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Christian objections to Mbuya Nehanda statue towering over Harare

By Dave C. Chikosi

The government has mooted a plan to build a giant statue for Zimbabwe’s war of liberation icon commonly known as Mbuya Nehanda (c. 1840–1898).

Bishop Dave Chikosi
Bishop Dave Chikosi

It is important to clarify right at the outset that the real name of this personage who led the resistance to colonial rule in that first Chimurenga (or Uprising) was Mbuya Charwe.

Charwe was a medium for the spirit of one Nehanda Nyakasikana, the daughter of Nyatsimba Mutota, the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Mutapa.

The heroics of Charwe or Nehanda became a major source of inspiration for freedom fighters in the liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s.

Most Christians have no problem with the veneration of heroes of the War of Independence. Most would have no problem with erection of statues of regular revolutionaries like Chitepo, Nkomo, Masuku, Parirenyatwa, Tongogara, Takawira, Tangwena etc.

However, Mbuya Charwe (Nehanda) was no regular cadre. She was also a spirit medium and therein lies the problem for most Christians. Spirit mediums are supposedly the spokespersons for dead ancestors.

During periods of manifestation, the spirit medium takes on the voice and personality of the deceased person whose spirit animates them. In Charwe’s case it is said that she would receive messages from the dead Nehanda Nyakasikana and relay them to her people, replete with Nehanda Nyakasikana’s voice and personality, not her own.

We often hear Christians give this phenomenon a misnomer: they call it ancestral worship, even though there is zero evidence that Africans ever worshipped their ancestors. Africans worshipped Mwari (God) and venerated dead ancestors. There is a big difference between worship and veneration.

An artist’s impression of a memorial statue for Zimbabwe’s First Chimurenga heroine Mbuya Nehanda to be erected at the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way in Harare.
An artist’s impression of a memorial statue for Zimbabwe’s First Chimurenga heroine Mbuya Nehanda to be erected at the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way in Harare.

However, it is the role of dead ancestors in African cosmology that is problematic for Christians. Biblical Christianity rejects the mediatorial role assigned to ancestors by ATR (African Traditional Religion). Christians insist that “there is one God and only one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

Dead ancestors have very little, if anything, to do with the living. Indeed, Christians often and humorously state that unlike certain African political parties with several vice presidents, Jesus in His office as Mediator has no assistant!

Christians are convinced that God will forgive or overlook the traditional worship and beliefs of our pre-Christian ancestors whose cosmology was fashioned in innocence and lack of true knowledge. But there is no reason to continue in ignorance. Indeed “the times of ignorance God has overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

It is said that when one knows better one should do better. Therefore to maintain a religious practice that is tantamount to an usurpation of Christ’s mediatorial role is seen as a slap in the face of the Creator God who has revealed to all humanity how He wants to be worshipped. Christians find that unacceptable.

And thus it is against this spiritual backdrop that most Christians are not in favor of, or at least have reservations about, the erection of a statue of this celebrated spirit medium to tower over the City of Harare. Christians see this as an opening of the spiritual landscape over Harare to spirits that are antithetical to the Spirit of God.

It won’t end well for the beloved “kantry” which is already on its knees economically due to incompetence, corruption and mismanagement of the present government. Connecting with ancestral spirits in this way will only add more to the chaos and confusion in the eyes of most believers.

Again, let’s be clear: this is not a rejection or disrespect of the anti-colonial effort and struggle of Mbuya Charwe, who most Christians regard as a hero.

Rather it is an objection or reservation based on clear Biblical guidelines vis-à-vis our human interaction with ancestral spirits. It must be remembered that over 84% of Zimbabweans are Christian believers and so their point of view ought to count for something.

We are told to “not turn to mediums or necromancers” in Chapter 19 of Leviticus. And later in the same chapter we read: “If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.”

Christians do not want God to set His face against their nation. It would spell more disaster for broke Wakanda. Clearly the Creator is against the conjuring of spirits or any communication between the living and the dead. “Should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?” (Is 8:19).

A statue to a spirit medium smack dab right in the “middle” of the capital city is interpreted by Christians as the promotion of a religious practice that Yahweh abhors and expressly forbids. Unfortunately for Mbuya Charwe, her valiant anti-colonialism efforts are credited, not to her own chutzpah as an individual being, but to the spirit that animated her.

The narrative by many local historians is that it was the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda that was central in winning the war of liberation. While that may be the dominant narrative, but it is not the only narrative. There are hundreds of Christian young men and women who disappeared from schools to go join the struggle. They are older now but you won’t hear them attribute the success of the war effort to a ancestral spirits. They give God the glory for victory.

Are there other ways to honor the valiant war efforts of Nehanda without affronting the spiritual sensibilities of 84% of the population? Of course there are.

I am surprised that politicians, who are always scrounging arounds for votes in the next election, would be so brazen as to moot a project that potentially alienates such a huge constituency.

Someone once noted that “knowledge is flour, but wisdom is bread.” It just seems like there are some who have the flour but lack bread. Lots of it. Selah.