Bulawayo, Zimbabwe resonates a timeless charm, one fringed in colonial architecture, wide roads and jacaranda trees. Being the second largest city in the country, it stands proud in its heritage; evident in its art galleries, museums, local markets and its people. One may explore the city on their own – however a day tour will expose you to the hidden gems and significant locations unknown to first time travellers. A half or full day city tour is offered while staying at Shashani Matobo Hills Lodge, led by historian Rob Burrett, his passion and life’s work dedicated to Zimbabwe’s heritage and culture.
The city is the centre of the Matabeleland region, forming the western part of Zimbabwe. Originally home to Lobengula, the last King of Matabeleland, the area is steeped in local culture and history. He selected the site for his personal kraal, after taking over from his father, King Mzilikazi, in the 1860s. Matabeleland is home to the Ndebele people, descendants of the Zulu tribe of South Africa.
The art galleries and craft centres proudly display the rich Ndebele culture. The colonial styled National Gallery selects and exhibits pivotal works of local artists, bold and challenging in nature. It also aims to educate, empower and celebrate the country’s history, establishing important dialogue and dissolving barriers. There are studios within the gallery where one can witness works in the making, watching the artistic process unfold and connect with local artisans. The building itself emanates an appreciation for beauty with its warm wooden frames, laced balconies, sculpture garden and two tiered levels filled with art.
Zimbabwean people are extremely artistically talented, seeming to have an innate understanding of the creative realm. From wooden carvings to sculpture to wire work, beading, weaving, welding and painting – each piece a reflection of passion held for their country. Local craft centres within Bulawayo such as Jairos Jiri, Mzilikazi Arts and Crafts Centre, Bulawayo Home Industries and Cyrene Mission are all welfare organisations which support local people through art. From supporting vulnerable women through crochet and needlecraft, to distributing pottery and carving skills to children, to selling craft produced by the disabled and blind – Bulawayo is not only rich in talent, but in heart as well.
The museums hold a wealth of knowledge and historical significance – fascinating to explore. The Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe was built in 1962, a significant centre for research, with eight different departments and substantial study collections in ichthyology, ornithology, anthropology, archeology and geology to name but a few! Its displays are up to date and well kept by the custodians of time and natural history within the museum.
With trade links to South Africa, Botswana and Zambia – Bulawayo was the industry capital of the country. It produced and manufactured textiles, steel, cars, furniture and food products, as well as a centre for mining and agriculture. Beyond the borders of the city centre, there remains incredible local markets boasting an industry of skilled metal workers, carpenters, weavers and more. It was also the hub of Zimbabwe’s rail network, an economic link between neighbouring countries, encouraging and promoting new frontiers of industry and trade. The city is home to an incredible railway museum – highly recommended for railway enthusiasts or lovers of history. The trains are kept in pristine condition, displaying old steam engines, signal lamps, luxury coaches and cargo wagons. Cecil John Rhodes’s carriage as well as the Jack Tar, the first train to cross the Victoria Falls bridge, are kept at the museum, explored and explained within a tour of the property.
To witness the stories of old rooted in the Jacaranda trees and painted into artworks, and then return to the granite hills equally significant in history, will satiate one’s cultural curiosity on the African journey, both experiences life-changing within your travels.