Skulls: Zimbabwe’s emotive issue

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By Cyril Zenda

Recently government apparatchiks queued up to join President Robert Mugabe in angrily accusing the country’s former colonial master, Britain, of continuing to display in its museums some skulls believed to belong to Mbuya Chahwe, the medium of the Nehanda spirit, Sekuru Gumboreshumba, the medium of Kaguvi or Murenga, Chingaira Makoni, Chinengundu Mashayamombe, Mapondera, Mashonganyika and Mutekedza Chiwashira among some of the country’s heroes of the 1890s First Chimurenga, whose heads were reportedly hacked off and taken to London as trophies by the victorious settler colonial forces.

"Using the same social media, Zimbabweans demanded to know since when have the skulls become such an important issue to President Mugabe’s government, raised as it is being done 35 years after the country won its independence from Britain"-Cyril Zenda

“Using the same social media, Zimbabweans demanded to know since when have the skulls become such an important issue to President Mugabe’s government, raised as it is being done 35 years after the country won its independence from Britain”-Cyril Zenda

In his address during this year’s Heroes’ day commemorations, President Mugabe, for the first time, raised the issue of these skulls, his memory possibly jolted by the recent alleged illegal killing—in the Hwange National Park—of an old lion called Cecil, by an American tourist who took the carcass to his country as a trophy.

“The First Chimurenga leaders, whose heads were decapitated by the colonial occupying force, were then dispatched to England, to signify British victory over, and subjugation of, the local population,” President Mugabe said. “Surely, keeping decapitated heads as war trophies, in this day and age, in a National History Museum, must rank among the highest forms of racist moral decadence, sadism and human insensitivity.”

His remarks were immediately followed with equally indignant comments by his followers, with War Veterans minister Christopher Mutsvangwa being quoted in The Herald as saying among other things: “It is a throwback which shows that barbarism and depravity run in the DNA of British imperialists. The same people who decapitated our forefathers in the First Chimurenga were the same people who massacred blacks in Nyadzonia freedom camps and many others. Now they want to masquerade and pontificate as saints.”

Higher and Tertiary Education minister, Jonathan Moyo, appeared to have added kerosene to a raging flame when he put his foot in the mouth by jocularly remarking via the social media platform Twitter, that the issue of the country’s economy would have to wait until after the return of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi’s skulls. It turned out to be a sick joke as ordinary Zimbabweans who are bearing the full brunt of a collapsing economy started seeing the issue of the skulls as another ploy by an embattled government to set up an Aunt Sally to divert attention from its glaring failures.

Using the same social media, Zimbabweans demanded to know since when have the skulls become such an important issue to President Mugabe’s government, raised as it is being done 35 years after the country won its independence from Britain.

Reading through the late national hero Edgar Tekere’s memoirs, A Lifetime of Struggle, one comes across the following passages: “While in Maputo, I gave the report of the (Chimoio) massacre to Robert Mugabe. Two-thirds of our dead were women. He said to me, “You know what, I am beginning to wonder whether this is worthwhile, with all those people dying.” But I replied that we must go on to the end. His remark aroused in me a mixture of anger and disgust.

“After reporting to Mugabe I had the difficult task of informing Simon Muzenda about the death of one of his daughters, Teresa. He did not take it badly. The matter of how we were going to report to the parents of all those who had died was a real problem. We eventually agreed that within the first three months of gaining our independence we must summon all the chiefs and give them the full report, which they would have to carry to their villages. We considered it fitting that the chiefs should do this, as they were the representatives of the ancestral spirits, particularly those like Nehanda and Chaminuka, who had fought the first Chimurenga.

But after independence was finally won, we did not do as we had resolved. Instead of restoring the chiefs’ honour, lost during white rule, we began ill-treating them. This was wrong. As Secretary General it was my responsibility to organise this, and we decided to hold a gathering of chiefs at Chishawasha, at a ceremony that would take three days and three nights. I went and informed Mugabe when all preparations had been made, so that he could plan to be free at that time. He responded with, “I am the minister of Defence. I am the Commander of the armed forces, and I am busy with the integration of the army!”

