A brave questioning of Zimbabwean history by Panashe Chigumadzi

Panashe Chigumadzi

In the pages of ‘These Bones Will Rise Again,’ (Indigo Press, 2018) Zimbabwean-South African writer, Panashe Chigumadzi, gives faces, emotion, colour and texture to a history often filled with the grandiose acts of men who, in leading Zimbabwe’s war of liberation, believed they owned it and the country they won back by it.

In juxtaposing her grandmother’s life with the events that were taking place in Zimbabwe as the now late matriarch came of age, fell in love, started a family and found ways to show her strength in a system that it seemed was designed to celebrate only the achievements of men, Chigumadzi asks pertinent questions about who else we have forgotten in the story of Zimbabwe.

Below is a review I wrote for Zimbo Jam:

In ‘These Bones Will Rise Again,’ Panashe Chigumadzi talks about spirit mediums and spiritual manifestations without qualifiers or excuses. She states them, not as things that may exist, not as myth or lore, but as one who is convinced that they are.  This is a truly courageous book; a young Zimbabwean, raised in South Africa, on a part of the continent where Christianity is the de-facto religion and where traditional religion is looked down upon as backward, somehow manages to put that lens aside and see things through different eyes.

When you speak of spirituality in Zimbabwe today, you are generally taken to be referring to the sort affiliated to Christianity. All other ‘spirituality’ and the religions through which it is expressed is viewed by many in the country through the lenses of our colonial understanding of access to the supernatural. For generations now, we have judged any form of spirituality by how it aligns with the teachings of Christianity and those who resist conversion are viewed with suspicion. Any access to the supernatural that is not as dictated by the missionaries who came to Zimbabwe after 1890, is seen, at least in the circles of educated young professionals, as being dark and evil. Any who still practise it, often do not want their friends to know.

So when a young South African-Zimbabwean, who has grown up in this sort of environment, breaks out of this box and goes on a pilgrimage of discovery, interrogating spirit mediums and their relevance to the struggle in Zimbabwe without dissecting their beliefs using a Western scalpel, the obvious question is where does the courage to do so come from?

Chigumadzi tells us about her journey to piece together the life story of her paternal grandmother, Mbuya Lillian Chigumadzi. She weaves her own family history into the story of Zimbabwe in an attempt to make sense of it all.

In juxtaposing her grandmother’s life with the events that were taking place in Zimbabwe as the now late matriarch came of age, fell in love, started a family and found ways to show her strength in a system that it seemed was designed to celebrate only the achievements of men, Chigumadzi asks pertinent questions about who else we have forgotten in the story of Zimbabwe and sheds light on the anomaly that is Mbuya Nehanda, a female figure who not only led the First War of Liberation (First Chimurenga) but also, in another manifestation, is said to have provided guidance for the Second Liberation War.

The book is short, 131 pages, but it is significant in how it brings us as Zimbabwean people face to face with issues that continue to be a challenge for us as a nation.

The tug of war between the modern and the past

The theme of the modern and the past recurs throughout the book. Chigumadzi, early in the book, reminds us of Ayi Kwei Armah’s assertion that Africans “are not a people of yesterday.” She says the desire to prove this was what inspired early Ndebele and Shona novels ‘Umvukela waMaNdebele’ and ‘Feso’ by Ndabaningi Sithole and Solomon Mutsvairo respectively. But even as we wrote to prove our relevance in current times we reached into the past, with Mutsvairo calling upon the spirit of Nehanda to come and save her people.

Meanwhile, the colonisers were painting locals as backward and undeserving of the land they lived upon. “Far from being the bewildered tribesmen in white men’s towns that the colonial authorities saw them as, Africans were staging a complex, and often contradictory, negotiation of chinyakare and chimanjemanje, the old and the new, tradition and modernity, appropriating what worked for them and discarding what didn’t.

Progress, it seems, is a constant negotiation between the old and the new and sometimes violence comes into play. Chigumadzi gives the example of how in 1962, ninety-year-old First Chimurenga veteran Sekuru Nyamasoka Chinamhora met with ZAPU president, Joshua Nkomo, and presented him and his colleagues with ritual weapons. Chinamhora instructed them to fight to the bitter end for freedom. “In this way,” surmises Chigumadzi, “time would be decolonized, the conflict between chinyakare and chimanjemanje resolved, with the return of Africans to the soil, and in turn, the soil to Africans.

But looking at how things have turned out, it didn’t quite work that way. It seems we can never fully reclaim the past and there is no real way of resolving this conflict between the old and the new. So we dip into the past when it suits us and use it to push our current agendas.

We are given the example of ZANU-PF and how it plays with this idea of old and new in its messaging about relevance and patriotism. “Obscuring ZANU’s own genesis as an urban movement, the ruling party appropriated old colonial ideas to create a new post-independence politics of time and space, presenting their rural support base as ‘authentic’ traditional people who had known Chimurenga, and the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change’s urban support base as ‘inauthentic’ sell-outs and Western puppets who did not understand or experience the Chimurenga.”

