Mbuya Nehanda was a powerful spirit medium, and heroine of the First Chimurenga revolt against the British South Africa Company in Matabeleland. Her leadership played an integral role in the uprising against British colonizers, ultimately leading to her execution by hanging and decapitation.
Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana also known as Mbuya Nehanda was the spiritual leader of the Zezuru Shona people. She was a medium of Nehanda, a female Shona mhondoro, a very powerful and respected ancestral spirit.
As medium of the spirit Nehanda, Nyakasikana held great authority and was staunchly committed to upholding traditional Shona culture.
During the arrival of the first European settlers, Mbuya Nehanda who occupied an important and influential position in the religious hierarchy in Mashonaland, welcomed them with a black cow. The spiritual leader, who had a huge influence over her people, managed to convince them not to be afraid of the whites. Through her, the British established a great relationship with the chiefs and people who traded with each other.
By the late 1880s, the British had established themselves in Zimbabwe, however, the relationships between the locals and the European settlers became strained when the settlers started imposing taxes on the Matabele and forcefully conscripting them for various labor projects.
Following the imposition of a “hut tax” and other tax assessments in 1894, both the Ndebele and Shona people revolted in June 1896, in what became known as the First Chimurenga or Second Matabele War.
The rebellion, in Mashonaland was encouraged by traditional religious leaders including Mbuya Nehanda. Due to the cultural beliefs of the locals, the leading roles behind the rebellion were three spirit mediums including Nyakasikana.
Nyakasikana was the only woman among the spiritual and traditional leaders and was greatly supported by Sereku Kaguvi, who is described as her spirit husband.
At first the Shona and Ndebele experienced victories on the battlefield, but after running out of supplies, they were eventually defeated by the British.
After the end of the rebellion in 1897, Nyakasikana was captured. Her spirit husband Kaguvi was captured soon after. They were both charged with the murder of Native Commissioner Henry Hawkins Pollard who was allegedly killed at Nehanda’s command during the early days of the war in 1896. She was found guilty after eyewitnesses claimed that she had ordered an associate to chop Pollard’s head off.
Nehanda and Kaguvi were sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Pollard and a police officer respectively.
At the hanging ceremony, unlike Kaguvi, Mbuya Nehanda refused to convert to Christianity. Just before her hanging and decapitation, she announced to the British that her body would rise again to lead a second, and this time victorious, struggle against them. Following her execution, she was beheaded, and her head, along with other remains and spiritual items, was shipped to England in a sack as trophies of conquest where it remains till this day.
The First Chimurenga, though unsuccessful, laid the foundation for future struggles for independence. The memory of the uprising fueled the desire for self-determination, leading to the Second Chimurenga (also known as the Rhodesian Bush War) in the 1960s and 1970s, which ultimately resulted in Zimbabwe gaining independence in 1980.
Today, Mbuya Nehanda is celebrated as the grandmother of Zimbabwe and a heroine of the resistance, She has been commemorated by Zimbabweans through the building of statues in her name, street names, hospitals, songs, novels, and poems.
Statue of Mbuya Nehanda in Harare, Zimbabwe