On May 28, 2019, I was driving on the highway, taking my wife and children to the airport when my phone pinged. My wife read the message and gasped, and then told me that my grandfather, Claude Mandichamira Nyanhongo, joined the ancestral realm. I had to pull off the highway because I couldn’t see through my tears.
He was my grandfather, my mother’s father, and one of Zimbabwe’s few first-generation modern stone sculptors. He raised me. It has felt impossible to write this. I actually wrote this right after his death, but I could not finish it until now. I’ve spent two years sculpting and thinking about my grandfather’s legacy, and his personal impact on me.
At my grandfather’s funeral, we celebrated his life and his legacy we enjoy today, and what we hope to pass on to future generations.
Today is the day our family goes through traditional ceremonies, although this should have happened a year ago, but was delayed due to the pandemic.
His father died when my grandfather was just a baby, before my grandfather was even walking.
When my grandfather was growing up, his mother told him that his father was mhizha—a wood sculptor responsible for making wooden cooking sticks, hoes, axes, and other utilitarian items. My grandfather began to teach himself these skills as a child, and became a mhizha as well.
He was a product of the Anglican missionary schools. The schools used the young men to “civilize” their own people, encouraging them to become teachers who would spread the Christian beliefs in their own villages. This has always struck me as odd because I knew my grandfather as someone who deeply embraced our traditional beliefs and culture in favor of the wave of Christianity that was growing in popularity during my childhood.
My grandfather had several jobs while it was Rhodesia: postmaster, teacher, veterinarian, and supermarket manager.
While my grandfather was a teacher, he met my grandmother, who was his student. This might sound a bit strange, but at that time there was no standard age for students, so teachers and students could easily be around the same age.
At some point, my grandfather decided to join veterinary services. I always knew him as someone who had a strong connection and affinity with animals, so his choice has never been surprising to me. I have memories of being harshly corrected when I let cows wander while I played with my uncles, instead of paying attention to their need for water. He rejected the use of cowbells because he thought it was cruel, and asked if we would like to have a bell ringing in our ears all day long.
Around this time, when he was in his early 20s, there was a market for curios (also known as “folk art”) among the colonial settlers, so that they could go and re-sell them in South Africa and elsewhere. My grandfather had been maintaining his practice as a mhizha, so these skills were easily transferrable to stone.
Through his job in veterinary services, he had met Joram Mariga, someone who would later become known as the father of Zimbabwean stone sculpture. My grandfather and Mariga, who had by then connected with Frank McEwen–a British curator/art critic who the Rhodesian government hired to become the first director of the National Gallery of Rhodesia–became known as the Nyanga Group. Mkarobga, Nyagwande, Manyandure, and Gwichiri were also a part of the Nyanga Group, which was named after the area where they were working.
With encouragement from Frank McEwen, these artists shifted their style to a contemporary style, as a way to bring something new to art patrons in Europe.
Even though they had made connections at the National Gallery of Rhodesia, the war had reached a point where life in the reserves (like “reservations” in the U.S.) was a struggle for survival. Everything else—his work as a vet and as a sculptor–came to a halt. Terror was gripping our villages. They became the battle grounds for the Rhodesian forces and the liberation army.
I grew up noticing that my grandfather never wanted to be in the spotlight, compared to his peers. I believed he thought it was more important to focus on teaching his art and life lessons, but I recently found out that he never received the same recognition as his peers because he chose to remain in the village during the war so that he could protect his family. Other artists relocated to the city, where they escaped the war and built their sculpting careers.
During this time, someone reported that my grandfather was a spy for the Rhodesians; it was believed that many teachers were spies because they worked for the government. Because of this, the liberation army beat my grandfather almost to death. His life was spared at the last moment because one of the soldiers in the liberation army recognized him. He spent a certain amount of time outside of the central part of our home, which is what was done when people were near death. (I’m still researching the deeper reasoning behind this.) My grandmothers nursed him back to health using traditional plant medicine.
After Zimbabwe gained independence, my grandfather became a full-time stone sculptor and moved his studio to one of Harare’s dormitory towns. He was extremely dedicated to his work as an artist. I remember him using public transportation to haul his half-finished sculptures and raw stones from the village to his studio in the city. He would quarry raw stone from the mountains, put them in sacks and push them on wheelbarrows to the bus stop. This all happened days before the actual day he would travel because transportation was scarce. The one bus that served our remote our area, came through our village at 3 am—not exactly the time you want to be pushing wheelbarrows through narrow pathways. New bus operators would always be surprised to see my grandfather’s unusual load, but they quickly knew what to expect from our bus stop. I heard about stares he received from people, who had no idea why someone would haul stone. This was only the beginning. (The journey hauling stone deserves its own blog post.)
My grandfather focused his efforts on passing his legacy, not in the monetary sense, but by teaching his craft and life lessons. Some of the lessons are as old as the mountains. When I struggled with a sculpture, he would say “give it time; it will reveal itself.” This approach always works.
Thank you for reading, and for sharing this very vulnerable reflection on my grandfather’s impact and the value of his life.