Spiritual Medium Mbuya Nehanda Defied Colonialists in 19th-Century Zimbabwe

A newly unveiled statue in the African country’s capital honors an icon of resistance against British imperialism

Nehanda statue
Before she was hanged in 1898, Nehanda declared that her body would rise again to lead a new, victorious rebellion. Zimbabwe Tourism Authority

Zimbabwe’s government has erected a ten-foot-tall statue of Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, a spirit medium who led a rebellion against British occupation in the 19th century. Better known as Mbuya Nehanda (“grandmother Nehanda” in Shona), she continued to inspire African political movements long after her execution in 1898.

As Farai Mutsaka reports for the Associated Press (AP), Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa unveiled the statue Tuesday in the center of capital city Harare. He called the likeness “a declaration that we stand proud of our history and identity.”

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, Nehanda—a member of the Bantu-speaking Shona people—probably became a svikiro, or spirit medium, in the 1880s. (The Shona believe that the original Nehanda, a powerful, much-revered ancestral spirit, speaks through female mediums.) She oversaw central and northern Mashonaland, in what’s now northeastern Zimbabwe, as a traditional spiritual leader.

When the British South African Company (BSAC), headed by imperialist Cecil Rhodes, invaded the region in 1890, it confiscated locals’ land and cattle, as well as imposing taxes and forced labor. In response, the Ndebele people rebelled; they were soon joined by the Shona in what became known as the First Chimurenga, or “War of Liberation.”

Religion played a large role in the fight, with Nehanda and other mediums emerging as rebel leaders. Pindula, a self-described “hyper-local” encyclopedia, notes that Nehanda captured and executed BSAC Native Commissioner Henry Hawkins Pollard. But the war ended in defeat for the Ndebele and Shona, with Nehanda allowing herself to be captured to avoid more bloodshed. She refused to convert to Christianity and, before she was hanged, declared that her body would rise again to lead a new, victorious rebellion.

Spiritual Medium Mbuya Nehanda Defied Colonialists in 19th-Century Zimbabwe
The only known photo of Nehanda (left) was taken when she and fellow anti-colonial fighter Sekuru Kaguvi were captured by the British. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nehanda became an iconic figure for African fighters in the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1960s and ’70s—also known as the Second Chimurenga. The war resulted in Zimbabwe gaining its independence in 1980.

Following Nehanda’s execution, British forces took her head, and those of other rebels, as war trophies. During the unveiling ceremony, which took place on Africa Day, Mnangagwa vowed to continue to push for the return of Nehanda’s skull, according to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Some Zimbabwean leaders believe her skull, along with those of other participants in the First Chimurenga, are held at the Natural History Museum in London. But as the Guardian’s Nyasha Chingono reports, the museum denies this. Last year, British authorities invited Zimbabwe to send a team of experts to examine skulls in the museum’s collections, but the trip was delayed due to Covid-19 precautions, the Sunday Mail’s Lincoln Towindo noted at the time.

Per the Zimbabwean, an earlier version of the statue, created by artist David Mutasa, sparked controversy when it was revealed last year. Critics complained that the depiction of Nehanda bore little resemblance to the actual historical figure. The only known photograph of her was taken just before her execution. Mutasa reworked his design to create the final version.

Another point of contention surrounding the sculpture is its undisclosed cost. “Ordinarily, honoring cultural and liberation heroes is a noble thing to do but I think it is a disgrace to do it at a time when Zimbabweans are going to bed on empty stomachs,” journalist Hopewell Chin’ono tells the Guardian. “It is a disgrace to do it at a time when Zimbabweans are going to hospitals without medication. It is a serious disgrace when we build statues when our youths do not have jobs.”

Celebrations around the statue’s unveiling included a military parade and traditional music and dance performances.