In 1898, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, or Mbuya Nehanda as she was known, was a powerful spirit medium, and heroine of the First Chimurenga, the revolt against the British South Africa Company in Matabeleland. She led the uprising by Zimbabweans against colonizers and was hanged and decapitated. It’s believed her head was shipped more than 12,000 kilometers to England.
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 a powerful woman and staunchly committed to upholding traditional Shona culture.
During the arrival of the first European settlers, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana who occupied an important and influential position in the religious hierarchy in Mashonaland, is said to have 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 Nyakasikana. 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.
Due to Nyakasikana’s great influence in the war, the British ordered her arrest to silence her and to serve as a warning to other leaders.
At first the Shona and Ndebele experienced victories on the battlefield, but after running out of supplies, they were eventually defeated by the British.
Nehanda was able to escape arrest until 1897 when she allowed herself to be taken into captivity to avoid further bloodshed and deaths of her people. 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, Nyakasikana refused to convert to Christianity. Before she was hanged and decapitated, Nehanda Charwe announced to the British that her body would rise again to lead the second, and this time victorious, struggle against them.
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.
The legacy of the medium continued to be linked to the theme of resistance, particularly the guerrilla war that began in 1972.
Her head which was taken to Britain as a war trophy is believed to be resting in one of Britain’s famous museums. Efforts by Zimbabwean authorities to have the skull returned home have hit stumbling blocks.