A screenshot of a mural by Leeroy Spinx Brittain in Bulawayo

A screenshot of the mural painted by Leeroy Spinx Brittain in Bulawayo.

How a Mural in Bulawayo Has Revived a Bitter Tribal Debate

A mural depicting Ndebele leader King Lobengula hugging Shona spiritual medium Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana by Bulawayo-based visual artist, Leeroy Spinx Brittain, has reignited a chasm between the Ndebele and the Shona in Zimbabwe.

Visual artist Leeroy Spinx Brittain, popularly known as Bow (black or white), placed his latest work on the wall of a public toilet in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. The life-sized poster showed King Lobengula intimately holding Mbuya Nehanda with his left hand, while the right hand, which usually holds his spear, was holding a heart balloon.

“When I did this mural, I was trying to spark a dialogue between people. I have realized that you cannot progress without talking,” Bow tells OkayAfrica. “A lot of politicians have tried it diplomatically but it always ends badly, as people feel offended.” More than dialogue, the piece sparked a furor from those who saw it. To understand the uproar it caused is to understand the long-held animosity between the tribes depicted in Bow’s piece.

Lobengula, who was born in 1845 and presumed dead in 1894, was the second King of the Ndebele people, historically called the Matabele in English. He led revolts by the Ndebele in 1893 against the white colonialists. Nehanda, a powerful and respected ancestral spirit, also led revolts, in 1896 – in what became known as the First Chimurenga, or War of Independence, against the British South Africa Company's colonization of Zimbabwe led by Cecil John Rhodes in 1889. Nehanda died in 1898 by hanging, after she was charged for murdering a white person.

The mural titled ‘Unconditional Love’ had an inscription Love is greater than Shona and Ndebele, Africans unite written on it. A few days later, the painting had been erased by the City of Bulawayo authorities. Bow did not have permission from them to paste up the poster art. But the words were left behind, and, overnight, someone added their own inscription, saying: Gukurahundi - We will never forget, dripping in red paint, a symbol of blood of the slain.

A screenshot of an art piece that's been written over its original form. A screenshot of the inscription that was written over the original street art piece.

A Shona word meaning the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains, Gukurahundi is the term used to refer to the 1980s genocide in Matabeleland and Midlands Provinces, which resulted in the death of more than 20,000 Ndebele and Shona people. The majority were Ndebele. The atrocities were committed by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, an elite force of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces.

This was after the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), then led by Robert Mugabe of the Shona, accused their revolutionary counterpart, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), then led by Joshua Nkomo of the Ndebele, for plotting a war after independence from the British white colonialists in 1980.

The mural sparked debates both online and offline, with some Ndebele feeling that Lobengula, their King, was being disrespected.

In the years following the massacre, people have not been speaking freely about Gukurahundi. Usually, discussions on ethnicity in Zimbabwe are not welcome, as they are seen by many as fueling tribalism. However, upon Nkomo’s death in 1999, Mugabe described Gukurahundi as a “moment of madness”.

The government has apologised for the atrocities committed during Gukurahundi but critics say it has not shown a commitment to fully accounting for the victims and survivors. Over the past decades, state security has been cracking down on people who speak about Gukurahundi.

Several plaques which have been erected in Matabelelend Provinces in honour of the Gukurahundi genocide victims have been vandalized by suspected state security agents.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Nehanda became an inspiration in the liberation struggle against the white colonialists. President Emmerson Mnangagwa erected a statue of Nehanda, which was designed by a Zimbabwean sculptor David Guy Mutasa, last year, to honor the Shona spirit medium. The Ndelebele took this as a slight – the Shona tribe is allowed to honor their heroes but the Ndebele cannot honor their families and relatives who were murdered during the Gukurahundi genocide.

Today, the mural adds to the already existing tensions. Mqondisi Moyo, a president of the Mthwakazi Republic party, says it undermines the moral values of King Lobengula. “The mural depicting an affectionate relationship between King Lobhengula and Mbuya Nehanda is an insult to the late great king of Ndebele Kingdom and his family,” he tells OkayAfrica.

“The reason why there have been bitter debates centering on the mural is the persisting ethnic tensions in Zimbabwe, specifically between the Ndebele and Shona. Mthwakazi (Ndebele) people perceive the mural as a ploy by the Shona to cover up for their atrocities against the Ndebele by portraying a scenario of good relations which have never existed,” he says.

Moyo says the Shona people should genuinely address Gukurahundi atrocities which they committed against the Ndebele. “The mural, therefore, is merely a mockery of Mthwakazi (Ndebele) people. We will continue pressing for justice,” he says.

Mbuso Fuzwayo, secretary of a Bulawayo-based advocacy group Ibhetshu Likazulu tells OkayAfrica that a king cannot be equated a spirit medium.” He says it’s an incorrect narrative that the Shona killed the Ndebele during Gukurahundi as it was the government who was responsible for the massacres. “By not acknowledging Gukurahundi, the government has made people look at it in a blanket manner – to put everyone who speaks Shona as the perpetrator. That is not true. The perpetrator is the government,” says Fuzwayo.

He believes, nonetheless, after the Gukurahundi genocide, the Shona people had more socio-economic and political opportunities than the Ndebele.

In the meantime, Bow vows to do more poster art and murals that call for unity between the Shona and the Ndebele in Bulawayo: “I have got some stuff that I am going to draw on this theme of uniting the Ndebele and the Shona. I want something big that can be on the walls of a big story building.”