FEATURE: One year on, Mbuya Nehanda statue still not open to the public

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By Mary Taruvinga

WHEN the famous Mbuya Nehanda statue was unveiled in Harare almost a year ago, authorities said it would serve as a reminder of the occultic, historic First Chimurenga hero and a major tourist attraction.

But eleven months down the line, it stands as a forlorn artefact out of the reach of many.

In fact, everyone except for the stern-looking armed police officers taking turns to guard it around the clock.

Nobody is allowed to scale the massive and expensively constructed scaffolding on which it rests.

Yet, this structure was ideally supposed to serve as a footbridge over the usually congested intersection where Harare’s major roads – themselves named after the other giants of Africa’s anti-colonial struggle; Samora Machel and Julius Nyerere.

It does not help either that a fortune was spent on the statue at a time many were wallowing in abject poverty, at the height of a debilitating Covid-19 lockdown.

The First Chimurenga war heroine’s monumental statue was mounted on May 25 last year amid a major public outcry over the government’s misplaced priorities.

It is a monument of a Zimbabwean spirit medium and heroine of the 1896-1897 First Chimurenga.

The cultic figure has remained sacrosanct, albeit mystical, down the generations since she was hanged in 1898 and had her head shipped to London where it is still being kept as a war trophy.

The monument is under National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ).

It was erected during the peak of the deadly pandemic with the health sector grappling with shortages of consumables including basics such as gloves.

This was a period of successive lockdowns in Zimbabwe, which made life unbearable for ordinary people working in the informal sector.

Most Zimbabweans were starving while locked down in their homes.

No measures had been put in place by the same government to ensure that people would have the necessities.

People did not entirely condemn the importance of Nehanda but the unveiling of the monument sparked wide debate on social media, with many people questioning spending money on non-essentials.

“The absurdity and misguidedness of co-opting a historical figure as a partisan symbol and celebrating this symbol in a partisan manner in a way that hinders citizens’ right of movement, on a day dedicated to a continental vision is so fundamental that only comprehensive transformation will improve Zimbabwe’s prospects,” novelist and cultural critic Tsitsi Dangarembgwa said.

Prominent journalist and government critic Hopewell Chin’ono also said: “Doctors and nurses at Mpilo hospital in Bulawayo are having to carry sick patients or the dead using staircases, because elevators are not working! This is why we are saying building multimillion dollar statues when hospitals are not working is illogical!”

Two weeks after the statue was erected, seven babies were stillborn at Sally Mugabe Hospital in one night after urgent treatment was delayed because of staffing issues.

Nurses were on strike nationwide because of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other concerns, and the maternity wards were overwhelmed.

A doctor who talked to then, said the incident was just “a tip of the iceberg” as such cases were not strange at the hospital.

Its consumables were imported at a cost of nearly ZAR3 million.

No Zimbabwean is allowed to visit the monument, no tourist is yet to be seen at the site.

The entrance of each foot walk is manned by not less than four armed police officers, day and night.

It remains unknown why the public is blocked and why the foot walks created to aid pedestrians lie idle after spending fortunes creating them.

NMMZ Executive director Godfrey Mahachi said he would want clearance from the permanent secretary, Aaron Nhepera, for him to give a position on what is transpiring.

“I can give a comment but the best you can do is to talk to the permanent secretary first. If he refers you back to me, then I can give a comment,” Mahachi said.

Repeated calls on Nhepera’s mobile phone went unanswered.

A senior government official who chose to be anonymous said access is still blocked to prevent “vandals like CCC activist, Madzibaba Veshanduko.”

However, Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, said it is shameful that people are yet to see the significance of the statue, a year later.

“It is sad, after pouring a lot of taxpayers money we had expected that it was going to be a major project, a tourist attraction and get a lot of revenue from it but it is clear that these people cannot make decisions to draw that revenue,” he said.

“It is shameful that they try to monopolise the monument which belongs to everyone and say the public is still barred from visiting the statue.”

Controversy has always been with the statue story from day one.

On behalf of a company called Zimbabwe CRSG Constitution Pvt Limited, the Local Government Ministry requested free duty to be granted by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra)for the importation of consumables for Mbuya Nehanda statue.

It was reported that US$100 000 (R1 511 510,00) was used for transportation only with the total of transporting and consumables estimated to be R3 696 085 million.

Meanwhile, the three-meter-high statue crafting was guided by a photograph of Mbuya Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana that was supplied by the National Archives of Zimbabwe.

It was crafted by David Mutasa, a bronze casting artist at Nyati Gallery, then the construction of the whole site was carried out by Zimbabwe CRSG Construction.

Construction began in June 2020 and was scheduled to be completed by August 2020.

In December 2020, Mnangagwa ordered the statue to be re-crafted after public criticism of the statue’s structure which did not depict how the only known photo of Mbuya looks after the statue’s images went viral on social media during the president’s visit to Nyati Gallery.

Zimbabweans had nicknamed the statue “Slay queen”.

More criticism emerged when the statue had to be remade after the original sculpture was rejected for not looking enough like Mbuya Nehanda.

Money had already been spent on the first statue and another one was to be created.

The actual cost of this project remains unknown.

Zimbabweans are yet to enjoy the significance of the statue and people are aware of it.

“I think this was a waste of resources. We can only cast a glance as we pass by. Speaking for myself, even fear the police who are seated by the entrance,” a pedestrian told as she strolled past the artefact on Saturday.

Mnangagwa said the statue was a bold and unapologetic statement of the fact that Zimbabweans knew their origin, adding “it is a declaration that we stand proud of our identity”.

He called upon Zimbabweans to respect the national monument stating the place should not be a playground for lovers and selfie addicts.

So maybe, authorities are protecting the monument from selfie addicts, or preventing it from being turned into a love nest, as the good president said.