Despite limited resources, she led the black resistance and fought the whites with spears, bows and arrows, while the enemy used the maxim gun.
When the rebellion failed she was among the last of the leaders to be captured. Together with another leader of the rebellion, the medium of Kaguvi, she was sentenced to death and hanged by the British on April 27 but her heroic role has made her the idol of modern day Zimbabwean revolutionaries.
It is said that, faced with the hangman’s noose, Ambuya Nehanda refused to be converted to Christianity and, let alone, talk to Catholic Priest Father Ritcherz apart from reminding him that “My bones shall surely rise again”.
But Kaguvi converted and was christened Dismus “the good thief” the name of the thief saved by Jesus on the cross. He was still hanged but his conversion was meant to send him to Heaven. No double entendre!
Since then a powerful and prolific oral tradition grew up around Nehanda, her part in the rebellion and especially the last moments of her life after she was condemned.
Her refusal to accept conversion to Christianity, her defiance on the scaffold and her prophecy that “my bones shall rise to win back freedom from the Europeans” made her a national occult of the spiritual realm.
In the village, it is believed that as the white Rhodesian settlers continued, with or without pieces of legislation to denigrate, dehumanise and deprive the majority blacks of Zimbabwe’s milk and honey, Mbuya Nehanda’s turned and twisted in her grave with anger and disgust. Her bones rattled and knocked against each other. Knocked! Knocked, kicked, knocked and kicked! Knocked. Knocked! The rattle effect knocked at the hearts of many and inspired them into fighting the war of liberation.
Her prophecy came true on the 68th anniversary of her death when seven Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army guerrillas crossed into the country and fired the first shots of the Second Chimurenga War at the Battle of Sinoia (Chinhoyi) on April 28 1966.
Even though the seven gallant fighters: Simon Chingosha Nyandoro, Godwin Manyerenyere, Arthur Maramba, Christopher Chatambudza, Chubby Savanhu, Godfrey Dube and David Guzuzu were wiped out after an eight-hour battle by superior Rhodesian firepower, that included air and ground forces, the spirit of the liberation struggle did not die with them. Mbuya Nehanda continued to inspire the galaxy of gallant sons and daughters of this country into fighting back.
The Second Chimurenga had started in earnest and throughout the war Nehanda turned and twisted in her grave, her bones knocking against each other with rage until independence in 1980. In a few days time we commemorate our Heroes and Defence Forces Holidays and we should have Mbuya Nehanda in mind.
In time since the death of Mbuya Nehanda the healing and protective powers associated with the spirit became inextricably fused. In songs, in verse and in myth, Nehanda came to represent the inevitable but so-long awaited victory of the Shona over their oppressors.
As a heroine of the nationalist resistance she was rivalled only by Chaminuka, a mhondoro or royal ancestor of the Zezuru people of central Zimbabwe, who came to be regarded as her spiritual brother. In many of the new versions of old myths that grew out of the years of the struggle, this brother and sister pair is characterised as the original founders of the Shona nation. In recognition and perpetuation of this tradition two of the early Zanu operational zones in the north-east were named Nehanda and Chaminuka.
But it was not only in myth that Nehanda’s authority was recognised. She also appears as an inspirational figure in many important works of Shona literature published since the 1950s. In the novel Feso by Solomon Mutswairo (first published in 1957 and later banned by the Rhodesian Front government) the “Vanyai” who represent the enslaved Shona people regard Nehanda as their protector and liberator.
“Where is our freedom, Nehanda?
Won’t you come down to help us?
Our old men are treated like children
In the land you gave them, merciful creator”.
In the poem “Soko Risina Musoro” published in 1958 by Herbert Chitepo, then chairman of Zanu until his assassination in 1975, an old warrior bemoans the destruction of the Shona nation.
In view of Nehanda’s national reputation it is no surprise that when the Zanla guerrillas discovered their good fortune in having a medium of this spirit, the most recent representative of this long tradition, active in their operational zone, they should have urged her to join the struggle.
But the white administration was also conscious of its traditions. The attempt by “native commissioners” to capture the mediums who had led the 1896 rebellion had been described by a number of local historians and was no more forgotten by government administrators than by their old adversaries.
In the late 1960s an administrative assistant in the Urungwe (Hurungwe) District, to the west of Dande, reported his belief that a spirit medium in his area had knowledge of guerrilla activity.
Charges against this medium were eventually dropped but memories had been stirred.
A nationwide survey of mediums of all kinds was begun. As the first spate of attacks intensified into a war, so attempts were made to use the mediums to counteract the influence of the guerrillas. Tape recordings of mediums forced to denounce the guerrillas while, supposedly, in trance were broadcast from planes. Leaflets bearing similar messages were scattered over the operational areas:
“To all the people of the land:
“Some of you have been helping terrorists who came to cause disturbances to you and your families. Your spirits have told your spiritual medium that they are disappointed because of your action. Mhondoro, your tribal spirit, has sent a message to say that your ancestral spirits are very dissatisfied with you. As a result of this there has been no rain. It is only the government which can help you, but you have to realise your obligation to help the government also.”
Although opposed to each other in every other way, the freedom fighters and the Rhodesian regime forces were united in the seriousness with which they regarded the ancestors and their mediums.
In the course of this account of the mediums of one small section of the country, it is important to consider just how justified this attitude to the ancestors and their mediums proved to be.
Early in 1971 a small band of Zanu guerrillas crossed from Mozambique into the north-eastern corner of Zimbabwe. After a few days in the densely wooded scrubland of the Zambezi Valley called Dande, they were led into the village of an ancient female spirit medium. Her name was Kawanzaruwa. The name of her spirit was Nehanda.
The late Cde Mayor Urimbo was the leader of this group. He was later to describe his account and the medium.
“A small woman, very thin and very old, with white hair and skin that was exceedingly black. She was dressed in a piece of black cloth that was wrapped around her body and she wore bangles, some of them gold, on her wrists and other ornaments around her neck. Her skin was dry and cracked with age, and dung was regularly rubbed on to protect it from the sun.”
In 1980 Urimbo was to give another account how he and his guerrillas had met this medium and how she had helped them, when they arrived in the area.
“We had to start by talking to the masses. We spoke to the old people who said we must consult the mediums. We were taken to Nehanda. She was very old. She never bathed and ate only once or twice a week.
Her food had to be ground with a mortar and pestle. She hated all European things. We told her: “we are the children of Zimbabwe, we want to liberate Zimbabwe.’
“She was very much interested. She knew very much about war and the regulation of war. She said: “This forest is very, very difficult for you to penetrate.” But she gave us directions. “She told us what kind of food to eat, which routes to take, what part of the forest we were not allowed to stay in or sleep in, where we were not allowed to fight.
She said we were forbidden to go with girls and she taught us how to interpret many signs in the forest, which would allow us to live safely and to know when our enemy was near.
The mediums were experts on rituals who “hate all European things.” If the guerrillas obeyed the ritual prohibitions that the mediums imposed, they were safe and the war they were fighting would be successful.
In the years that followed, the guerrillas in the Zambezi Valley met and lived with a number of other mediums. Many of these, such as Chiwawa, Musuma, Nyamapfeni, Mazhambe, Mutota and Madzomba, played a big role in the struggle, but all inspired by Nehanda.
The village soothsayer, the ageless autochthon of wisdom and knowledge says those who call spirit mediums, evil might as well say our independence from white minority rule is evil. Could that be food for thought?