Stonework

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs


A bit of luck and a wise suggestion, took me on an adventure.

Submitted: November 14, 2017

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Submitted: November 14, 2017

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It was by no means the plan, but through some foible that was totally out of my control, we found ourselves in the south of Zimbabwe, encamped in a small, fragile hut beside the Bulawayo Botanical Gardens. Sometimes, for no accountable reason, good fortune falls into your lap, and she smiled on us when we were given the use of a car for a day. Our original plan was to catch the train to Victoria Falls, so we delayed the trip to take advantage of our opportunity.  We were keen to visit Motobo National Park, but the word was that you had to go there with a guide, so we planned that trip for another day.

Most mornings around daybreak, I like to head off for a walk or exploration and as I crossed the large expanse of lawn within the botanic gardens, I spotted a lone woman on her knees. Curiosity took me over to her and I found she was hand weeding in the grass. The weeds were sparse and she was paid a pittance at a per-twenty-litre-bucket piece rate. After she happily showed me which weeds to pluck, I worked with her for perhaps half an hour, during which time we chatted. She advised me to take the time to visit Great Zimbabwe.  

I had never heard of Great Zimbabwe, so she informed me that after independence, the name Rhodesia was dropped, and the country was named after the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. She promised me that we would be surprised and added that the early explorers kept the place secret because they didn’t believe the local Shona had the ability to build such complex structures. The woman also told me that she had been a university lecturer but with the decline of the country under Mugabe, she was forced to find work wherever she could.

She had a low opinion of the British and how they were unable to fathom that an African nation was capable of building Great Zimbabwe, yet they accepted that the Egyptians had built the Pyramids. Egypt is as much Africa as Zimbabwe! I offered her a day’s work to be our guide, but she refused, saying that if she left her job, someone would take her place permanently, but she gave me directions, saying there were no signposts. She said we should pass through the town of Masvingo on the way.

The journey took almost four hours, but it wasn’t high on the arduous scale, just slow. The Zimbabwe landscape was dry, the road was dusty, the savanna yellow and glary, with heatwaves confusing my vision. Copses of Commiphora trees were cloaked in brown, brittle foliage with just the merest hint of green and the Acacias were almost bare, preparing new buds for the rainy season. The fire danger must have been extreme, a disaster in waiting! True enough, there was no signage, but the woman’s directions were accurate, her description had given me an excellent mental map.

She was also correct that Great Zimbabwe would surprise us! Great Zimbabwe is an Iron Age city built of stone and covering a huge area. Even from a distance it has an immense presence! The odd thing was that other than a group of young Indian men, we were the only people there in what I supposed was a world heritage site. The woman had told me that the stonework commenced in the eleventh century and the city began its decline sometime during the fifteenth century.

I’m used to estimating land area from my forestry days, and I guesstimated the area to be around fifteen hundred acres. The wonder for me was, how were the granite stone blocks cut, where did they all come from and what size labour force worked there? The stonework was still in very good condition, we negotiated the stairways and alleys easily. Some of walls were twenty feet high and in places the stonework married into the natural rock formation – fine work. The Great Enclosure is a circular wall, again about twenty feet high and as with all the stonework, there is no mortar, just precisely cut stone. The stone is so accurately cut that there are smooth curves in the walls rather than sharp angles.

An elderly man arrived carrying a few stone carvings to sell. He told us that the Great Enclosure was built to protect a queen, and that the tall tower was a vermin-proof granary. I bought a small, green, soapstone statuette from him, which is now the emblem of Zimbabwe and had been the city’s emblem when this was a thriving, vibrant community. The statuette is a dove standing regally on a stone plinth. The old fellow promised me that he carved it himself, which may have been true – or not. For a few Zim dollars, he accompanied us around the site. He was a fountain of information, but fifteen hundred acres was too much to cover in an afternoon, so we allowed him to pick and choose. He showed us where some of the buildings had collapsed, not because the construction was shoddy, but because the stone had been robbed and reused. Of course the area is protected nowadays, although I saw no guards. There were large trees growing inside the Great Enclosure, I’m not certain of the species, but they are sizable, they probably germinated since population moved out. How often have I wished that trees could talk? I spent a lot of time looking at the stunning Baobabs, because their bark was more smooth that the ones in Tanzania, but they are fine specimens and fitted into the landscape well. I supposed they also grew post-civilization.

Great Zimbabwe is a hugely important site and these days there are plenty of pictures of it available courtesy of the web. I feel privileged to have stepped foot where the ancients trod and to meet some people whose knowledge made my experience so special, and it’s important for people to know about Great Zimbabwe!


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