Angry families and politicians are stepping up a nearly 30-year fight to bring back the head of a grandmother executed 117 years ago for standing up against colonialism. It is believed her head lies in one of Britain’s famous museums.
In 1898, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, or Mbuya Nehanda as she was known, was a powerful spirit medium, a person who speaks to the gods, and heroine of the First Chimurenga, the revolt against the British South Africa Company in Matabeleland. She led the uprising by Zimbabweans against colonizers and was hanged and decapitated. It’s believed her head was shipped more than 12,000 kilometers to England.
“We cannot have other people keep the remains of our ancestors in a cardboard box elsewhere,” says Godfrey Mahachi, Director of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe.
Nehanda was not the only one. Her skull could be at the National History Museum in South Kensington, London, with the remains of the other executed leaders, Sekuru Kaguvi, Chingaira Makoni, Chinengundu Mashayamombe, Mapondera, Mashonganyika and Chitekedza Chiwashira.
“There are implications to do with how we treat the deceased; these implications have a bearing on the past, present and future,” says Mahachi.
Sixty-three-year-old Donald Kamba is a direct descendant of Chief Chingaira and an estate agent from Rusape, in eastern Zimbabwe. He says this is where the headless body of his ancestor is buried.
“Ever since Chingaira’s head disappeared, every subsequent Makoni chief, irrespective of their house, went blind,” says Kamba.
“The British have been called upon on a number of occasions over the last three decades or more for the return of the remains of Chingaira in particular. The party went to Britain in 1988 and they were advised that there were no such remains of Chingaira and that they were to try South Africa,” says Kamba.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Jonathan Moyo, stirred emotions on Twitter.
“How can we focus on the economy when the skulls of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi are displayed in a British museum? These barbarians have been displaying the skulls of our First Chimurenga heroes and heroines in their libraries!” says Moyo.
On Heroes Day in August, President Robert Mugabe claimed the British were performing “racist moral decadence, sadism and human insensitivity” in keeping the skulls as trophies.
“The formalities are being handled by the foreign affairs ministry in collaboration with the British government. It has always been our wish to have those remains back home but we have to proceed in this process with much caution,” says Mahachi.
“Proper identification and research needs to be conducted so as to ensure that whatever we bring back to Zimbabwe is ours.”
The British museum denies having displayed any of the remains. It says it is not clear if any of the remains are from the First Chimurenga and implied that repatriation could be a long process.
The descendants of Nehanda and her comrades hope it won’t take another 117 years.