Zimbabwe: Chief Hwata the Unsung Hero

24 August 2020

A lot has been written about Mbuya Nehanda. VaCharwe, my great, great aunt, has been in Zimbabweans' consciousness since the First Chimurenga in fall of the 19th century. More recently the discussion has been about the possible return of her remains and those of other heroes of that first struggle against European invaders back to the mother land from the United Kingdom and there is even a suggestion that a statue is to be erected in her honour.

What has been conspicuous by its absence -- which in my view is unfortunate -- is any reference to Chief Hwata. An appreciation of his relationship with the spirit medium is crucial in helping us see the wood for the trees and thereby deciding how to navigate the complexities of the African customs and traditions which in my view have to be respected.

Back in 1898 when she, Sekuru Kaguvi and other leaders were captured by the colonial regime and were facing death, Mbuya Nehanda became the ultimate Zimbabwean. I am referring to how she remained true to the values of a free and independent Zimbabwe's way of life and worship by refusing to be baptised just before her death.

We know from Mhozhe Chikowero's fascinating book that Rhodes deployed missionaries as mercenaries of empire.

In African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe, he reports Rhodes as saying in 1898, the year of Mbuya Nehanda Nyakasikana's death, "This class (missionaries), I think, is better than policemen and cheaper."

Missionaries had become paid agents of colonial expansion and contributed to the destruction of African family life through their attacks on traditional institutions. It is why Rhodes gave large tracks of land, like Epworth, to Methodists and other Christians.

And one of his missionary agents tried to baptise Mbuya Nehanda explaining to her such baptism would transform her from being a benighted heathen into someone worthy of the bright lights of heaven.

She nevertheless defiantly refused on the grounds that Africans had hitherto had their own way of reaching out to the Creator; why on earth would she adopt a foreign religion?

She was well aware that the foreigners were about to execute her. "But", she went on defiantly: "mapfupa angu achamuka."

The colonial regime was on a mission to take over the country by hook or by crook and the Church was complicit in this rapacious campaign. What better way to demonstrate the totality of their conquest than to wipe out the entire leadership of the resistance movement as well as desecrate sacred and religious sites as American mercenary, Frederick Burnham, did in shooting spirit mediums in Malindadzimu!

What is less well known, though, is that when Nehanda Nyakasikana was executed, so was Chief Hwata of Gomba, Mazowe. Why? Well, it was not beyond muzungu's wit and comprehension that the spirit medium derived her power from the chief.

For a start, the chief looked after the Mhondoro. The chief was also the repository and guardian of all the norms and customs of the land. And he was one of the leaders of resistance. He too had to die.

His death was essential to establish total dominion. The loss of the chief and svikiro would disorientate the leaderless people. To have them adopt a new religion would be the icing on the cake. To decouple the link between the people and deity would reinforce their sense of being. It ensured Zimbabweans lost their sense of identity by giving them a new authority to pay allegiance to.

Indeed, at national level, Rhodes's burial at Matombo in 1902, his stated wish, symbolised the unity of church and state in colonial politics. And what a challenge for us black Zimbabweans!

As Chikowero puts it: "To settlers, the internment installed him as "the spirit" of the land, triumphing over the African guardians on the hills. Settler desecration of Africans' graves and veneration of their own was a part of the design of spiritual disarmament."

For the people of Gomba, Mazowe, the death of their chief and spirit medium at the hands of the colonial regime was not the only tragedy they faced. They also had to contend with the fact that their area would have no African chief ever, not as long as colonial authorities remained in power.

The racist colonial administration decided Mazowe was too good to be under the jurisdiction of an African Chief. Gomba would now be a white man's area and the Hwata chieftainship would be relocated. And in their perfidious way the colonials took no care in who they relocated even though they purported this was the Hwata chieftainship.

I would argue that the restoration of Chief Hwata of Gomba -- the descendant of the Chief Hwata executed in 1898 -- is the most glaring omissions since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. This should have been prioritised, first because of the symbolism of the act of restoration of Chief Hwata as a sign of a break with the colonial era. But there is another reason.

Today the return of the remains of the war heroes and heroines of the First Chimurenga is a common topic for discussion. However, newspaper articles I read on this subject leave me with the impression that what is important is for the Zimbabwe Repatriation Committee headed by Chief Makoni to fly to London along with Dr Mahachi and collect the remains.

In addition if the press and social media were to be believed, a statue of Mbuya Nehanda is about to be erected in her honour. All this is laudable but it misses one important ingredient.

The installation of Chief Hwata is the necessary starting point and here is why. Shouldn't we take our cue from Mbuya Nehanda who behaved so impeccably as our spiritual leader, remaining loyal to the African tradition to the very end? Don't we owe her the respect and the honour she deserves by observing proper protocols and procedures? If so, Chief Hwata is key to this.

For instance, the colonials almost failed to execute Mbuya Nehanda because of the special powers she possessed. The gallows failed to open to set her tumbling to her death after several attempts. It turns out it was only after the authorities were tipped off by another of the Hwata family that the hangman succeeded.

So Mbuya Nehanda was betrayed by one of her own. That Mhofu family is of course known and when things go wrong they need to be put right. Only Chief Hwata can put things right. Chief Hwata needs to be installed so he can begin to bring the family together well before statues can be erected.

I must counsel full transparency. Bring all the Hwata families together and let them work things out. I have every confidence that transparency, not sweeping things under the carpet, is what Mbuya Nehanda and Chief Hwata would like to see right now. There is a family tree showing all the Hwatas since the beginning of the 19th century right up to 1898 so there is nothing to hide.

And when Chief Hwata of Gomba is installed, he will hit the ground running. He has his job cut out. There are many matters to put right, many protocols to observe.

Only he has the responsibility and authority to do so. Only he can deal with these things before any monuments for his Great Great Aunt can be erected.

True, these are national issues, but Chief Hwata will need to resolve these matters. Chief Hwata will also lead in the honouring of the Spirit Medium; will have to lead the erection of the statue. But first he will be part of the delegation flying to the United Kingdom to receive the remains of our war heroes and heroines. You see, the bones are of the Spirit and require the Chief to receive them.

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