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date: 27 September 2023



  • Diana JeaterDiana JeaterHistory, University of Liverpool
  •  and Ruvimbo RusikeRuvimbo RusikeIndependent Scholar


In the foundational stories of the Zezuru and Korekore Shona peoples of Zimbabwe, Grandmother (Ambuya/Mbuya) Nehanda was one of the original forebears. She is described both as a semi-mythical autochthonous ancestor, a sister of the Zezuru founding ancestor Chaminuka; and as the daughter of Mutota, the historical founder of the 16th- and 17th-century trading empire, Mwenemutapa (Monomotapa). By 1980, however, she had also become an icon of resistance to White rule in Zimbabwe and a model of gender empowerment. A number of things contributed to the creation of this iconic image, including a complex intertwining of resistance to White settler invasion in the 1890s; literary and musical compositions throughout the 20th century; the nationalist liberation war of the 1970s; and Terence Ranger’s 1967 academic monograph, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia. The image celebrates both the ancestral spirit and her late 19th-century spirit medium, Charwe Nyakasikana. Charwe, who was recognized as a medium for Nehanda’s mhondoro (founding ancestor) spirit, was hanged in 1898 by White settlers, who had invaded and occupied the territory eight years earlier. They said that she had ordered the killing of a White official and, with a fellow medium, Sekuru Kaguvi, had helped to coordinate an armed resistance to the occupation. Following the establishment of independent African rule in Zimbabwe in 1980, Ambuya Nehanda—as the spirit working through Charwe—was revered as the “Mother of the Nation.” The final words attributed to Charwe before her execution, “My bones will rise again,” were celebrated as a prophecy of the future successful overthrow of White rule. Charwe’s story and image have subsequently been used in many ways to represent ongoing struggles around gender, nationalism, and neocolonialism.


  • Religious History

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