A visit to Zimbabwe’s cultural hub takes Kalpana Sundar back in time

I drive through wide streets lined with purple jacarandas, leafy parks, Victorian era buildings and women in bright prints with babies strapped on to their backs. The whole city has a sepia feel about it, as if it sprang out of the pages of a genteel Victorian novel. This city has always been set apart by the history and culture of its Ndebele speaking people, from the rest of this Shona tribe dominated country. I am in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city after the capital Harare. There are two key players whose names pop up with amazing regularity in the city’s history. The first is Lobengula, son of the warrior King Mzilikazi who ascended the throne and established his capital in 1872, about 14 miles from the present day city. The second is Cecil Rhodes the mining magnate and the first white man to be buried on Ndebele land, who put the town on the map and made it a transport hub. The first train arrived in Bulawayo in 1897 and early colonial settlers used the region’s immense natural wealth and mines to turn Bulawayo into a boom town.

Our local guide is playwright and director Cont (short for Continue Loving) Mhlanga who has challenged state ideologies and policies for over 25 years. His parents were married when they were very young and gave him this unique name hoping that their love would last forever! Today he runs the pioneering Amakhosi Cultural Centre where students learn to choreograph dances, write songs and scripts for plays, and design their own theatre productions. Most importantly Cont has provided the space for township youth, most of whom are unemployed, to escape the evils of vagrancy and ghetto crime and channelise their energies into pursuing arts and theatre. “Did you know that Bulawayo had electricity even before London and also the country’s first stock exchange?” asks Cont with pride. In the early 1900s it was known as the city of parties — where pubs, music and dancing were integral to the life of locals. Cont points out the Indian connection stating that many Indians settled here, mostly from Gujarat, as traders and restaurant owners and even funded the local liberation struggle.

The town is today the country’s hub of art and culture. During the Intwasa Art Festival held during spring, every year, the town explodes with craft, local music from jazz to gospel, and contemporary dance with a sharp edge of political and social comment. We explore the Makokoba Township, the oldest township (a place where black Zimbabweans were largely confined to) sprawling over 24 km. The name is derived from the sound made by the walking stick which white superintendents would tap on doors to make sure that no women were smuggled into this male dominated area.

The bustling local market has stalls spilling over with maize that’s used to brew beer, herbal remedies, slippers wrought out of old rubber tyres, musical instruments made from dried fruits, and myriad other products. Cont points out traditional Zimbabwean Vuka Vuka, a plant that enhances male potency and African healers have been dispensing it for centuries. We sip traditional beer brewed out of maize and sorghum served in huge bucket-sized mugs at the Makhumalo Beer garden sitting on benches under trees.

I go back in time at the well-documented Natural History Museum, one of the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere with more than 70,000 specimens. In the hallway is a pioneer stagecoach that invokes a delicious sense of nostalgia. I enjoy the glimpse into local culture that it offers me — geology, culture and the life of their hero Cecil Rhodes. I walk through a replica of a gold mine and a hall with mounted taxidermy exhibits ranging from nine ft. elephants to small shrews as well as an exotic collection of butterflies. History whispers from every corner of the town — the clock tower in the City Hall has a carved panel which shows the white men lording over the natives. The electric green office building of Cecil Rhodes still has iron railings outside, where horses used to be tethered. It harks back to the times when the town was a dusty outpost of the British Empire and the roads were decreed to be laid wide enough for a wagon and 16 horses to do a U-turn.

Art seems to permeate the soul of every local. I meet metal artist Israel, who uses scrap metal to create stunning figures of women with loads on their heads, men on bicycles, and birds, fish and animals. I see talented potters at work at the Mzilikazi Arts and Craft centre run by the City Council, painting exquisite scenes on white clay, firing and glazing them into beautiful finished products. The National Art Gallery is housed in a classic 100-year-old Edwardian building called Douslin House with a rich history. The building has been used as an office, quarters for men who fought in the Boer wars and even occupied by writer Rudyard Kipling for some time. I look in awe at the moulded cornices, pillars and a pressed metal ceiling with polished banisters of Burma teak and walnut as well as cast iron posts imported from Glasgow. The gallery houses contemporary art and sculptures as well as metal work in small, intimate rooms. What I really enjoy are the small studios built around a small courtyard that houses upcoming artists, who display their art as well as interact with us talking about their life’s journey. Just opposite the Art Gallery is the dimly lit Exchange Bar, the oldest licensed bar in the country. It has polished wooden panels and RAF memorabilia with men drinking, sitting on bar stools. “Long ago people used to trade in the stock exchange on the first floor and spend their earnings having a drink downstairs,” quips Cont. From boom town to culture city, Bulawayo has indeed come a long way.

Keywords: ZimbabweBulawayo