It was meant to unite a nation, but instead it is dividing it yet deeper along political and religious lines. A bronze 3.5 metre-high statue of Mbuya Nehanda, who played a key role in Zimbabwe’s fight for independence from colonial rule, has stirred up controversy because of the way it depicts her.
Mbuya Nehanda, or Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, was a spirit medium who helped to lead the country’s 1896 rebellion (known as the First Chimurenga) against white settlers. The rebellion was crushed and Nehanda and other rebel leaders were arrested and hanged.
Only one photo of Nehanda, taken shortly before her execution, survives. It shows an elderly woman standing next to Sekuru Kaguvi, another spirit medium who was hanged.
That grainy photograph is the image of Nehanda that Zimbabweans have grown up with, and may be why there has been public criticism of a new statue created by sculptor David Mutasa that is due to be erected in central Harare.
‘No iota of similarity’
The statue shows a much younger woman.
“It’s a mockery because it does not have an iota of similarity to Nehanda,” historian and government critic Takavafira Zhou said.
Nehanda’s renown as an intermediary with the spirit world is another factor that may be offending some Zimbabweans who hold firmly to Christian beliefs, analysts say.
Back in July, when government plans for the statue emerged, businessman and Christian leader Shingi Munyeza, who is also a member of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s advisory council, said the statue was meant to appease the dead at the expense of the living.
“It will destroy & kill in order to appease the dead,” he tweeted at the time over a photograph of patients sleeping on the floor of one of the country’s state hospitals. “How do you build a statue whilst shutting down hospitals?” he asked.
The statue is due to be put up at the intersection of Samora Machel Avenue and Julius Nyerere Way.
Sections of these two busy roads have been closed. Workmen in hard helmets are on site, and steel girders have been stacked, ready to be installed to hold the statue high enough to allow lorries and buses to drive beneath it.
It is an expensive project at a time when there is growing hunger and economic hardships.
“Why waste money like this in a nation where millions are food insecure and maternal mortality remains a scourge?” MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere said last week. She said the money spent on the statue could have been better spent on increasing funding to the Harare maternity hospital that bears Mbuya Nehanda’s name.
Critics accuse Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party and government of co-opting Nehanda’s legacy for political gain.
Last week ZANU-PF spokesman Patrick Chinamasa even drew parallels between Mnangagwa and Nehanda, saying the social media criticism incurred by the president were the “modern-day equivalent of a public beheading and lynching.”
Mnangagwa, who visited the construction site last week, said it was the duty of independence war veterans like himself to “document our history and where we came from” for the sake of “the young generation”.
“We should depart after making sure that we have recorded our history,” he said in comments carried by the state-run Herald.
But Zhou, the historian, said the statue was not something the majority of Zimbabweans needed now. Inflation is currently running at more than 400 percent, and the UN’s World Food Programme said earlier this year that more than eight million Zimbabweans would need food aid this month.
“Zimbabweans need to fight against corruption; Zimbabweans need to improve the economy; Zimbabweans need an improvement in their livelihoods,” he said.
“That money used to create the statue could have been used in a more meaningful manner to uplift the plight of suffering Zimbabweans.”
This is not the first time a statue has stirred controversy.
In 2016 a statue of the late Robert Mugabe made by prominent sculptor Dominic Benhura depicted the former leader as a long, thin, rectangular figure holding up a fist and in apparent danger of toppling over.
Many saw it as a caricature of the president who, ironically, was removed from power in a military takeover 14 months later.