Nehanda Myth: Tracing Its History
30 May 2021
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Tracing the Historiograpgy and Amplification of Nehanda Myth

Nehanda Nyakasikana (front right) before her slaughter

History indepth…Dr Takafira Zhou

By Dr Takavafira Zhou | It has never been my intention to engage in historical debate with people specialising in wishful thinking or arguments from positions of ignorance. But it is also a duty of historians worthy their professional credo to present objective history rather to remain silent when the nation is constantly fed on a diet of lies and starvation for political expediency. After my first article on Nehanda entitled Political Expediency would not take us far: putting Nehanda in her proper historical context, which I wrote in December 2020 that generated interests recently because of President Mnangagwa’s celebration of Nehanda statue, it is prudent to present an addendum to it in an attempt to provide answers to some questions raised from positions divorced from historical evidence. Contrary to some assumptions, it is not my intention to inject ethnicity in our history but to de-ethnicise our past history and celebrate our past history in its proper historical context. In order for the past to be more relevant, it must positively influence the present and future, and certainly not be used and abused for political expediency. As much as we cannot correct the past wrongs, we can certainly correct the present and future. Our liberation legacy must be completed by improving the livelihoods of Zimbabwean people, rather than legitimation of political parties and myths.

The first person to amplify Nehanda myth was a colonial historian Marshal Hole hired to explain why Shona and Ndebele were not greatful to be colonised so that they rose in 1896-97. Despite clear evidence of brutal colonial administration that forced the Shona and Ndebele into the Rising, Hole blamed fear of the Mlimo (God) and spirit mediums (mhondoro) as a driving force which in reality was a cassus belli (excuse) for colonial exploitation.

The second elevation was Prof T.O. Ranger, who in an attempt to foster unity between ZAPU and ZANU in the 1960s amplified a spontaneous and dramatic Shona-Ndebele rising in a way reminiscent of the night of the long knives in Germany spearheaded by religious leaders, Mukwati, Umulugulu, Nehanda and Kaguvi, and imagined attempts to resuscitate the Rozvi empire. Ranger’s book Revolt in Southern Rhodesia was a source of inspiration to the Nationalist in Zimbabwe. It is surprising why he has not been declared a National hero given his role in the rise of African nationalism in Zimbabwe. The Rangerian mythological thesis was destroyed by Per Zachrison, Professors Beach and Cobbing by the mid 1970s, with Professor Gathseni-Ndlovu and myself adding weight to Beach and Cobbing in the 21st century. Prof Ranger had by 2002 accepted the historical defects of Revolt in Southern Rhodesia but still justified its usefulness in trying to cement unity and challenging modern nationalist to emulate his invention of the unity of the First Chimurenga. Indeed the modern nationalist emulated the assumed unity of the First Chimurenga and saw their effort as a Second Chimurenga and therefore continuity, extension and celebration of the First Chimurenga. But in reality there was no simultaneous and spontaneous Rising in 1896-97, but various Zvimurenga that were not coordinated but localised, with various chiefs fighting alone and defeated alone, and several other Africans fighting on the side of whites. The feelings of locality were more strong than feelings of being black or nationality, with Nehanda localised to Mazoe and Kaguvi to Chishawasha areas. The only times Kaguvi left Chishawasha was on hunting expeditions or hibernating after abusing other people’s children for wives or abusing other people’s wives. Kaguvi reportedly fled from Mashayamombe area after a minor war that erupted between him and Mashayamombe for “stealing two women from Mashayamombe who reported the case to police.” Far from reportedly spreading Chimurenga, Kaguvi was in most cases either on hunting errands or running from men after snatching their wives or girl children.

The third wave of elevation of Nehanda emanated from Nyandoro, Chikerema, Mutizwa, Shamuyarira and Samkange who were instrumental trade unionists-cum-politicians and believed in elevating traditional religion to play a role in order to win independence. Not surprisingly Nyandoro and Chikerema at one time enticed Joshua Nkomo by claiming that the spirit of Nehanda had adviced them on a modus operandi to win independence, and the trio travelled to Malawi and obtained a calabash from a traditional leader there believed then to be full of bees with the belief that if the calabash was smashed in central Harare town, they would stung the whites as allegedly happened in Malawi and blacks would attain independence in Zimbabwe. This however proved fruitless. The period 1969-1973 witnessed attempts to decimate both ZANU-PF and ZAPU and elevate Zezuru hegemonic power epitomised by Florizi (driven by Shamuyarira, Chikerema and Nyandoro etc) whose intended leader as shown in a 1972 document was R.G. Mugabe. There were also concerted efforts to magnify religious roles of Nehanda, Kaguvi and Chaminuka by Mutizwa and Shamuyarira in Zanu until the 1973 biennial conference where Shamuyarira lost contest to Chitepo for chairmanship after which he dismissed the liberation fighters as terrorists and left the liberation war. It were Hebert Chitepo, Tongogara and JZ Moyo who deflated Zezuru attempts to decimate both ZANU and ZAPU, and with the formation of ZIPA in 1975 as a joint military operation to continue the war and resumption of war in 1976, any attempts to blame ZANU and ZAPU and legitimise Florizi collapsed.

The 4th and final elevation of Nehanda, Kaguvi, and Chaminuka was the rise of Mugabe in 1977 and the return of the likes of Shamuyarira to the liberation struggle. Although, the initial co-operation with Nyandoro and Chikerema had collapsed when Mugabe refused to take the offer of president of Florizi after he carefully read the current of events spearheaded by Dare reChimurenga for Zanu, and able leadership of JZ Moyo, Mangena and others for Zapu who deflated the threat from ZAPU vice President Chikerema, the elevation of Nehanda, Kaguvi and Chaminuka intensified from 1977 as a process of a totalising Zezuru hegemonic power. After independence the totalising Zezuru hegemonic power intensified with the consummation of the three religious leaders to national level through naming of buildings and patriotic history. Surprisingly, not even a single building is named after Mashayamombe and Chingaira Makoni, Changamire Dombo, Nyamanda etc who by far played greater roles in fighting colonialists than Kaguvi, and Nehanda, who even denied ever sending agents to kill a Native Commissioner by the name of Pollard. So where exactly is her heroism derived from in the First Chimurenga other than the myth of a totalising Zezuru hegemonic power, and Marshal Hole’s distortion of the causes of the First Chimurenga?

A hero is a person who is admired for his/her courage, determination, inspiration, outstanding achievements and noble qualities which are nowhere near Nehanda or Kaguvi in the First Chimurenga. However Nehanda’s legendary role and inspiration in the Second Chimurenga, can not be denied, never mind its invention or artificial creation. However, this influence was conspicuous by its absence in the first Chimurenga as demonstrated by historians such as Beach, Cobbing, Zachrison, Gathseni-Ndlovu and Zhou. This is a historical fact that must never be silenced and compromised for political expediency.

For the new dispensation to continue to major in myths and past history without addressing the current political, economic social ills is not only unfortunate but ill conceived. The liberation legacy of the ruling party must be amplified by sustainable development, service delivery and improvement of the livelihoods of the generality of the populace in Zimbabwe.

I rest my historical case