, based in South Africa, one Alfred Milner, got to know about the death sentence passed on Nehanda, he quickly dispatched a letter to the judge to have her executed immediately.

Below is part of the letter:

“The Queen against Nehanda in custody under sentence of death for murder.

I do hereby certify that a report of all the proceedings upon the trial of the said Nehanda for murder in and before the High Court held at Salisbury on March 1898, hath been transmitted to and laid before me as High Commissioner for South Africa by His Honourable the judge Watermeyer when sentence of death was there and then pronounced upon the said prisoner.

I hereby duly authorise and approve of the execution of the said sentence of death upon the said Nehanda.”

Once, Judge Watermeyer had received the above authority, he immediately, together with Herbert Hayton Castens Esquire, the acting public prosecutor sovereign within the British South Africa Company territories, who prosecutes for and on behalf of her majesty, wrote an instruction to the sheriff authorising him to kill Mbuya Nehanda.

Below is the instruction:

“To the sheriff of the territory of Rhodesia.

The Queen against Nehanda in custody.

His Excellency the High Commissioner has duly authorised and approved of the execution of the said sentence of death upon the said Nehanda on Wednesday April 27 one thousand eight hundred and ninety eight within the walls of the Gaol of Salisbury between hours of six and ten in the afternoon.

She shall be hanged by the neck until she be dead at such place of execution. 

This instruction is therefore to command you that cause execution of the said sentence to be had and done upon the said prisoner accordingly and that you keep and detain her in your custody until she shall have undergone the said sentence.”

And so, Mbuya Nehanda was taken to the 

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gallows.

According to the death warrant, Mbuya Nehanda was to be executed within the walls of the dungeons of Salisbury, between the hours of six and 10 during the day.

A Roman Catholic priest, one Father Richartz, was signed up to convert Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi. 

It is believed he failed to make headway with Mbuya Nehanda, only succeeding with Sekuru Kaguvi, whom he baptised ‘Dismas’ — the ‘good thief’ in the Bible.

According to Fr Richartz’s account: “Mbuya Nehanda called for her people and wanted to go back to her own country Mazoe and die there.

When I saw that nothing could be done with her, the time of the execution having arrived, I left Nehanda and went to Kaguvi who received me in good dispositions. 

Whilst I was conversing with him, Nehanda was taken to the scaffold. 

Her cries and resistance, when she was taken up the ladder, the screaming and yelling disturbed my conversation with Kaguvi very much, till the noisy opening of the trap door upon which she stood, followed by the heavy thud of her body as it fell, made an end to the interruption.”

However, it is interesting to note that although Judge Watermeyer instructed that Mbuya Nehanda was to be ‘hanged by the neck until she be dead at such place of execution’, respectable written and oral accounts say Mbuya Nehanda did not die by hanging.

For example, one Geoffrey Bond, in his book Remember Mazoe, based on eye-witness accounts of the First Chimurenga in the Mazowe area, says categorically that: “Nyanda (Charwe Nehanda) and the condemned prisoners (such as Kaguvi) were blind-folded and shot dead by a squad of majonis (white officers).”

The above version of how Mbuya Nehanda was killed records well with the popular version given by oral historians throughout Mazowe district who say: “Mbuya Nehanda vakachekwa.”

There was fear among the whites that Mbuya Nehanda’s influence would not go away because of her death and that if her grave was made public, it could become a shrine around which further resistance to colonialism would coalesce. 

Hence there was need for secret disposal.

According to Kevin Martin, Mbuya Nehanda was buried at a cemetery in Harare, established by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and christened Pioneer Cemetery.

It is that cemetery west of Mupedzanhamo Flea Market in Mbare, Harare.

It was opened on January 2 1893.

The cemetery was divided according to race and religion as well as military background.

Blacks had their own section to the west, called the ‘native section’.

It is a big area where graves are not marked.

Martin says: “Two of the Africans buried in that unmarked section with their graves unrecorded are of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi of the First Chimurenga.”

It is ironic that not only are Sekuru Kaguvi and Mbuya Nehanda buried in the old Pioneer Cemetery which is now closed, Judge Watermeyer who sentenced Mbuya Nehanda to death is also buried there.

Furthermore, the warden of Mbuya Nehanda, one Patrick Hayden, who should in fact have hung her by the neck, is also buried there.

On top of this, in that cemetery, there is a mass grave of Rhodesian soldiers who were killed in the First Chimurenga.

And when she breathed her last, she said: “Mapfupa angu achamuka.” (My bones shall rise again).

And they rose! 

Mbuya Nehanda’s heroism became a significant source of inspiration in the nationalist struggle for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Those who remained regrouped, re-strategised and fought on in the Second Chimurenga.

The white minority oppressive rule was defeated and the black majority took their country back. 

This left Ian Smith and his unholy ‘not in a 1000 years’ declaration egg-faced.

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