According to prominent historian Terence Ranger, when Nehanda and the male medium spirit of Kaguvi, Gumboreshumba who was also an ancestral spirit were executed, she spoke to the effect that her bones will rise again in the fight against colonialism. It is this prophecy that those who stood to fight in the second Chimurenga drew from to finally gain independence in 1980. It was not only a prophecy because Nehanda did come back and inhabit another young woman named Kanzaruwa who joined the liberation struggle and became central to recruitment and mobilisation for ZANU-PF. According to ZANU-PF liberation war commander Josiah Tongogara: “When we started the war the spirit mediums helped with recruitment…Mbuya Nehanda was the most important recruit in those days. Once the children, the youth and girls in the area, knew that Nehanda had joined, they came in large numbers.”
It is important to note the relationship between the nationalist project of the liberation movement and writers of the same era, across the continent as well as in Zimbabwe. In this light, the figure of Nehanda was a significant symbol of the literature used to “imagine the nation.” Appropriation of the image of Nehanda in the construction of the “nation” of Zimbabwe is significant in Solomon Mutsvairo’s Feso (1956), Stanlake Samkange’s Year of the Uprising (1978) and Charles Samupindi’s Death Throes: The Trial of Mbuya Nehanda(1990) where they portray Zimbabwe as an “imagined community”.
Nehanda and Kaguvi became images and figures of citizenship and in turn, belonging. In particular, Feso by Mutsvairo is considered by literary historian KizitoMuchemwa to be the “literary originator of an unproblematised ethnic nationalism”. In Feso, Mutsvairo re-imagines the pre-colonial life of the Shona people through collective memory and oral tradition to set them as a civilisation and nation with great militaristic prowess. Centred around the Munhumutapa kingdom of the Great Zimbabwe civilisation, this rewriting was responding to, or writing as per Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, to the colonial myths with Shona myths of origin as a way of proving the legitimacy of the past civilisations of Africans.
In this way, Nehanda was no longer an individual but a nationalist symbol that defines citizenship, in this case, to the Shona people of which Mutsvairo writes. This is obviously problematic and exclusionary in several ways: citizenship and belonging to this imagined nation had already been determined as being Shona and masculine as represented by the militaristic might she is presented as. All of this, appropriated by ZANU-PF who are now and continue to be the central representation of struggle heroes and leaders and essentially as we come to see later on, owners of the land, identity and story of Zimbabwe through Nehanda. It is these same exclusionary ideas of nationalism that led to the Gukurahundi: genocide of the Ndebele people between 1983 and 1987 by the ZANU-PF state led Fifth Brigade who murdered over 20 000 civilians in the Matebeleland region. This genocide, sanctioned by Mnangagwa who was the Minister of state and security at the time, is still barely acknowledged by the ZANU-PF government. The image of Nehanda and its history are therefore a significant symbol of nationalism, which represents power and exclusion.
When I was in Harare for the Christmas of 2018, I stayed until January of 2019, to spend time with my parents before heading back to school in Cape Town. There were rumours of a planned action against the government, just one year since the Mnangagwa government had taken over. He had recently won elections, but things were rapidly deteriorating economically and there were signs that this new government was just as authoritarian as the previous one. The MDC was planning a stay away and calling for people to enter the streets of the city to demonstrate against the government.