Sunday, June 19, 2016

Mbuya Nehanda Narrative: Confirmation From the Rhodies
JUNE 12, 2016
George Charamba
Zimbabwe Sunday Mail

For the past two weeks and as part of its Chronicles from the Second Chimurenga, The Sunday Mail serialised an interview it had with Cde Julian Maodza Murenga Mukomawashe. Apart from its connection with prior narratives from other players in our armed struggle for Independence, this particular interview was unique in so far as it raised deep spiritual issues at the heart of that struggle. Cde Murenga spoke not as a passive observer but as a participant in that spiritual transaction at the heart of the struggle.

Interestingly, until after a series of interviews with an older generation of fighters, The Sunday Mail was unaware of Cde Murenga, let alone the role he played as a “handmaid” of the spiritual component of the struggle. He thus evolved in the context of a continuing narrative which continue to offer amazing glimpses into the nature of that struggle, about which so much has been written, albeit from the perspective of white historians and white soldiers of the Ian Smith regime.

This modest intervention seeks to demonstrate the centrality of the spiritual question, infrastructure and personages in Zimbabwe’s narratives of resistance against colonialism. This has become all the more important partly in view of the absence of authentic narratives of struggle by actors, and partly because of the rise of Christian Pentecostalism in our society which tend to abhor traditional religion and traditional notions of spirituality.

That notwithstanding, modern social scientists, building on key observations of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, do acknowledge that beliefs and ideas, no matter how wild, how incredulous, become a veritable material and historical force especially in circumstances in which they are read to espouse or even coincide with the interests and searches of a people and a class. Growing up in those years of struggle, I can testify that indeed the phrases “hondo yemadzinza” and “hondo yemidzimu” were used interchangeably with the notion of “hondo yevanhu”, a people’s war.

It does not matter what one’s religious beliefs are; what matters is to acknowledged that the notion and belief in spirit mediums was at the centre of the struggle, indeed became a driving material force of the struggle the same way that Chinese and Russian ideas of struggle augmented Zimbabwean African Nationalism as guiding ideas. And it is quite intriguing that the stress on chastity in The Sunday Mail interview coincided with Chairman Mao’s dictates as summarised and rendered in the wartime song, Nzira DzeMasoja.

Deliberately, this analysis will draw from white historiography if only to show and demonstrate that the issue of masvikiro was not just a “native” preoccupation, but a real area of interest and concern for white rulers. There was that general recognition on the part of white invading conquerors that Zimbabwe – Chivavarira in the nomenclature of Cde Murenga – was much more than a physical, geographical and political entity.

Rather, it was a deep spiritual proposition. Nor was this unique to white comers only. The Ndebeles under King Mzilikazi had reached the same conclusion, readily incorporating the country’s spiritual dimension into their overall governance. Indeed, this was the role of the Kalangas they had subdued as they moved north under pressure from the Afrikaners.

And that white historiography acknowledges this fact reinforces the need for us as Africans to come to terms with this key component of our identity, whatever our religious espousals are today. Provocatively, Cde Murenga says Zimbabweans “need to know that hondo yeZimbabwe hapana kushanda Bible; pakashanda fodya”, meaning “yaiva hondo yevadzimu”.

Interestingly, Cde George Rutanhire who left for the struggle as a Catholic Catechist today also testifies to the spiritual dimension of the Zimbabwean struggle, even giving an amazing interpretation of rebellions and patterns of dissent in both the struggle and current politics.

Equally, Cde Khumalo, himself a born-Seventh Day Adventist and a Tonga, has amazing stories and testimonies on the same matter. This is not to factor in stories from war veterans who claim survival on certain hard-to-grasp developments in battlefields. I hope I shall have an opportunity some day to recall the narrative of Cde Gabarinocheka and how a phantom woman enticed him out of the zone of battle, by baiting him by a bowel of water he badly needed after so much loss of blood from injuries he carries to this day. Interestingly, Cde Gabarinocheka is an unrepentant Marxist who believes in man being shaped by concrete material conditions!

