Bulawayo – located in Matabeleland and home to the Ndebele tribe – is a city with many stories to tell. Evidence of its rich history can be seen in the San art in the nearby Matobo Hills, the Khami Ruins dating back to the 16th century, and the more modern colonial architecture in the city itself. The very name of the city alludes to its fascinating past – it is derived from the word ‘KoBulawayo’, which means ‘place of killing’, and was so named when Lobengula, son of the Ndebele King Mzilikazi, ascended to the throne as successor to his father at the time of the formation of the city, and was met with violent opposition from a group of Ndebeles not aligned to him.
Lobengula established Bulawayo as his capital in about 1872, but at that stage it was about 20km away from present-day Bulawayo. In 1881, he moved the city to its current location. He ordered the destruction of the old settlement by fire, but the settlement has since been rebuilt and is now known as ‘old Bulawayo’ – an interesting place to visit as its layout offers a glimpse into the way of life of the Ndebele people in the 1800s.
Looking further into the past, Lobengula’s father, King Mzilikazi was a southern African king who founded the Matabele kingdom, Matabeleland. He left Zululand in 1822, and settled in modern day Zimbabwe in around the 1840s. There is a memorial site about 20km south of Bulawayo called Mhlahlandlela, which was King Mzilikazi’s capital when he settled in Matebeleland, and the place where he is buried is now accessible to interested visitors via guided tours.
Shortly after the settlement of Lobengula’s new capital, the colonial powers started to make their presence known, with gold on their minds and the money and power to attain it. Rhodes’s Chartered Company started to mine for gold in Mashonaland, north of Bulawayo. In return, Lobengula received a gunboat on the Zambezi, a salary of £100 per month and a supply of arms. Rhodes’s forces, led by Jameson, then began to move towards Bulawayo. They fought the Matabele army at the Battle of Bembesi in 1893, and after defeating the Matabele army, Jameson entered Bulawayo. Lobengula fled the city, but was followed by Jameson’s troops and, on retreat; he took a fatal dose of poison. Rhodes arrived in Bulawayo a month later. The flag of the Chartered Company (or British South Africa Company) was hoisted in Bulawayo on 4 November 1893 after the Company’s forces, led by Major Patrick Forbes, drove the native Ndebele from the town.
Remnants of this eventful past can be seen in the many old buildings, villages, national parks and cultural sites located in and around the city, which is now Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, after Harare. ‘Old Bulawayo’ – King Lobengula’s capital before moving to current day Bulawayo – was restored in the 1990s for tourism and educational purposes and is an interesting place to visit. Unfortunately in 2010, a bush fire destroyed most of the site, leaving only the Interpretive Centre unscathed. Efforts are currently underway to reconstruct the site. The Bulawayo Railway Museum sheds light on the history of railways in Zimbabwe, the oldest exhibits dating back to 1897, including Cecil Rhodes’ personal railway coach. Zimbabwe’s past and present can be explored at the Natural History Museum – where a host of cultural and natural displays reveal the diversity of Zimbabwe’s fauna, its mineral wealth and its prehistoric origins, from the dinosaur age through the Stone Age, Iron Age to the more recent colonial experience.
A glimpse into the country’s more distant past, before the time of the Ndebele, can be seen in the Matobo Hills (or Matopos), a declared World Heritage Site south of Bulawayo. Here you can view one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric rock paintings in southern Africa, the oldest of which was left by early Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies. Cecil John Rhodes’s grave is in these hills. The Khami Ruins, another of Zimbabwe’s World Heritage Sites, lies just west of Bulawayo and features a complex of stonewalled sites that are said to have been the capital of the Butua State, its leaders reigning at Khami from about 1450 until around 1644. Archaeological finds at the site include 16th century Rhineland stoneware, Ming porcelain pieces which date back to the reign of Wan-Li (1573-1691) and Portuguese imitations of 17th-century Chinese porcelain; these indicate that Khami was a major centre of trade.
For those wanting an authentic experience of modern day Bulawayo, there are township tours on offer, affording the opportunity to see ordinary Zimbabweans as they go about their lives. Tourists can be taken to the township of Makokoba, for example, and given the chance to meet and interact with the locals, who are well known for their warm, welcoming nature.