By Sophie Squire
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Nyakasikana — the woman who took on empire

Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana was a spiritual leader and fighter against British colonialism
Issue 2795
Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana with fellow fighters and white guards

Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana (centre, front) was hanged in 1898 by British forces

“My bones will rise again” were the last words of Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, the spiritual leader and fighter against British colonialism in what is now known as Zimbabwe.

When Nyakasikana was born in Chishawasha District in 1840, she was already ­considered a leader.  The Shona people of ­southern Africa believed she was the female incarnation of the oracle spirit Nyamhika Nehanda. This position gave Nyakasikana incredible power and influence. She put it to good use as colonial forces set their sights on invading and exploiting her homeland and people. 

British imperialist ­adventurer Cecil Rhodes led the charge to colonise the land that makes up much of modem day Zimbabwe and Zambia. This even meant giving the newly formed state his name—Rhodesia. Together with the British army, the British South Africa Company spread terror, murdering and raping across the country to try to crush any resistance they found. 

Millions of Africans fled their homes, and others were forced into labour camps to work in mines and factories. Racist rules barred Africans from owning land, and ­hundreds of thousands of cattle were seized by settlers. In 1894 the British imposed a ten shilling “hut tax” on every home. 

But at every step, popular resistance opposed ­colonisation—and Nyakasikana often led the charge. The Ndebele people began resistance in 1896, and the Shona soon joined them. This wave of ­rebellion was known as the first Chimurenga War—the war of liberation. The war was led by three spiritual leaders, of which Nyakasikana was the only woman.

She took on the crucial role of inspiring her people to oppose the British and unite the Ndebele and the Shona together to fight their common enemy. Nyakasikana was ­instrumental in ­planning where the Shona would make their attacks, ­targeting ­infrastructure—such as mines and farms—that were ­economically significant to the British. 

Even the British admitted that them Shona’s strategies were particularly effective. An official report of the war noted, “So cleverly was their secret kept, and so well laid the plans of the ­witchdoctors, that when the time came, the rising was almost simultaneous.” 

Nyakasikana herself was considered such a threat that the British commissioner for Salisbury, now Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, wrote that she was, “constantly spoken of in my hearing ever since I came to Mashonaland in 1890”.  “At the present moment she is the most powerful wizard in the Mashonaland and has the power of ordering all the people who rose lately, and her orders would in every case be obeyed.” 

In a bid to put down the rebellion the British used “scorched earth tactics,” ­burning crops and villages and throwing dynamite into caves where villagers sheltered. But despite the brutal tactics, it took months for the British to put down the ­rebellion. Colonels were even forced to call for reinforcements. It took even longer to ­capture Nyakasikana. 

After months on the run she was caught and accused by the British of the murder of the commissioner of her district, Henry Polland. A short, sham trial ­condemned Nyakasikana to death. Defiant until the end, she resisted the executioner, screaming out that she should be sent back to her people, but was ultimately hung in 1898. 

Her defiance in the face of brutal colonialism left a ­lasting legacy. Fighters against colonial rule across Africa, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, looked to Nyakasikana as a source of inspiration and strength. 

This is the third in a series of columns on radical women to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March. Go to bit.ly/RWL2022 

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