The Sunday News
WE have looked at the layout of Old Bulawayo in particular with a view to identifying the factors that were taken on board to locate the various cultural features. It is important that we appreciate that the resulting layout is not peculiar to the Ndebele people. Rather, the factors that inform layout are common with those found among other African ethnic groups. As expected, the layout or spatial design of Old Bulawayo is more akin to the general Nguni layout. The Ndebele share a common history and culture with the Nguni.
Be that as it may, there are commonalities with other African ethnic groups. The shared Africanness presupposes shared historical traditions and more importantly, a shared worldview, which is the most important consideration when it comes to development of ideas regarding layout and other cultural practices.
Before taking on board other aspects relating to Old Bulawayo, let us check out for another common aspect when it comes to Africanness. That ubiquitous element relates to circularity. Whereas the various cultural features were organised in space according to the factors enumerated in the previous article, this time, we look at the individual cultural features with a view to identifying their design and shape. In fact, it is the design of individual cultural features that precedes their spatial location.
Before we identify where circularity occurs within Old Bulawayo let us deal briefly with the concept and what it means to African peoples regardless of their ethnic diversities. Circularity is a concept derived from the circle, in terms of shape or design. The circle may be viewed as the opposite of a straight line. In the latter, the direction of thrust remains constant at all times.
However, with regard to a circle, there is constant change in terms of direction. The constant change underpins and presupposes the presence of movement. The movement is not haphazard, rather it is regular, rhythmic, seasonal and therefore predictable. All this points to a constant speed and constant change.
This type of movement is critically important when it comes to the concept of continuity, eternity, perpetuity, endlessness and immortality. Africans and indeed, the ancients from other parts of the world, gleaned these attributes from the heavens. What was sought after in particular was associated seeming eternity. The integral change embodied within a circle may not have been realised. What was easier to comprehend were resultant changes, for example in the seasonal and daily changes occasioned by the sun and by the moon.
The cosmic reality influenced ideas relating to beauty and aesthetics. We thus find Africans resorting to the circular design, both in terms of what it represents or symbolises but also in terms of design that they subsequently adopted. Circularity, while representing and symbolising survival and eternity, also came to represent beauty. Both considerations were perceived as desirable and Africans adopted, in their cultural designs, the admirable cosmic attributes. The adage, “As above, so below,” was coined in realisation of the fact that cosmic attributes were copied and replicated on the terrestrial cultural plane.
A circle has no beginning or end. That is the same as saying a circle symbolises, expresses and represents eternity. It is like a snake that is biting its tail, a phenomenon that is sometimes known as Ouroboros.
Africa remained loyal to these considerations until the advent of the colonial project, which introduced different designs, and layout informed by a changed view of the world. Colonising western societies had migrated from the earlier perceptions of cosmic reality and that led to wrought in their culture including key designs and settlement layout.
Now that we have justified the adoption of circularity, we can proceed to identify where circularity was evident at Old Bulawayo. All the wooden palisades at Old Bulawayo were circular. Here we are referring to the two wooden palisades enclosing the commoners’ settlement. Equally circular were the two parallel royal wooden palisades. The geophysical surveys applied at Old Bulawayo picked up these relevant designs for the wooden palisades that were markers and expressions of territoriality. Layout then came to locate the various cultural features within the boundary-fixing wooden palisades.
Architecture is another aspect, which displayed circularity albeit within the context of change occasioned by contact with different cultures and a different climate. King Mzilikazi left KwaZulu-Natal where there was higher rainfall that was characterised by reduced termite activity. Their huts were of a beehive nature, undifferentiated in terms of separate and distinct walls and roofs. Grass and small wooden twigs were in touch with the soil. As long as the soils were sufficiently moist, termite activity was subdued.
However, settlement in the south-western part of Zimbabwe was within an area of reduced rainfall and increased termite activity. Climatic reality led to enhanced termite activity. The Ndebele found themselves having to adapt architecture in line with the dictates of climate. While circularity was retained, the resulting huts were differentiated. The roof began to emerge as a separate and distinct feature. The roof though was hitched on the frail wall of wooden sticks and clay.
Local architecture had adapted to the climate and developed a cone-on-cylinder architecture. Termite activity was reduced because of architectural adaptation. It is important to realise that circularity continued to exist though the huts assumed a new design. From the beehive huts, to the upraised mushroom, the circular design persisted.
It is not surprising why the circular design survived. The people that the Ndebele found where they chose to settle, shared the circular design in common with them. It was however, not the same with the later arrivals, namely the Europeans who had since acquired the rectangular design. In any case, they were a people who were characterised by racial arrogance and inflated sense of racial superiority. They regarded their ways as superior to those of others, particularly the ways of blacks. As a result, they continued to build the way they had done back home, sought to impose their religions, political culture, retained their languages and made sure their ways remained distinct and domineering.
The royal cattle byre was a distinct feature at Old Bulawayo. It was a site that represented wealth. Once again, the geophysical surveys demarcated the position of the cattle byre. It too was circular in line with the overarching African design — the circular design. Further, there are pictorial presentations that showed the King and his subjects. The sitting arrangement was informed by the circular design. However, as dictated by security considerations, the circle was not complete. Instead, it was semi-circular.
Within the rectangular European house built for the King there were pieces of clay pots that were recovered during excavations. The sherds pointed to pots of a circular design.
What is clear from the above expose is that the circular design still reigned supreme. The artefacts exhibited the same design, so was the spatial design, architecture that were characterised by the same design. The people themselves displayed, in terms of their anatomy, a circular design and were resident on a circular earth that is in constant motion along a circular or elliptical orbit around the circular sun.
Circularity is ubiquitous and therefore compelling. Abandoning circularity and the related concept of cyclicality is to go against the very important concept of environmental conservation and the sustainability of the world itself. Ubuntu embodies all these ideas and concepts.