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Bulawayo at 120

Bulawayo at 120

Bulawayo at 120

BY ROB BURRETT - Independent Heritage Consultant and Associate Researcher, Natural History Museum.

Although there are earlier dates that apply to the evolution of Bulawayo as Zimbabwe’s second largest and, some would argue, best city, it was on 1 June 1894 that modern Bulawayo was declared open as a settlement. 2014 sees the 120th anniversary of that date and the City of Bulawayo has promoted a variety of events to mark the occasion.

As an aside it is important to understand the meaning of the name. What Bulawayo DOES NOT mean is ‘the place of slaughter’. It is more correctly transcribed as ‘place of who is persecuted and rejected’. This refers to King Lobengula Khumalo’s personal suffering during the civil conflict that accompanied his ascent to the throne.

In November 1893 British forces had occupied the pre-colonial town of koBulawayo or eMahlabathini. It had been destroyed by fire on the orders of Lobengula after he fled northward to avoid the invaders.

The first white settler town, Grasstown, was established nearby in what is now the suburb of Sauerstown and the Athlone Cemetery. It was a temporary settlement of scattered structures built from branches, grass, clay and whatever else the occupant was lucky enough to procure. All recognized this as an interim site.

On the instructions of the financier Cecil John Rhodes and the Administrator Leander Starr Jameson, a new town was surveyed several miles to the south on the banks of the Matsheumhlope River. Like most colonial towns, Bulawayo was built on a north-south and east-west axis, the so-called iron-grid network first used by Imperial Rome.

Urban myth has it that the surveyor, Trooper Patrick Fletcher, not having proper equipment, used barbed wire for the survey chains, traditional Ndebele spears as pegs and biscuit tin paper for drawing paper. Fletcher had many arguments with Jameson who wished the individual blocks to be a quarter mile wide. It was only after he had walked the likely distance around such a block that the breathless Jameson finally relented to the current layout.

The first plots were sold on 24 March 1894 but the town was only officially opened three months later. It was an informal occasion. Jameson walked out of the then partially completed Maxim Hotel on Fife Street to address the waiting crowd: “It is my job to declare the town open. Gentlemen, I don’t think we want to waste any talk on it. I make the declaration now. There is plenty of whiskey and soda inside so come in.”

At first the colonial town was spelt Buluwayo. This was only changed by public notice on 4 March 1896 and accounts for the name of the city’s oldest extant company – The Buluwayo Board of Executors. From that time our town – and, later, city after it was granted this status in 1943 - has continued to grow.

An exhibition has been compiled at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe to celebrate the founding of the city’. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the unique round building that houses this ever-popular museum.

Comprising photographs and artifacts, the exhibition covers many aspects of the City of Bulawayo – the growth of its suburbs, the provision of amenities, its culture, sport and spirituality. In addition, a short, profusely illustrated commemorative brochure goes with it – Bulawayo at 120. The exhibition will run until December 2014.

On 1 June 2014 a special steam train took over 300 special passengers to and from Figtree. Steaming back into Bulawayo Station, the official commemorations were launched. A procession to City Hall saw bands, vintage cars and many well-wishers celebrating our joint heritage as one city.

Other successful events have been a City Cleanup Campaign, a Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving, and various schools’ competitions. Still to come is a special exhibition at the National Gallery. Our youth has been called upon to use those cellphones to capture images of the city and its people. The best 120 images will be displayed to the public. This is due to open in July.

While some may see such events as misplaced at a time of political and economic challenges, the City Fathers wouldn’t agree. Yes there were many wrongs in the colonial period, but history cannot be changed. We must learn from it and go forward. As the mayor has put it in the foreword to the Bulawayo at 120: “Men and women who were filled with a spirit of adventure and the will to succeed laid the foundations of progress, but progress does not come automatically, it is brought about by continuous foresight and effort. So it is with the success of the City of Kings. Our motto, ‘Siye Pambili’ underlies our determined policy of successful growth.”

The official motto that appears on the coat of arms Si Ye Pambili, while not strictly correct in isiNdebele, is generally translated to mean ‘we go forward’ - appropriate as ever to this proud city of ours.

More from this issue:
ZT17 (June 2014) - Main Menu
ZT17 (June 2014) - Full Content Listing

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