A key contribution to white historiography was done by the then Central African Archives – now National Archives – through the sponsorship of the Oppenheimers. From that effort emerged the Oppenheimer Series, the fifth part of which focuses on the journals and letters of Robert and Mary Moffat of the London Missionary Society at a station called Lattakoo in what then became Bechuanaland, between 1820 and 1828.

Records show that the whole land was famished by hunger from a searing drought that ravaged it. For that reason, the role of rainmakers as arbiters between God and man over an inclement weather, came to the fore. The Batswanas believed in the powers of their rainmakers and turned to them for deliverance from the searing drought, much to the chagrin of missionaries like Robert Moffat who saw these rainmakers as an institution to be overcome if the Batswanas were to convert to Christianity. The greater part of Moffat’s narratives show a deadly battle against these rainmakers, forcing the missionary to lament: “. . .they (the Batswanas) will neither hear nor reason. The laws of their forefathers, however ridiculous, are to them like the laws of Medes and Persians”.

Through a relentless campaign aided by food to the drought-stricken communities, by 1823 the rainmaker is hounded out of the community. Moffat’s journal entry records undisguised joy and triumphalism: “They have dispensed with a rainmaker this season. We rejoice in this, because his services and presence must ever form a strong barrier to the spread of the Gospel. His orders were potent and promptly obeyed, while the credulity of the Buchuanas was unlimited”. Moffat would foster a strong relationship with King Mzilikazi, thereby laying a foundation for missionary work in what is now Zimbabwe. The centrality of African spirituality on African being could not have been lost on missionaries.

For Zimbabwe, 1896 is remembered as the year of resistance to colonial occupation. I have no intention of tracing events of that glorious episode, only to highlight the spiritual side of it, and from the perspective of the victorious whites. After the resistance was broken, the British South Africa Company set about compiling a report on the so-called rebellions or native disturbances.

The report which was tabled before the BSAC Board of Directors blamed the resistance on two main factors: 1) incomplete conquest of the Matabele Nation in 1893; 2) incapacity of a warlike and aristocratic race to give up their old habits, and to accept their natural place in the peaceful and industrial organisation of a settled civilised community.

The report said that both missionaries and officials agreed that the “rebellion” would not have come about “had it not been for the extraordinary influence of the M’Limo and the phenomenal combination of physical plagues, all attributed by him (M’Limo) to the advent and continued presence of the white man”.

This was a reference to a combination of the drought, the plague of locusts and the outbreak of disease of rinderpest, all of which were blamed on white presence in the country. “And so it happened, that with the locusts, the drought and the rinderpest to assist him, the M’Limo had little difficulty in working on the superstitious mind of the Matabele. ‘Until the blood of the white man be spilt,’ ran the M’Limo prophecy, ‘there will be no rain’.

Interestingly, an report by a Native Commissioner, one WE Thomas, attached to the official report as Schedule H broadly insists that M’Limo or Ngwali (Mwari), was the god of “seasons and crops”, a god of “peace and plenty”, and never a god of war in native minds. The report then reconciles these contradictions by insisting warlike indunas had taken advantage of mediums (abantwana bomlimo) of this Deity to mobilise for the war of resistance.

What needs to be stressed here is that hunting down priests of “M’Limo” became a legitimate war aim and effort, with the first goal being to capture the lead priest and turn him to the white side. Colonel R.S.S. Baden-Powell’s The Matabele Campaign, 1896, is worth quoting: “At the western end of the Matopos lived a priest of the M’Limo, and the people took their orders from him. If he now were to direct them to rise, our line of communications would be in great danger.

So we wanted him captured. The difficulty was that if a large party went there, he would have early intimation of its coming, and would decamp in good time. So a young fellow named Armstrong, the Native Commissioner of that district, and Burnham (an American scout) volunteered to go alone and capture, or, if necessary, shoot him. Today we had a telegram from Burnham giving the result of it. He had gone to Mangwe, and accompanied only by Armstrong, he had ridden over to the cave of the local priest of the M’Limo – pretended that if the M’Limo would render invulnerable to Matabele bullets he would give him a handsome reward – saw the priest begin to go through the ceremony (so there was no mistake as to his identity), and then shot him. . . The natives never rose to stop the road”. You cannot miss analogies with Cde Murenga’s narrative on how Rhodesian soldiers sought to do more or less the same, but with a result far less successful than that of Burnham.

