Umvutshwa: A physical expression of a political, social and economic reality

22 Nov, 2015 - 00:11 0 Views

The Sunday News

 Phathisa Nyathi

AS SOON as we got to Umvutshwa the one physical feature of the place we observed was raised ground all around us. It presented a 360-degree view of the lower-lying areas. From here you can clearly see beyond Umguza River to the south-west.

This is the river where the women and girls obtained water for domestic use. They would have balanced the calabashes (izigxingi) on their heads, (ukuthwala/chilo) or the clay vessels (imbiza) with long necks (impengesi), to prevent water spilling.

Living on raised ground was a physical expression of the monarch’s raised political, social, cultural and economic status. If a topographical survey of the place were carried out it would reveal that the royal residence was the highest section in the entire settlement. Reality in one realm was expressed in another realm. This was true of many African communities. Perhaps this was most vividly expressed by one Nthoyiwa Ndlovu that I interviewed regarding Mapungubwe. “Bo He bagele dombo, Bo Nthoyiwa bagele dombo, zwilanda zwigele kuBambanalo.” The king, He, lived on the hill summit as did Nthoyiwa’s own forefathers. However, the lower classes or slaves, zwilanda, lived on a lower hill called Bambanalo.

Even where a group’s royalty did not occupy hill summits there was some observable physical loftiness. We saw this to be the case at King Lobengula’s New Bulawayo (Emahlabathini/Esagogwaneni) and was equally true at Old Bulawayo (Enyokeni/Entenjaneni). Even Cecil John Rhodes’ modern Bulawayo is on high ground. When he created his own Valhalla at Malindandzimu Hill it expressed seniority on rock. He occupied the highest section and was followed by his bosom friend Dr Leander Starr Jameson who in turn was followed by Southern Rhodesia’s first Prime Minister Charles Coghlan. The 34 members of the Major Allan Wilson Patrol have their memorial occupying the lowest section in the seniority pecking.

We had just had a sumptuous meal so our vision was sharp. It was easy to notice a few of the surviving trees from the days of King Lobengula. These belonged to one plant species — umbola. There must have been some reason why this particular species had survived. The Ndebele did not use it for firewood. It was one of those several species that were protected by beliefs, by taboo. Otherwise the predominant plant species here is ugagu which has created an impregnable canopy of thorns almost a metre from the ground. One has to bend and walk in that poise till one reaches clear ground. This is secondary vegetation which invaded the place after the place was deserted.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to see the village demarcations. Paul Hubbard tells us Thomas Meikle removed the wooden palisade and sold it as firewood in Bulawayo. Meikle was a trader who we understand preferred horse transport to automobiles. He founded an enduring business legacy both in Bulawayo and Harare. Now one can no longer see the various sections of the settlement which were marked apart by wooden palisades. The palisades separated livestock enclosures from the king’s sanctuary, the queens’ quarters, religious persons’ enclosure, the cooking enclosure and the closures where the forges for making assegais were found. We have to rely on what white visitors drew, though some of it is doubtful when cultural knowledge of the Ndebele is applied. The one good example is the plan of Umvutshwa which was drawn by H Vaughan Williams.

His plan has two linear parallel rows of huts which he labelled as queens’ huts. This apparently does not tally with the way Nguni people arranged the queens’ or wives’ huts. Huts were arranged in a circular pattern more or less parallel to the palisade. The hut for the most senior wife was directly in front of the main entrance to the settlement (isango). The hut faced the entrance. The second wife was to the right if one is standing at the entrance facing inside. The third wife was to the left when viewed from the entrance. The arrangement was maintained till all the wives’ huts had been taken care of. This was the discernible layout at Old Bulawayo when the archaeologists, making use of their research findings, came up with the settlement’s layout. Once again, this was a physical expression of the wives’ social seniority.

I have argued before that getting into a historical settlement is like getting into the minds of those who planned the layout and designed the architectural structures and in particular their relative positions and demarcations. A settlement is a physical expression of a mental picture which is built in accordance to a people’s worldview, their ideas as these relate to gender and occupational differentiation. A careful study of a settlement yields a lot of information regarding the former occupants and their way of life. The mind plans, hands implement the plan.

One young man who joined us tells us there was a road that led from Bulawayo to Inyathi. The missionaries used the road to get to Inyathi. It certainly was not the road the Reverend Dr Robert Moffat and his missionary outfit used to get to Inyathi in 1859. The road then ran east of here, past the two Amanxele hills not far from where Galu Mlotshwa of Elibeni lived. The position of the road changed once again when King Lobengula’s Bulawayo was at Enyokeni. This was yet another position of the road which had to pass through the royal capital. All white visitors on whatever mission had to report their presence to the king.

The winds have blown the loose Kalahari sands which have covered the former settlement. As a result there is very little evidence of the settlement that one can see without recourse to archaeological research. In 1910 Richard Hall marked the site of the settlement. The Rudd Concession was signed at Umvutshwa and so it was important to the white colonisers. Later, as we saw in an earlier instalment, the granite stone which marked the position of the signing of the Rudd Concession was later removed and posted close to the Missionary Tree where there were graves of members of the Fletcher family. It was reckoned, and rightly so, that proximity to the graves would render respect to the granite inscription. We have taken a walk to almost the exact location where the Concession was signed. Hubbard is certain about the position of the goat kraal where the concessionaires parked their ox-wagons.

He points to the position of the meat tree. He does not identify the tree species but says here on the tree branches meat was hung — turning it to biltong (umhwabha). We know the king’s abstinence practices regarding consumption of biltong. When the impis went on a raid he abstained from consuming biltong. The tree would have been heavily guarded to ensure the biltong was not tampered with in order to harm the monarch. The position of the tree now marks the meeting point for the various farms. Umvutshwa was one of the earliest farms to be pegged. Another farm, Espin Farm, belonged to Espin Patrick Fletcher’s business partner. There is Reigate Farm too. Fletcher was the town planner that Rhodes engaged to peg Bulawayo. He was instructed to make wide streets, measuring 120 Cape Feet for the streets and 90 Cape Feet for the Avenues. His desire had been to have streets that were lined with trees (Rob Burrett, 2014 Bulawayo @120).

A look at the soils makes one think that this is characterised by the sandy Kalahari sands where rain water seeps into the ground. You hardly see water streams here. Umguza itself seems to follow some geological divide. There was some geological intrusion from the west.

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