Nehanda Chargwe Nyakasikana was one of the major spiritual leaders of African resistance to white rule in Zimbabwe. She was born among the Shona people, one of Zimbabwe's major ethnic groups, in or about 1863. She passed away in 1898. She was considered to be a medium of the female spirit Mbuya Nehanda.
The Shona people believe in one Supreme Being, Mwari, who presides over the world, although distant from daily human affairs. Under Mwari, and above the living, one finds numerous spirits who assist Mwari and the living. Of particular importance are ancestral spirits, and among those, a particular group is believed to be quite powerful, the Midzimu Mikurukuru. The Midzimu Mikurukuru are also known as mhon-doro, that is, “lions,” because the Shona believe that those spirits wander the forest like mighty lions awaiting a new incarnation. Mhondoro are particularly revered among the Shona because they help people interpret Mwari's wishes and desires. They are also believed to ensure the well-being of large areas and numbers of people. For example, they will protect those under their watch by sending rain for generous crops or by guaranteeing peaceful relationships among community members. They preside over many important ceremonies and rituals. One mhondoro was a female spirit, Mbuya Nehanda, in Central and Northern Mashonaland. She only mounted women who were well thought of in their community and who, acting as her medium, communicated Mbuya Nehanda's messages to the living. A woman chosen by Nehanda to be her medium received the title of Mbuya Nehanda and was never to marry. The original Mbuya Nehanda spirit is believed by many to have actually been in existence during the 15th century. Although there are many stories regarding Nehanda, it appears that she was the daughter of a king of northern Shona territory, Ishe Mutota. She possessed great spiritual powers and was said to have disappeared into a mountain that bears her name to this day, Gomo reNehanda. Nehanda quickly became one of the most important Lion Spirits, or mhondoro.
English settlers invaded Zimbabwe in 1896 and immediately started confiscating the land and cattle of the people. Initially in search of gold, they ruthlessly sought to impose white supremacy through forced labor and heavy taxation. Imbued with a great deal of racial arrogance, they rarely if ever hesitated to engage in numerous acts of physical cruelty, beating and torturing the Africans as they saw fit.
It did not take long for the Africans to start resisting and fighting back. In fact, the military campaign to push the British out of Zimbabwe, known as the Chimurenga or “the war of liberation,” started in May 1896 at the initiative of the Ndebele people, another important ethnic group in Zimbabwe. The Shona joined them in their efforts a few months later in October 1896. A defining characteristic of the Chimurenga was its great reliance on African religion, with mhondoro playing a critical role.
At the time of the white invasion, the Nehanda medium was Chargwe Nyakasikana, a woman who lived in the northern part of the country and whose influence was already quite widespread. Nehanda, along with two other Lion spirits (Mukwati in Matabeleland, but especially Kagubi in western Mashonaland), found herself organizing and directing her people's resistance to foreign assaults. In fact, the mhondoro effectively conveyed to their people that Mwari, their supreme god, unequivocally disapproved of the white presence and actions and demanded that the white people be removed from the land.
At first, they experienced many victories on the batdefield, and the realization of Mwari's wish (i.e., the physical removal of the British from the land) seemed near. H. H. Pollard, a European commissioner who operated in Nehanda's zone and had become notorious for his cruelty, was captured. Brought to Nehanda, she had him work as her servant for a while, and then had him executed. However, running out of supplies, the Africans were eventually defeated by the Europeans. Nehanda allowed herself to be taken into captivity to avoid further African bloodshed an d deaths. She was kept at the Harare jail. Her trial opened in March 1898. Found guilty of having killed Pollard, she was executed by hanging on April 27, 1898. Unlike Kagubi (who was tried at the same time and also sentenced to death for killing a police officer), Nehanda refused until her last day to convert to Christianity. Furthermore, before she was hung, Nehanda announced to the Europeans that her body would rise again to lead the second, and this time victorious, struggle against them.
Because of the courage and heroism that she never failed to display, Nehanda is considered by many to be the single most important person in the modern history of Zimbabwe. She certainly was a major source of inspiration during the more recent nationalist struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. She is still referred to, out of affection and respect, as Mbuya (“Grandmother”) Nehanda by Zimbabwean nationalists. The main maternity hospital in Harare is named after her.
- ethnic groups
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- Mupingi, C. (1990). Death Throes: The Trial of Mbuya Nehanda. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press.
- Sweetman, D. (1984). Women Leaders in African History. London: Heinemann.
- Vera, Y. (1993). Nehanda. Harare, Zimbabwe: Baobab Press.