Fast-forward to our war of liberation, particularly in the post-Chinhoyi battle and the early 1970s. The record of Rhodesia’s intelligence chief, Ken Flower looms very large and revealing. Serving Secretely: Rhodesia into Zimbabwe 1964-1981, periodises the war of liberation from the Rhodesian perspective.

The period between 1966 and 1971/2 is celebrated as one where the Rhodesians were on top of operations against guerillas. Still Ken Flower registers the discomfort in the Rhodesia intelligence community around late 1970/71 when there were tell-tale signs of a strategic rethink on the part of the leaders of the struggle. Much worse, the Portuguese were beginning to lose the war in Mozambique, raising the specter of guerilla infiltration from the long, porous eastern border with Rhodesia.

His rendition of events is worth quoting: “The lull in the war showed signs of being over in the latter half of 1971 when Intelligence reports coming from the north-eastern districts indicated a guerrilla presence in the border regions and fleeting contact was made with columns of porters passing southwards through the Mazarabani and surrounding areas. The guerrilla presence and activity were not defined clearly enough for the Security Forces to react militarily, but the consistency of the reports was such that it seemed that guerrillas were now living among the population.”

What is interesting is that Cde Murenga’s narrative coincides with Rhodesian intelligence, even though he left for Chifombo when he had barely completed fourth grade of primary education. Much more, he would only resume his studies by correspondence after the war, and I am told he went as far as “O” Level.

I doubt that he has read Ken Flower’s book. In clear evidence of belated but accurate intelligence, Ken Flower reported: “More and more frequently the words ‘Chaminuka’ and ‘Nehanda’ appeared in the reports. Initially, we identified these words as being the names given to the Zanla military zones which overlapped into Rhodesia from Mozambique. Then we realised that Zanla had moved ahead of us in the spirit world by invoking the national spirit of ‘Chaminuka’ (the greatest Shona prophet at the time of the First Chimurenga in the 1890s) and by taking into Mozambique the spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda, the ‘reincarnation’ of Nehanda (the powerful regional medium who had been executed during the First Chimurenga).

There was little one could do to counteract this development. Black guerrillas could invoke the spirits; white administrators could not. Some of us gave encouragement to young officers in the north-east who appreciated the tenacity with which the people of the area adhered to their spiritual past and who tried to get local spirit mediums ‘on side’, but these officers were given scant support from whites in the top levels of government who would not lend themselves to what they called the ‘mumbo jumbo of witchcraft’, or who failed to appreciate the significance of the simple fact that the war had now taken us into the heart of former Munhumutapa empire, the spiritual home of the Shona peoples and their allies across the border in Mozambique”.

Here, Rhodesian white historiography and oral narratives from communities in the north-east coincide so beautifully, and in ways that lend historical value to Cde Murenga’s narrative. It is noteworthy that Ken Flower then calls the period 1972 to 1976 a “no-win war”, soon to be followed by the phase of the defeat of the settler regime.

I have endeavoured to demonstrate that whites and the Rhodesians did in fact reserve a place for African spirituality in their reckoning of wars and conflict against locals. Above all, they acknowledged that this immanent spirituality of our land was historically rooted, and would quickly transform into an infrastructure of resistance and war. Yes, the Zimbabwean War of Liberation exhibits many angles for students of history, but The Sunday Mail series should go quite some way in enriching research on the struggle, including highlighting ideas and beliefs that became a material force in the struggle. Recognising this is not throwing away one’s Christian convictions; rather, it is simply recognising an often ignored phenomenon in the study of human conflicts.

Cde George Charamba wrote this article in his capacity as a researcher.

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