61. A place of Slaughter

By Peter Fraenkel

Bulawayo? Rather a dull place, really. And it did not live up to the name which meant “Place of Slaughter” That had been a boast, I think, referring to some gruesome battle in the days when the Ndebele overran this part of Africa. Whites dubbed them Matabele, but whites never seemed able to learn African names.

Bulawayo was the second city the country then called Southern Rhodesia: not much of a town: a few dull streets of shops,  surrounded by a grid of bungalows occupied by white families and then, further out, long rows of identical one-room sheds, tin-roofed, that housed large numbers of African men. Women were not encouraged.

In the centre stood a handsome modern town hall.  Our school was marched there once a year for the parade for Rhodes and Founders Day.

My school, Milton Senior, was up the hill on the outskirts. Many a night, lying in our dormitory I listened to a strange repetitive pounding. I had heard it for months before I ever asked. “What is that noise?” The boy in the next bed replied. “Gold mine.”

I did not believe him. I had once visited a mine in South Africa. It was thousands of feet deep and vast. He insisted. He would prove it was a mine – next weekend. And he did.  Beyond our schools’ rugby fields he and I crossed some scrubland and there was a white man, sitting on a bucket, smoking a pipe while watching half-a-dozen black labourers.  They were digging into the side of a little hill. This was, he told me, ‘a small holding’. In a nearby stream they washed the dug-up soil to find small grains of gleaming gold.

“Do they get rich?” I asked. “Rarely,” he explained. “It’s hope that keeps them going. I had an uncle who mined here all his life but he died poor.”

The only interesting thing in the entire area were the Khami ruins. Surprisingly, it took some time before anyone even mentioned them. “Mysterious ruins only a few miles outside. “Probably Persian … nobody really knows. Next time we go, we’ll take you.”

There were all sort of theories about the origin of these stone structures …Phoenician, Arab, Persian, Portuguese?  Some even attributed them to the Queen of Sheba. One thing all these white settlers were certain about – they could not have been built by the local blacks … much too sophisticated for these primitives. Africans build rondavels – mud-and-stick round huts with thatched rooves, not temples and fortifications in dry stone.

However later carbon dating techniques showed, without a shadow of doubt, that the Shona, a local Bantu people, had built them, between the 11th and 15th century – both this Khami complex outside Bulawayo as well as the much larger complex of Great Zimbabwe further South East .

I too found it puzzling: Why had stone structures, far more enduring than mud and stick, been abandoned and been replaced by more primitive structures? That remains difficult to understand. But perhaps the repeated waves of invaders from the South, pillaging and burning, made it advisable to replace the older structures by disposable villages.

What further puzzles me is that our teachers never spoke about these structures, nor ever took us to see them even though at least one or two of them were questing and intelligent people. But our teachers were apparently lost without text books to consult. None existed at the time.