Zimbabwe Believes UK Can Help Solve Mystery Of Mbuya Nehanda’s Missing Skull

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Daily Maverick

FOR Zimbabweans have been calling on Britain to return the skulls of a former spiritual leader, Mbuya Nehanda, and several chiefs who were killed during the First Chimurenga, an Ndebele-Shona revolt against the British South Africa Company’s administration that took place in 1896-97.

Now, a #Bringbackourbones campaign has been launched.

Perhaps not far from where Mbuya Nehanda’s statue looks out across downtown Harare, lies the answer to the 123-year mystery that surrounds her death.

There is the possibility that somewhere within the city limits of Zimbabwe’s capital lies her secret grave, and finding it could prove once and for all whether her head was indeed removed and sent to England.

For years Zimbabweans have been calling for the return of skulls that belongs to the spiritual leader Nehanda and several chiefs who were killed during the first Chimurenga, an Ndebele-Shona revolt against the British South Africa Company’s administration that took place from 1896 to 1897.

Many Zimbabweans suspect the skulls are being kept in the British Natural History Museum in London.

Recently a group of Zimbabweans, including other from the diaspora, organised what they called the #Bringbackourbones campaign. There have been several protests over that last month. One of them was at the British High Commission in Pretoria.

“The (Zimbabwean) government is making an effort but we feel they are not moving fast enough,” explains Vusi Nyamazana, a spokesperson for the group. “In our culture, the spirit will hang in limbo because the body has not been buried properly.”

He added that these restless spirits have been haunting the dreams of some Zimbabweans.

The Zimbabwean government had formed a repatriation committee. In 2015, then president Robert Mugabe called for the skulls to be returned from the British Natural History Museum.

But there is a problem. The museum, after trawling through their collection of 20,000 human remains, couldn’t find any evidence of the skulls the Zimbabwean government was looking for.

They did, however, come across something else.

“We have the remains of 11 individuals from Zimbabwe, but after extensive research have found no evidence to suggest that they are the remains of Mbuya Nehanda or others associated with the First Chimurenga,” a statement from the museum’s press office read.

“We have shared all the information we have with the authorities in Zimbabwe and are continuing discussions with the Zimbabwean government and hope to host a delegation in 2022 to discuss the repatriation of the remains we do hold.”

Nehanda was said to have a powerful influence not only during the First Chimurenga, but also later, during the fight against the Rhodesian government.

The executive director of the national museums and monuments of Zimbabwe, Dr Godfrey Mahachi, believes it is difficult to understand the Zimbabwean war of liberation or the Second Chimurenga without acknowledging the role Nehanda played.

“Ritually, everything that happened during the war of liberation was done in the name of Nehanda… it was her spirit that was supposed to look after the fighters as they fought the struggle,” says Mahachi.

Nehanda is believed to have been born around 1840 in what is now the Chishawasha district in central Mashonaland. It is said that she became possessed by the Nehanda spirit, which for the last couple of hundred years used women as its medium.

In 1894, the British South Africa Company introduced a hut tax. Two years later it sparked a revolt by both the Shona and Ndebele. Nehanda, who had become a powerful figure, encouraged the uprising.

Colonial forces eventually suppressed the uprising using machine guns for the first time to mow down charging impis.

Towards the end of the rebellion, Nehanda was captured and charged with the murder of native commissioner Henry Hawkins Pollard.

There is a photograph of Nehanda, a diminutive, emaciated woman staring defiantly into the camera, even though she had just learnt she was about to die. Around her are armed black colonial troops.

The photograph was taken outside the court where she had just been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang.

Not long afterwards, she was put to death – and that is where the myth began. Her burial place was kept secret so as to prevent it from becoming a shrine.

Next to nothing is known about her burial.

“I don’t know of any evidence that the heads of the spirit mediums Nehanda and Kaguvi were taken after they were hanged in 1898. I don’t think any of the serious historical works on the 1896-97 rebellion, such as by TO Ranger, David Beach and Julian Cobbing, included anything about that. I think Ranger would have included this,” says historian Prof Timothy Stapleton of Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

He adds that he suspects the recent demands for the repatriation of skulls is another attempt by ZANU-PF to use the memory of colonial conquest and African resistance to bolster its legitimacy as a ruling party in Zimbabwe.

Historian and trade unionist Dr Takavafira Zhou said he also didn’t know of any evidence that Nehanda’s skull had been taken.