Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana: Early African Colonial Resistance in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa

In traditional Zimbabwean and South African culture, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana (c. 1840–1898) is known as a svikiro (spirit medium) and mhondoro (distinction category of royal ancestral spirit or "lion spirit"). The legacy of the Nehanda transcends national boundaries because her lore originates among the pre-colonial Shona-speaking people of ancient Great Zimbabwe --  known to include both the Shona-speaking people and Ndebele tribal family. A 1888 missionary map includes the name of the village Nehandas. 

When Nehanda Nyakasikana was born, she was considered to be the female incarnation of the great oracle Nehanda. Also referred to as "Mbuya Nehanda" and "Mbuya Charwe", she is commonly referred to as the grandmother of present day Zimbabwe -- among the early African resistance to European colonialism in the region. 

The earliest of European settlers began to migrate to the region from Britain during Nehanda Nyakasikana's rule. By 1894, the British imperialist had imposed what they termed the "hut tax" against the native populations consisting of both the Ndebele and Shona people. In addition to the "hut tax", the British began to impose forced relocation and forced labor camps. 

The military campaign to drive out the British was started by the Ndebele in May 1896. The African resistance is known as the Chimurenga War ("war of liberation"), also known as the Second Matabele War and the Matabele Rebellion. The Ndebele was joined by the Shona in October 1896. The unique element of the Chimurenga War was the leading roles played by three traditional spiritual leaders or mhondoro: Mukwati in Matabeleland, Kagubi in western Mashonaland, and Nehanda, the only woman, in Central and Northern Mashonaland. 

In 1897, Nehanda Nyakasikana was captured at the war's end and charged with the murder of a local commissioner, held by commentators as trumped up charges. Nevertheless, she was found guilty and hanged by authority of the (British) High Commissioner for South Africa, led then by Alfred Milner. The execution was endorsed by the (British) Imperial Secretary on March 28, 1898. The judge presiding over the execution was termed the "Hanging Judge" John Watermayer. Herbert Hayton Castens, Esq. served as "Public Prosecutor Sovereign with the British South Africa Company territories, who prosecutes for and on behalf of her majesty." The lore that arises from the public hanging includes accounts of difficulty killing Nehanda Nyakasikana, along with her resounding statement: "Mapfupa angu achamuka! (my bones will surely rise!)".

When the nationalist liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s rose in Africa, Zimbabwe's local guerrilla factions were raising the spirit of Nehanda in their independence struggle. This included the likes of then young guerrilla factions under Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). Both ZANU and ZAPU were opposed to the then ruling United African National Council under leadership of Bishop Abel Muzorewa.

"If Nehanda were alive today," said Robert Mugabe in 1979, "there is no doubt she would be a member of the Patriotic Front." 
  • Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896-7: A Study in African Resistance, Terence O. Ranger, Heinemann, 1984. Available at
  • The Struggle for Zimbabwe: The Chimurenga War, David Martin & Phyllis Johnson, Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981. Available at