HomeAnalysisJune 1: Commemorating the history, culture of Bulawayo

June 1: Commemorating the history, culture of Bulawayo

Taisa Tshuma
JUNE 1 is Bulawayo Day and the rest of the month is generally dedicated to commemorating the colourful history and vibrant culture of the city by those who call it home.

The city of Bulawayo is located in southwest Zimbabwe and is the second oldest and second largest urban settlement in the country after Masvingo and Harare respectively.

This is the metropolitan centre of three provinces stretching from Beitbridge on the Limpopo River in the south, all the way to Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in the north.

Bulawayo is a fairly cosmopolitan city with an international airport with flights connecting mainly to Harare and Johannesburg in South Africa.

Other than being known as the “City of Kings”, the city has other slang nicknames such as “Skies”, “KoNtuthu”, “eToni”, “Blues” and “Bulliesberg”.


Bulawayo was founded by an amaNdebele group led by Gundwane Ndiweni around 1840 as the kraal of Mzilikazi, the Ndebele king and was known at first as Gib’ Xhegu. (Meaning get rid of the old man). This was apparently in reference to King Mzilikazi who had been out of contact with the group for a while and presumed dead.

On his return King Mzilikazi is said to have ordered the execution of all the coup plotters and continued his reign from just eastwards of the present-day location of Bulawayo.

Mbiko Masuku, a trusted confidant of King Mzilikazi and regiment leader fought Prince Lobengula as he did not believe that he was the legitimate heir to the throne. This was because Lobengula was born to a Swazi mother, and Masuku felt that she was of a lesser class. This is believed to be the origins of city’s name, Kobulawayo, translated to mean “the place of the one being killed/persecuted”.

Mzilikazi’s son, Lobengula went to succeeded him in the late 1860s, and changed the name from Gib’ Xhegu to Kobulawayo and ruled from Bulawayo until 1893, when the settlement was captured by British South Africa Company soldiers during the First Anglo-Matabele War. That year, the first white settlers arrived and rebuilt the town. Bulawayo attained municipality status in 1897, and city status in 1943.

Bulawayo is the traditional industrial hub of Zimbabwe producing a variety of goods from food products, building materials, furniture, textiles to electricals.

The city became the headquarters of the state-owned national railways company and houses a railroad museum with some of the best 19th century steam engine locomotives being retired here.

Many of the city’s factories have since either closed down completely or moved operations to Harare. This has made redundant infrastructure such as the rail system that was developed to complement industrial activity.

Sights and sounds

Bulawayo is a melting pot of southern Africa culture with over 15 languages from the region spoken here. The most commonly spoken are isiNdebele, tjiKalanga and English. With the highest Human Development Index in the country, at 0,649 as of 2017, the city has produced some of the brightest sons and daughters of the continent who are all over the world in various sectors.

Apart from its impressive human capital, Bulawayo is the gateway to the world renowned Matopos National Park. Situated 30 km to the south of the city, the park is home to a diversity of flora and fauna.

The most striking and unique feature of this park is a range of hills with balancing rocks and outcrops of huge, exposed granite boulders, some with a surface area about the size of a hockey pitch.

The remains of Cecil Rhodes, founder of former British colony Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe) are buried in a grave carved into the summit of Malindadzimu, (waiting on guard for God) the name of one of these granite outcrops.

Matopos National Park is rich with archaeological treasures like the over 3 000 registered rock art sites and caves scattered around the park left by the early inhabitants of the area.

The park has the densest population of leopards and pairs of breeding black eagles in the world. Recreational activities within the park include fishing, boating by the Maleme dam and campsite, hiking, horse trail riding and game viewing guided by officials from the department of National Parks and Wildlife.

Within the city limits of Bulawayo are several places of interest such as Hillside Dam, a romantic picnic area.

The National Art Gallery on Joshua Nkomo Street along which the imposing statue of the former vice president of Zimbabwe is situated. Dr Joshua Nkomo is a liberation war hero and leading nationalist affectionately referred to as Father Zimbabwe.

The Natural History Museum at the Centenary Park on the borders of the central business district to the east has a fascinating collection of artefacts and information on the rich history of the region. A lot of the artefacts were found at the 15th century settlement of Khami whose remaining stone walls, similar to those at Great Zimbabwe, can be found on the western outskirts of the city.

Bulawayo has a number of schools for early childhood education right up to advanced level of high school. Former group A schools used to be fully equipped with an array of sports infrastructure like swimming pools and gymnasia but most, if not all government run schools no longer have them in functional condition.

The National University of Science and Technology (Nust) is the flagship tertiary education institution established in 1991.

Sadly, over three decades later, parts of the main campus resemble an abandoned building site with rusty construction cranes still visible. Side by side with Nust in Killarney suburb is the Zimbabwe School of Mines opened in 1926 which churns out high calibre, hands-on technicians yearly.

Bulawayo is home to a number of health institutions including two national referral centres, Mpilo and United Bulawayo Hospitals also known as Bulawayo Central Hospital. There is also Ingutsheni Psychiatric Hospital with a capacity of 700 beds making it the biggest such facility in the country. In Hillside suburb is the city’s largest private hospital, the Catholic-Church run Mater Dei Hospital.

The most popular sports brand in the city is Highlanders, involved in several sporting codes. The best known is the football club whose home ground is the Barbourfields Stadium.

This is also the name of the sprawling high density township where the city council-owned stadium is located.

The suburb was named after a former mayor, HR Barbour, who during his colonial era tenure was greatly interested in the welfare of the indigenous people.

The city is home to the Khumalo hockey stadium built as one of the venues for the 1995 All Africa Games. The only decent track and field facility is White City Stadium on Hyde Park Road in the high-density suburbs. The stadium is better known for hosting large political rallies.

There are several other sports clubs with facilities for tennis, squash, golf and cricket in the eastern suburbs of the city.

Hartsfield, which once hosted the world-famous Springboks is now a pale shadow of its former glory. Virtually abandoned the rugby field is overgrown with wild grass and bushes due to years of neglect.

The economy of Bulawayo has declined remarkably over the years with assertions of deliberate marginalisation, tribalism and political leveraging by the central government in Harare.

Many industries closed down partly due to the economic collapse and dysfunction that has plagued Zimbabwe as a whole for over two decades. The city is estimated to have lost over half its projected population from 1992 to date. Bulawayo citizens largely relocated to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa and as far as Australia and the United Kingdom.

Bulawayo is a well-planned city with wide streets, designed to accommodate trains of horse drawn carts which were the early mode of transport in the city. Entertainment centres and restaurants for a diverse palate, much like its residents, are many.

Bulawayo has many royal upheavals, some told through oral history, from treason accusations and subsequent executions to the wife of Lobengula, Queen Lozikeyi taking charge of the kingdom after he fled northwards from his enemies.

Lozikeyi Dlodlo played an important role in the Anglo-Matabele war of 1896. She was in charge of the King’s army.

Together with her twin brother, Muntuwani, she ensured that the army had enough ammunition ahead of the war by using the weaponry her husband did not use in the first Anglo-Matabele war of 1893.

This is part of the reason why Bulawayo has endearingly been dubbed the “City of Kings and Queens”.

  •  Tshuma is an entrepreneur and social commentator from Bulawayo. A former retail banking professional. —  Twitter @TaisaPT

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