“I told him I had consulted with all the ZANLA and ZIPRA commanders from the war days, to which he retorted, “There is no such thing as a ZANLA or ZIPRA commander, it’s not your responsibility to deal with them!” This made me so angry that I was ready to spit in his face, and I called him ugly names, finishing with, “If that’s the way you’re going to be, you’ll need lots of luck!” At which I stormed out of his office, banging the door.

Since independence many people have asked me why there was no cleansing ceremony after the war, and many of the ills which subsequently fell upon Zimbabwe have been attributed to this fact. Even the Mozambican people asked why we hadn’t held a ceremony in Chimoio. Well, this is how it happened. Mugabe decided that no cleansing was necessary in HIS Zimbabwe.”

There is no record of the now important skulls ever being put on the table during the Lancaster House talks—where Ian Smith’s cornered settler regime sued for peace—which raises serious questions about whether the Zimbabwean nationalists ever considered it one of the most serious issues, that it has so suddenly become.

Until 1999, President Mugabe used to frequently London, both on official and on private business, but there are no records that he ever raised this skulls issue with Number 10 Downing Street, raising questions on whether official claims that London has been inconsiderate are not a simple case of sour grapes.

“Until 1999, Mugabe made three or four private visits to London each year and, famously, was a regular guest at Claridges and devotee of Harrods,” wrote British journalist David Blair in his 2001 book Degrees in Violence.

Apart from these private visits, Prime Minister-later-turned-President Mugabe’s official visits to Britain appeared more concerned with picking his 300 million pound annual economic package, which—according the now declassified files of former British Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher—was negotiated by Rhodesia’s last British governor, Lord Christopher Soames, in order to keep the then new Marxist government in Salisbury from gravitating towards Moscow. He also frequented London to pick up one honorary degree after another from leading British universities, in addition to travelling to accept an honorary knighthood from the Queen.

In his book, Tekere said although he was to be officially sacked from the government in 1981 for disowning Prime Minister Mugabe policy of reconciliation during an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, which policy he said the Prime Minister had not consulted the ruling party members on, he said he had effectively “dismissed himself” when he angrily threw files at Prime Minister Mugabe and walked out of a heated Cabinet meeting where Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo appeared to be agreeable to a motion that soldiers from the former ZANLA and ZIPRA who were involved in deadly skirmishes at assembly points near Bulawayo’s Entumbane suburb be summarily executed.

Claimed Tekere in his book that after his dismissal from the government and the subsequent abolishment of his powerful Secretary General’s post, he made spirited efforts to negotiate with British authorities for the release of the skull of his great, great grandfather, Chingaira Makoni. The attempts were unavailing as the British simply ignored Tekere, who was now a piddling nobody on the Zimbabwean political landscape.

With a leadership that is seemingly so steeped in baroque superstition, it might not be surprising at all that in 2007, a primary school drop-out, Nomatter Mavhunga, who claimed to be a spirit medium managed to take a whole Cabinet of highly educated ministers on a garden path with her temptatious claims that rocks at Maninga Hills outside Chinhoyi could magically yield pure diesel.

In their book, The Struggle for Zimbabwe, writers David Martin and Phyllis Johnson say after a woman believed to be the host of the spirit of the legendary Mbuya Nehanda was forcibly taken from her home in the Mazowe area to guide the freedom fighters in Mozambique, where she was neglected by the fighters so badly that one morning in 1973—upon noticing large green flies swamping the little mud hut she hardly ventured out in the war camp of Chifombo—it was discovered that the old woman had died several days before without anyone ever noticing it. So much about Zimbabwean political leaders and their advertised respect for their heroes, ancestors and spirit mediums!

Cyril Zenda is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist, newspaper columnist and writer based in Harare.This article is reproduced with his kind permission from He can be contacted by e-mail on: