Remembering Bulawayo: After the Deluge

down in the southern end of Africa
Zimbabwe, long suffered under poor leadership.

For decades there’s been no really good news coming out of Zimbabwe – what the “old Africa hands” perhaps doomed to bad luck by always calling “the former Rhodesia.” Now, according to GB’s The Independent (Aug 2, 2018)  “… Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief installed after Robert Mugabe’s removal in a coup in November, won Zimbabwe’s presidential election after a poll marred by the deaths of six people in an army crackdown on opposition protests.” Obviously that sounds pretty bleak, but not bleak enough for this battered little nation. It goes on.

. . .  for decades there’s been no really good news coming out of Zimbabwe – what the “old Africa hands” perhaps doomed to bad luck by always calling “the former Rhodesia.” . . . 

 

“After two days of claims and counterclaims, the 75-year-old incumbent secured a comfortable victory, polling 2.46 million votes against 2.15 million for 40-year-old opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. Earlier in the week, soldiers beat and shot at opposition protesters after Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Mr Chamisa claimed he had won the ‘popular vote’ and accused Zanu-PF, the ruling party, of fraud. …” For those of us driven to distraction by the daily abuses, frauds, legal, lies, gaffs, political charades, scandals, sexcapades, and suggestions of tax evasions– it’s almost a relief to be exposed to a nation whose situation is so much worse – so very, very, much worse – than our own. My partner and I would routinely visit Zimbabwe decades ago as it first slid into its torturous adventure – now a new leader has been installed.

. . .  for those of us driven to distraction by the daily abuses, frauds, legal, lies, gaffs, political charades, scandals, sexcapades, and suggestions of tax evasions– it’s almost a relief to be exposed to a nation whose situation is so much worse – so very, very, much worse – than our own . . .

 

For years, Zimbabwe’s Bulawayo was railhead for the area. Its wonderfully wide streets were a legacy of a “transport” past, when huge 18-foot spoke-wheeled wagons ponderously carted four or five tons of material behind lumbering Cape oxen. Almost a hundred years ago, adventurer Stanley Portal Hyatt was writing in his The Old Transport Roadthat a “good point about Bulawayo is that the streets are so wide that you can turn a full span of bullocks in most of them.” Unfortunately, he went on to say that “beyond this, is has no merits whatsoever.” He’d find ready argument from many visitors before the collapse of the nation’s economy.

THE NATION WAS ONCE A THRIVING TOURIST DESTINATION

In the afterglow of the 1994 Centennial celebration of the rails having reached Bulawayo on November 4, 1897, precious few visitors consider the radius of an ox wagon outspan an important practical feature. Rather, they found the gentle tone, the charm and sophistication, and the slow pace of the community more than merit enough.

flag
zimbabwe flag

The rail station itself had been all spruced up–its doorjambs, panelled doors, and window casements gleaming in cream and brown, two values of grey, and white enamel paint.  The brickwork was turned bright with fresh varnish. As Rupert Brookes suggested, “… a little bit of England.”

Back in the area’s chequered past, Cecil Rhodes directed former British South Africa Company Pioneer Column trooper John Fletcher to survey and lay out the renewed settlement in 1893. It replaced Chief Lobengula’s Gubalawayo, which had been destroyed.  The great megalomaniac himself now moulders not far away. When young and earnest Margery Perham visited in 1929, she took a “long day’s motoring expedition in cold wind and driving rain” to visit the Matopos hills and to gaze out from Rhodes’ view of the world, very near where he is interred (and only yards from notorious Dr. Jameson of the fateful raid – that’s a story that Hollywood could make into a film!)

Back in the area’s chequered past, Cecil Rhodes directed former British South Africa Company Pioneer Column trooper John Fletcher to survey and lay out the renewed settlement in 1893 . . .

 

“I turned,” the woman who lived a career as Oxford Don and penned a dozen learned books writes, “to look at the elaborate Shangani memorial which Rhodes insisted on having there though it screams aloud in incongruity. It is dedicated to the troops cut off and killed in the Matabele rising and has simply the inscription, which was carved into a tree over their first burial-place on the battlefield, ‘To Brave men.’ Many Matabele were killed. They were brave too. I wonder,” she reflected “when their descendants will set up a memorial.”

blooms
Lusty canopies of bougainvillea clustered through Bulawayo

Back in Bulawayo, the wide streets and airy boulevards of transport days haven’t much changed, but Hyatt’s description of barrenness is no longer accurate. Trees were common until many were felled for fuel; streets lined with the beautiful Bauhinias, Jacaranda, and Royal Poincianas. In season, late September through October and into November, the town once exploded in lavender as thickets of the flute-shaped, light purple Jacaranda blooming the city, both aloft and underfoot, with colourful doughnuts of violet under each tree.

Victorian order brought a grid system to the bush so that contemporary Bulawayo was as easy to navigate, as it was charming. The small city offered travellers a great deal itself, in addition to being a “hub” for travel to rural settings and safari lodges. It was also a superb jumping off place for Victoria Falls; the lovely steam-powered Safari Trainwas based out of Bulawayo.

Bicycling reduced the scale of the town without isolating one from the bustle of community.  It was easy, for example, to coast over to eyeball any of the roadside markets. At least one area attraction, the Mzilikazi Art and Craft Centre, was a bit much as a walk yet ideal on a bike.  The Khami ruins, about 20 km outside of town, probably calls for a commercial tour operator or rental car, as do Rhodes’ burial site, World Viewin the Matopos Hills,and other outlying points of interest.

Visitors who found themselves in the area en route to Harare or Victoria Falls–invariably called “Vic-Falls”–would have done well to pause and enjoy Bulawayo’s particular charms. The town was not a fast paced urban show place like Harare nor a globally famous and improbable natural phenomena like the Falls even before the economic bottom fell out. Instead, Bulawayo offered a change of tempo, and a range of cultural attractions designed to calmly delight. After years of neglect, one hardly knows what these wide streets may look like now.

Vic falls
Victoria Falls, from the Zimbabwe side.

A stroll down George Silundikas, from the high numbered avenues, especially in the October-November bloom season would have been recommended. The street is ranked with wonderful old colonial facades, redolent of Dutch influence, with curled gable ends and jutting carbi steps. Many of these older structures once housed tour organisations, lodge offices, and quaint businesses of related stripe. One wonders what’s to be found there now.

The city’s National Gallery, once so well situated in a rehabbed commercial building reflecting late-Victorian, emerging Edwardian design. How does it fare? Its wide wood-frame gallery, fittingly, made the Gallery obvious over the sidewalk. Inside, in addition to the art and craft objects, the building was full of the graceful woodwork and the wonderfully complicated windows (top panels opening via long, cord-operated worm gears) of another day. Strollers would glance down to see the heavy cast clamshell floor-doors filled with small glass bricks designed to transmit the roof’s skylight to the floor below.  Just above it, a heavy back-strapped beam with block-n-tackle purchase point might remind visitors of the building’s mercantile roots. After years of turmoil, is the gallery still open?

Inside, in addition to the art and craft objects, the building was full of the graceful woodwork and the wonderfully complicated windows (top panels opening via long, cord-operated worm gears) of another day . . . 

 

In any event, all that culture consumption could be hard work. Fortunately back then one could stop in the tasteful tea garden, bordered along one side with a stacked row of single rooms, reminiscent of New Orleans’s French Quarter. Individual artists and crafts people rented these spaces, sometimes for private studios, often to create and sell from the same site. Visitors wandered along the banquette and admired the work. Of especial interest was the vivid textiles created with slurry or “resist” of flour paste and a palette of colourfast silkscreen dyes. We bought and still enjoy a large, decorative wall hanging – a village scene with elephants on the side.

markets
Once vivid road-side craft markets lost vitality as tourism tapered off.

Crafts folk worked away, laying out designs, slip trailing the resist slurry into place and squeegeeing on the thick, shiny dye with its heady aroma–windows had to be thrown wide open, allowing air and encouraging people to chat or walk into the studios. After the resist and the dye, craftspeople scraped off the flour ridges, and either sewed the cloth into tunics, baggy trousers, waistcoats, and such garb or presented it as wall hangings.  Most items hewed to a consciously African design theme, but some were remarkably individual or abstract.

Crafts vendors showed wares all around the well-maintained City Gardens nearby. The sidewalks were liberal with flocks of skinny, yard-long giraffes, rows of bulbous carved wood hippos big as five-gallon buckets, and ranks of all manner of soap stone bibelot and bauble. Alongside the kitsch were subtle earrings and bangles (some very simply planished from thick copper wire, others fashioned from elephant hair or faux ivory) and stacks of elegant, timeless baskets in regional motifs.

The Natural History Museum presented a stunning variety of fauna and flora, though some might have been put off by the rows and rows of bird cadavers and the sheer amount of material on view.  Bulawayo’s NHM harked to the halcyon days pre-tv, when sound bite was an undreamt of concept

Down a handful of streets and along Thirteenth Avenue (again toward those eerie “Streets of Gotham” concave cooling towers) was the Railroad Museum, at the timea real value, though a site for “true believers,” much as the NHM was, and reflected the hard work of motivated volunteers. Climbed, clambered upon, and gambolled over at your own risk, but it was possible to climb indeed into cab after cab of antiquated, saturated, and super-heated steam rigs,

tains
The Rail Museum, Bulawayo

superannuated diesel-electrics, and even onto a hand-cranked car. It was impressive to see the changes from the almost cute brute force of the smaller steam units into the remorseless, unfathomable power of the towering diesel engines, hulking like tugboats on wheels.  Happily, the site also included examples of rail cars, such as Rhodes’ private one–which ultimately carried him from the Cape to his grave–and several species of diners.

COLONIAL IMPACT AND EXOTIC AFRICA ON EXHIBIT

It was easy, everywhere, to catch the impact the English, with their nautical past, had on railroads as the primary developer of that once new technology. Thus, we still speak of “booking passage,” of the umbilical being a “shore line,” and of the track bed being a “right of way.” One display, an ancient lorry which was part coach and part goods wagon served to remind us that so-called “over landing” is not such a new idea after all.

Bulawayo was, back then, a thriving city.  It was well supplied with coffee shops, restaurants, pastry, and bread shops, as well as with stores, cinemas, and such and as was generally the case everywhere in Africa, the people we met were kind and accommodating – people there as everywhere were proud of place and wanted visitors to have a positive experience. But the shops increasingly were under stocked, we viewed crowded marching in the street, and we could hear the burning smoke from petrol filled bottles and piled tires. Things were in fast decay.

Zimbabwe, southern africa
Here is Zimbabwe, positioned in Africa and relatively speaking, on the globe.

 

 

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