History January 12, 2019 at 01:00 pm

For stirring a revolt in Zimbabwe, this spiritual leader was hanged by the British in 1898

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson January 12, 2019 at 01:00 pm

January 12, 2019 at 01:00 pm | History

Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana with soldiers and a British officer

Several figures in African history are remembered for their contribution to the fight against western dominance and colonization. Many of these figures who take the spotlight are mostly royals, wealthy merchants with influence, educated returnees. However, this sidelines the many traditional leaders and women who also played a significant role in the history of their countries.

One of such persons is Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana also known as Mbuya Nehanda who was a spiritual leader of the Shona people in Zimbabwe and to this day is celebrated for her bravery and fight to preserve her people’s culture and resist western oppression.

Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana 

According to an article on Rain queens of Africa, Nyakasikana was believed to be the incarnation of the original Nyamhika Nehanda, whose spirit lived on with her people. The original Nehanda was the daughter of Mutota the founder of the Mutapa state, who gave his daughter a great portion of his kingdom as a reward for allowing her half brother to sleep with her to increase the power and strength of their father’s rule over his kingdom.

Nyakasikana was recognised as an incarnation of Nehanda when she was born in the mid-1800s and throughout her life in Chidamba village in Mashonaland as a spiritual leader for her people and was the custodian of their heritage, culture and history.

When the British arrived on their lands in Zimbabwe, Nyakasikana 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 relationship between them and the locals began to take a toxic turn when the British began to steal the lands, capture people into slavery and demand taxes from the locals.

With the turn of events, Nyakasikana made it her responsibility to resist western rule and their forced social structures. She made sure to be present during trade negotiations and prevent the British from taking advantage of the people. Along with her messengers, she travelled from village to village to encourage the people to resist the westerners and their many rules.

As part of their plans to take control and make profit from the locals in Zimbabwe, the British rolled out the hut tax in 1894,  which made several locals leave their lands and relocate to segregated areas. This triggered anger among the Shona and Ndebele people leading to the First Chimurenga (War of Liberation) of 1896 to 1897.

Depiction of Shona and Ndebele soldiers ready for the First Chimurenga war

The Chimurenga war, also known as the Second Matabele War, was, according to traditional history, led by the three leading spirit mediums including Nyakasikana. She was the only woman among the spiritual and traditional leaders and was greatly supported by Sereku Kaguvi, who is described as her spirit husband.

 Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana and Sereku Kaguvi

Due to Nyakasikana’s great influence and indulgence in the war, the British ordered her arrest to silence her and to serve as a warning to other leaders. Nyakasikana was able to escape arrest for a whole year until in 1897 when she was captured with Kaguvi for the murder of Commissioner Pollard who was killed at Nehanda’s command during the early days of the war in 1896.

Nehanda and Kaguvi were sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Pollard and a police officer respectively.

Depiction of the hanging of Nyakasikana 

At the hanging ceremony, Nyakasikana refused to be converted into Christianity and ask God to accept her soul despite Kaguvi doing so by the order of the British and a priest. According to oral history, it took three attempts to strip off Nyakasikana’s traditional pouch before she was successfully hanged. 

Today, Nyakasikana is celebrated as the grandmother of Zimbabwe and a heroine of the resistance, who will always be remembered for her last words at death ‘My bones will rise again’.


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