Chigumadzi goes on to talk about how the opposition made a mistake by not paying enough attention to the past; “If ZANU-PF made the politics of now inappropriate, the opposition insisted on the present to the exclusion of the past. Where ZANU-PF’s revolutionary closed fist kept an iron grip on the Chimurenga legacy, MDC’s post-revolutionary open palm let it slip through its fingers.” She cites the late opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirayi’s error in not initially acknowledging the importance of war veterans.

During the liberation war of the 1970s, Nehanda is said to have been carried by a woman named Mazviona, living in Dande Valley, just over 200km north-west of Harare. Chigumadzi travelled to Dande and remarks, “If Harare, with its long history of colonial interaction, represents the modernity of chimanjemanje, Dande, which has survived much of the colonial ordeal because of its inhospitable climate and terrain, represents the tradition of chinyakare. Time and not mileage is the real distance between the two.”

The name ‘Zimbabwe’ itself is from the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, which in its time was obviously relatively more significant and successful than its modern-day namesake. The real distance between the two, I think, is the stories that have been told about them and those that have been silenced and what they have made us believe about ourselves and about what is really important and what isn’t.

History is constantly re-written

In line with the theme of old and new is the way history is used to serve political agendas, no matter who is in power. Going back to Great Zimbabwe, Chigumadzi writes; “In this battle for time and history, the ancient civilization of Great Zimbabwe built out of the landscape’s granite stones was a thorn in the side of the Rhodesian settlers, who defended their right of conquest on the grounds that the very same native tribesmen whose ancestors had built the city had only recently come down from out of the trees.”

Even in the fictitious stories we tell ourselves, we reinforce these self-serving histories. “Within that realm, Wilbur Smith, that great chronicler of the White Man’s Burden in Africa, was arguably at his finest in his 1972 novel, ‘The Sunbird.’ In it, Smith narrates the allegory of Great Zimbabwe as his protagonists, South African archeologists, ‘discover’ an abandoned ancient city named Opet, which they believed to have been founded by ‘fair-skinned, golden-haired warriors from across the sea, who mined the gold, enslaved the indigenous tribes and flourished for hundreds of years.’”

Chigumadzi goes on to explain that “time and history were colonised so that they acquired a new racial dimension.” The settlers twisted the stories of the land so that it made it seem justifiable to conquer it.

But, it does not end there, when ZANU (PF) won the war of liberation, it went on to do the same, twist history so that it made it seem that they alone were the heroes of the liberation struggle story and as a result they deserved absolute dominion over the land and its people.

We are asked to consider who Zimbabwe’s independence really belongs to. “In the new history of Zimbabwe, it is not only the Shona who are singular in their contribution to the Chimurenga, it is men.” The version of history as told by ZANU (PF) diminishes or extinguishes the contribution of other tribes, of women and of other people who were not in the party.

“If Zimbabwean politics is a game of time and space and its manipulations, different powers find the moments most suitable to their agendas, freeze them, and insist on them to the exclusion of all other time. History, in our political game, is no longer a series of recurring waves carrying us all within them as our ancestors intended, but a straightforward line of progress for the few.”

Chigumadzi concedes that in seeking the truth she needs to do her own rewriting of history; “ In search of those answers, I must lower my eyes from the heights of Big Men who have created a history that does not know little people, let alone little women, except as cannon fodder.”

If we are to find the forgotten heroes, past and present, we need to change the way we look at history.

The significance of the spiritual

Chigumadzi hints early on in the book at her belief in the power of the spiritual when she talks about her grandmother surviving a stroke. “That is how she survived twenty-two years after a stroke. That is not the work of the body. That is the work of the spirit.”

Throughout the book, she alludes to the significance of the spiritual. She talks about how as Mbuya Nehanda and her ally, Sekuru Kaguvi, were awaiting their execution in 1898, the settlers mocked the Africans, “Where is the spirit now?”

She then goes on to explain: “In a spiritual tradition that believes the ancestors live on, watching over the living, the belief in vadzimu holds that ancestral spirits can choose to return, in times of family or national crisis, through living mediums. Nehanda, a royal ancestral spirit, is one who has come back again and again, answering the needs of the children of the soil, the descendants she watches over.”

During her visit to Dande, Chigumadzi alludes to the spiritual again when she says, “Even if it is the first time you have visited, you do not go to Dande, you return to it.” Your spirit has been there before.

In her research, Chigumadzi finds out different stories about the origins of Nehanda. “What all of the numerous varying origin stories agree is that Mbuya Nehanda is a founding ancestor spirit, an owner and custodian of the land who has possessed various spirit mediums over many centuries.”

In other words, “Nehanda is not dead. She cannot die.”

At the same time she explains that you cannot just claim to be possessed by a spirit. “The more powerful a spirit, the more likely it is to possess several mediums at the same time. What is important is that the spirit mediums are recognized by other established mediums.” Then she lists some of the characteristics that a medium should have to be a ‘vessel fitting for the ancestral spirit it will carry,’ and in so doing makes the argument that the claim, in 2017, by former First Lady, Grace Mugabe, that she was ‘representing Nehanda’ was an act of blasphemy.

