The Role of Nehanda in Chenjerai Hove's Bones

Rino Zhuwarara, Ph.D., Chair, Department of English, University of Zimbabwe

This material originally appeared in Rino Zhuwarara, "Men and women in a colonial context: A discourse on gender and liberation in Chenjerai Hove's 1989 Noma award-winning novel -- Bones," Zambezia: The Journal of the University of Zimbabwe 21, No. i (1994): 14-15. Published by University of Zimbabwe Publications, P.O. Box MP 203, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.

In historical terms Mbuya Nehanda is the woman who galvanized and inspired African forces to fight against the White settlers during the 1896 and 1897 uprisings. She therefore belongs to the period of primary resistance against imperialism in Africa. Just before she was executed by the settler forces for her role in the uprising, she is claimed to have said, 'My Bones shall rise again.' It is from this prophecy, which has reverberated across generations of Africans, that Hove derived the title of his novel. As a writer, Hove is indeed correct to portray the liberation war of the 1960s and 1970s as having been partly inspired by the 1896-7 uprising´┐Żmore so when the oppressed Africans came to see Nehanda as a larger-than-life figure, a living legend often cited by freedom fighters´┐Żas we see in Chinodya's Harvest of Thorns, Mutasa's Contact, Samupindi's Death Throes and Vera's Nehanda. Unfortunately, Hove does not demystify the legend in order to show how Nehanda's progressive historical consciousness can be an integral part of the peasant and worker consciousness that could inform the outlook and activities of people such as Marita and the unknown woman. Thus the workers on the farm appear a defeated lot who have to wait for the enraged but disembodied voice of Nehanda. This has the unintended effect of portraying the workers and peasants as passive, when we know from history that these were the backbone of the revolutionary struggle in Zimbabwe.

Interesting to observe is that Mbuya Nehanda's voice, with a tone which rebukes Blacks for remaining blind and passive, makes the rather predictable references to the Bones of those who died in the 1897 uprising, the swarms of locusts which descended upon the land then and the diseases which are historically associated with that period. The voice then goes on to exhort the oppressed children of the land to rid themselves of the usurpers. And all these references signal the kind of historical consciousness which, ironically, would not be beyond the scope of a worker such as Marita, if only the oral tradition, which is constantly alluded to in this novel, had been perceived as part of a viable counterculture of resistance, as indeed it was during the colonial period. The fact that Marita works on a commercial farm should not necessarily imply that she no longer belongs to that oral tradition whose historic significance is dialectically opposed to the culture of silence implicitly advocated by Manyepo and blindly supported by Chiriseri and Chisaga. In fact, such a tradition would also account for the formidable strength of endurance which Marita displays.

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Last Modified: 21 March, 2002