To go back to my original point about how Chigumadzi is looking at all this through a lens that sits somewhere separate from colonial frames of reference, this is the first time in my life I have heard that word used to refer to someone transgressing against traditional Zimbabwean religion. Every other time I’ve heard ‘blasphemy,’ it has been used in a Christian or Islamic framework.

Chigumadzi also reminds us that in spiritual affairs, strength and importance has no relation to gender. “A medium’s physical identity is so inconsequential that at one spirit possession ceremony I attended the group of three female mediums were all referred to as ‘Sekuru (grandfather)’ because they were host to male spirits. The gender did not matter because the medium is, after all, merely a bodily vessel submitting to the will of the spirit that has chosen them.”

This is pertinent when you consider how she talks about how women are among the forgotten in the Zimbabwean story and how they are used as scapegoats when things go wrong.

Women as scapegoats

“It is not white employment of native males that works the mischief, but the abandonment of the native tribal home by the women and children.” The second Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, once declared. Chigumadzi juxtaposes this with events that showed that while women don’t get credit in Zimbabwe’s history, they often got the blame when things went wrong – and still do.

She takes us back to 1956 when Dorothy Masuka released the song ‘Nolishwa’; “The Nolishwa’s and other modern women were often portrayed as prostitutes, known for their corrupting influence on African men and African society because they refused their place in time.”

This has carried on into the modern day. “As ZANU-PF rebrands itself by sweeping all that went wrong into a Grace Mugabe-sized hole, this narrative of an errant step-mother is one often repeated in the homes of friends and relatives that I visit… The old man was stubborn, but the wife is the one who had done wrong, she was the one who was too much.”

The importance of protest

Protest is the minimum price that has to be paid in order to overcome the guard rails that hold us back. The type of protest is another issue. Chigumadzi constantly refers to protests that paved the way in whatever way for Zimbabwe’s independence and for the progress of women and Africans in pre-independence Zimbabwe. She talks about the Railway Workers’ Strike of 1948, The 1948 general strike, the 1934 beerhall boycotts, the 1962 disturbances, the Nationalist attacks on the Rhodesian government in 1966 and 1967 and, most notably, the most legendary of Zimbabwean protests, Nehanda’s stand against colonialism.

We see protest in these actions but also in the music of the time. There was the obvious protest of revolutionary songs, but even in songs like Masuka’s ‘Nolishwa’, protest was an underlying theme. Chigumadzi explains how the song spoke about a beautiful girl called Nolishwa who wore trousers in a time were Zimbabwean women did not commonly do so. “In the song, concerned townsfolk report the surprising behaviour of Nolishwa whom they have seen just yesterday – with another man, wearing trousers! To their shock, Nolishwa’s man replies that he loves her just as she is.”

Masuka was in her own way, protesting the way rules applied differently to women. It is that struggle of the old and the new, intertwined with so many other struggles, once again. Is is that struggle of one part of society to try and diminish the progress and significance of another and it plays out across race, tribe and gender.

At the other end of this protest pole, you had Mugabe in 1976 saying, “Our votes shall go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer – its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”

Reconnecting to Nehanda

So if Nehanda cannot die and comes back to help Zimbabwe in its times of need, the big question is where is she now when the country has been going through two decades of unprecedented economic turmoil? Has she abandoned her children?

The title of the book is after all, ‘These Bones Will Rise Again,’ the words that the most famous manifestation of Nehanda uttered before her execution in 1898.

When will Nehanda’s bones rise?

Chigumadzi comes to the conclusion that cleansing is needed in order for this to happen. “Asked about the fate of our nation and her people, several spirit mediums I have spoken to tell of the need for rural ceremonies to cleanse the land and the people of the Chimurenga’s bloodshed and trauma.

“Is our fixation with Nehanda’s death a cathartic confrontation of our colonial trauma? Or is it an acceptance of violence as being always necessary in our making and remaking? Perhaps we continue to rehearse Nehanda’s execution because we have not found the way to resolve the traumas of our violent past and present?”

Then later, she says; “Our constant return to the image of Mbuya Nehanda’s imminent execution is a sign that our nation is haunted by the spirits of all those whose blood has been shed in the series of violent clashes that continue to make and remake Zimbabwe.”

I think this an inaccurate conclusion. We fixate on Nehanda’s death because we only know of that one picture taken before she died. We know nothing about her childhood, her adulthood, her work, her family. We have nothing else to fixate on except that singular moment. The thing that has filtered into common knowledge is that one moment. We know she led the First Chimurenga and then she was executed. That is why we fixate on that moment. The problem, at least in this case, is not that we are haunted by spirits but that we are plagued by our lack of documentation of the lives of people who are not ‘Big Men,’ even today.

So we may or may not need cleansing, as a nation, but we definitely need large doses of the sort of interrogation of our history and politics that Chigumdzi displays in this book.

These Bones Will Rise Again is a must-read for anyone interested in questioning the narrative we have been fed about Zimbabwe’s past. Chigumadzi gives faces, emotion, colour and texture to a history often filled with the grandiose acts of men who, in leading the revolution, believed they owned it and the country they won back by it.


These Bones Will Rise Again by Panashe Chigumadzi
Historical Memoir
Indigo Press, 2018

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments