Did We Dream Great Zimbabwe?

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Great Zimbabwe inside the great enclosure

I’m thinking we did dream it. These vintage scenes look unreal. I remember it as a perfect day, though more drowsy English summer – the sort we like to think once happened – than an actual African afternoon. It was July, southern Africa’s winter, the daytime temperatures cool enough for me to be wearing my Zambian cotton jacket, at least in the shadows within the Great Enclosure. Strangely, we had the ruins to ourselves, us and our two companions. For a time, before starting our exploration, three of us had sat outside on the grass, our backs against the enclosure’s monumental, drystone wall. The air was still; the granite warm.

We were living in Zambia at the time, but were on a two-week road trip across Zimbabwe. This ancient African city was a high spot on the itinerary. Yet the conversation below the great wall wound on; quite unrelated to the place we were. Crickets chuntered. Time passed. A sense of treading water. Soon we would have to move on to find somewhere to stay for the night. It was all unknown territory. We had nothing booked. There was a moment when I thought if I don’t break free of this reverie, my one-time chance to see this place will be lost. It almost was.

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Great Zimbabwe general view

Amy at Lens-Artists asks us for precious moments. It was hard to choose from our eight-year stay in Africa. It often felt we were present for all of it – all senses always switched full on. But Great Zimbabwe was certainly one of highest high spots. I still have that jacket too, stitched by hand from cloth bought in a Livingstone store, near Victoria Falls.

Many of you have seen these photos before, but I’m sure you don’t mind another look. I’m also reprising the text of a long-ago post for those who want to know something about the ruins.

Great Zimbabwe

No one knows exactly why this great African city  was abandoned. For some 350 years, until  around 1450 AD,  Great Zimbabwe had been a flourishing merchant centre that drew in from the surrounding country supplies of gold, copper, ivory, animal skins and cotton. The city’s entrepreneurs then traded these goods on to the Swahili city states of Sofala and Kilwa on the East African coast. (You can read more about the Swahili HERE). In return, the traders brought back luxury goods including jewellery,  Chinese celadon dishes and Persian ceramics.

The city’s ruins cover 80 hectares, its many stone enclosures commanding the southern slopes of Zimbabwe’s High Plateau watershed between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The site is well watered with good grazing throughout the year. It is above the zone of the deadly tsetse fly that can infect both cattle and humans with sleeping sickness; and the plateau’s granite scarps provide plentiful building stone and other raw materials.

Even so, these favourable circumstances do not explain why this settlement rose to such particular prominence. Great Zimbabwe was not a singular phenomenon. Contemporary with it,  and across the High Plateau region, are the remains of at least a hundred other mazimbabwe (houses of stone) settlements. Several were large enough to have been the capitals of rival states. Others may have been satellite communities occupied by members of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling lineage.

So who were the city’s builders?

During Zimbabwe’s colonial times, and until independence, the  Rhodesian government actively supressed  evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans.  Many of the other stone ruins were destroyed or re-purposed by European settler farmers. The official view claimed that the city was Phoenician, and that the Queen of Sheba’s fabled kingdom of Ophir had been discovered. Archaeologists, however, have long demonstrated  that it was the cattle-owning Karanga Shona who built Great Zimbabwe. The first phase of stone building began around 1100 AD. Thereafter, the city’s rising fortunes and successive building phases suggest its increasing control of the ancient High Plateau trade routes to the Swahili cities of Sofala and Kilwa.

Gold was the key commodity, and it is likely that it was Great Zimbabwe’s successful cattle production that provided it with the trading power to secure gold supplies from mines some 40 kilometres away. The more prosperous the city became, the more sophisticated its demonstrations of prestige. In around 1350 AD  the Great Enclosure of finely dressed stone was built. This huge elliptical structure with its mysterious platform and conical tower is thought to be the royal court. There is no indication that the walls were defensive. This was  a regime confident in its power and authority.

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Peter Garlake’s reconstruction of the Great Enclosure Platform from Life at Great Zimbabwe,  Mambo Press 1982

Then why did the city decline?

There are various explanations: the people had let their herds overgraze the land; they had cut down all the trees; there was a prolonged period of drought as may happen in southern Africa. But somehow none of these theories quite explain why, after 350  flourishing years, a community of perhaps 20,000-plus people should simply pack up and leave. Did all these farmers, herders, miners, craftspeople, soldiers, traders, accountants, court personnel and the city’s rulers  leave on a single day, or did the city die slowly?  The archaeological evidence does not say.

But we do know there were disruptive external forces. In the 15th century the Portuguese invaded the Swahili coastal city of Sofala. They were on the hunt for gold and so pressed inland with Swahili guides. Their interfering presence drove the trading routes north, giving rise to the Mutapa state. This new state may well have been founded by people from Great Zimbabwe. Certainly by the time the Swahili traders were coming up the Zambezi to trade with the Shona directly, the old trade route through Great Zimbabwe was no longer used. At this time, too, we see the beginning of another Shona city state: the construction of the stone city at Khami near Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe. In the following centuries this became the centre of the Torwa-Rozvi state whose other major cities during the 16th and 17th centuries included Naletale and Danangombe.

And so into history…

Of course with the Portuguese incursions comes the first documentary evidence. From the early 1500s Zimbabwe’s royal courts enter the historic record in the accounts of the Portuguese conquistadores. In 1506 Diogo de Alcacova writes to his king, describing a city  of the Mutapa state

“called Zimbany…which is big and where the king always lives.”  His houses are “of stone and clay and very large and on one level.” Within the kingdom there are “many very large towns and many other villages.”

The Portuguese historian Faria y Sousa also describes the King of Mutapa’s great retinue which included the governor of the client kingdoms, the commander-general of the army, the court steward, the magician and the apothecary, the head musician “who had many under him and who was a great lord”. Also noted were the vast territories over which the king ruled, the revenues and subject kingdoms of the king’s several queens.

And suddenly we have a true glimpse of what this land called Zimbabwe might have looked like in the past, a bustling, mercantile, metropolitan culture, supported by gold miners, farmers, cattle herders and craftspeople. And so it remained until well into the 18th century, albeit with a shift of Shona power to the southwest and the Torwa-Ruzvi state as the Portuguese presence caused increasing instability. Then in the 19th century came new invaders – the Nguni, the Ndebele and the British.

This centuries’ old heritage of royal courts is not a picture that the likes of Cecil Rhodes or, the later Rhodesian government of Ian Smith ever wanted anyone to see. And so in the end this is not so much a story of a city abandoned by its people, but of a people wilfully excluded from their past.  In 1980 when Zimbabwe became an independent state, some of this past was reclaimed: the new state took its name from the first great Shona city, and  adopted for its flag and coat of arms, an image of one of the city’s ceremonial soapstone birds. These are small steps forward, but there is still a long way to go before the world sees the indigenous histories of the Africa continent in their true perspective, or acknowledges their intrinsic cultural worth.

 

References: The classic work on the excavations of the city is Peter Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe 1973. For an overview of the mazimbabwe culture see Innocent Pikirayi’s The Zimbabwe Culture  Alta Mira Press 2001. For a broader historical perspective Randall L. Pouwels The African and Middle Eastern World, 600-1500 Oxford University Press.

 

Lens-Artists: Precious moments

Apple Snaffling

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For the last couple of days this male blackbird has been tucking into our garden crab apples. He has a technique. Using his beak like a dagger, he jabs downwards with great vigour, slicing off morsels. Sometimes, though, he ends up with a mouthful he cannot swallow, which then requires a descent to the garden path where sets about cutting the apple down to size. All part of the morning’s seasonal entertainment at the Farrell establishment.

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Lens-Artists: ‘A’  This week Patti asks us for subjects that start with the letter ‘A’.

My World In Sepia

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I seem to be having a ‘sepia season’ just now. It’s suiting my mood. And I anyway like the ‘antique’, slightly mysterious cast it gives some of the shots. I took them earlier in the week – along the lane from the Wenlock Priory ruins. The magnificent Corsican pines tower over the Priory visitor entrance, the place shut up for months now. I’ve no idea how these trees came to Shropshire, but I’m guessing that the Milnes Gaskells who once lived in the Prior’s House, or The Abbey, as they called it, may have planted them. This would be back in the days when Henry James was a repeat visitor and the priory ruins were something of an extended garden feature for his genteel English hosts.

The next two photos provide views of what was once the Priory ‘parkland’, now mostly owned by Wenlock Estates, a family trust, and grazed by sheep. In the Priory’s heyday the monks apparently had a high old time, hunting on horseback across their extensive domain. And not only that. One wild young monk, William Broseley, headed a gang of bandits, Wild West style, and Prior Henry de Bonvillars in 1302 was charged with raiding and horse stealing over on the Welsh borders.

Sheep were also an important monastic commodity, the wool a source of great wealth in the early Middle Ages. In 1284 another slippery Prior, John de Tycford, caused consternation and monkish fury within the sacred confines when it was found he had robbed the house of its wealth through a spot of canny futures dealing. He managed to sell seven prospective years of wool and then make off with the loot. Things are much more peaceful here these days.

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Lens-Artists: You Pick It This week our excellent hosts, the Lens-Artists, invite us to choose our own topic.

Through A Hedge Backlit

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I took these photos yesterday, late afternoon, as I was going gardening. The hedge runs up beside the allotment, the south-westerly boundary to Townsend Meadow behind our house. As I reached the gap under the ash tree, the unofficial gateway to my garden plot, the sun burst through the hedge bottom. So I ditched the compost I was hauling, and fished out my camera. I was still thinking about the leaf photos in my last post, and decided monochrome could work here too, this time catching the plant-life silhouetted in the lowering sun. I added the sepia glow in the edit. In the northern hemisphere, sunshine in November always seems a specially precious gift, brimming with untapped possibility.

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Lens-Artists: the sun will come out tomorrow  Anvica’s Gallery has set the spirit-lifting theme this week. Go visit!

Dear John ~ A Household Treasure

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We see it every day. Or do we? Do we actually see, as in look and engage? We certainly pass by it night and morning and at times in between. It hangs on the bedroom wall, beside the spiral staircase, this portrait of John Lennon by stellar photographer and photojournalist, Jane Bown. And how do we come to have this particular treasure?

From 1949 and over the next 6 decades Jane Bown (1925-2014) was the The Observer newspaper’s photographer (The Observer being the sister Sunday paper of The Guardian weekly i.e in the days before its 2008 sell-off). Some time in the early 2000s, not long after we had repatriated ourselves after eight years in Kenya and Zambia, and were living in Kent, The Guardian offices in Farringdon Road, London, announced it was having a small exhibition of Bown’s work, not only portraits but also the chance to look at the contact sheets from particular shoots. There would also be the opportunity to  buy one of the limited edition reprints. So: one Saturday morning we took ourselves off to the capital by train, not a small event for two dislocated souls not then caught up with the way things worked in the home nation.

The key thing about Jane Bown’s work is she always used natural light – never deploying flash or even using a light meter.

Famously reluctant to talk about her working method, Jane once admitted that for the brief moment when she looked at somebody through a lens, what she felt could best be described in terms of an intense love.

Quote from the Guardian Print Shop site.

But to go back to the earlier question of how far we engage with the objects we surround ourselves with. Doubtless many have sentimental attachments – gifts, mementos, inherited items from loved ones; some are domestic tools, artefacts for cooking, home maintenance, cleaning, eating, and therefore deemed essential; others are specially acquired assemblages: dolls, snow globes, china pigs, model cars, snuff boxes, original art, books, orchids: stuff. Of course, given the quantity of possessions most of us house, if we gave due consideration to each and every one of them each day there would be no time to do anything else. There could be an element of the King Midas curse in this?

And the portrait of John Lennon? There is no doubting that when his presence is fully acknowledged, the times I stop and behold, he does feel like a presence. The keenness of gaze is almost too poignant. I start wondering what he might say to us now – in these times ‘of lies, damn lies, and statistics’. I’m thinking he might tell us to WAKE UP!

You can see more of Jane Bown’s magnificent work HERE,  HERE and HERE.

 

Lens-Artists: Everyday objects

Knowing Our Onions…

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…and a fine piece of domestic cooperation: Sturon onions grown by me in allotment raised beds, then neatly strung up by he-who-builds-sheds, though only after an online refresher course on how to do it. Anyway this is the sum of my onion crop, organically produced, planted out as sets in March and harvested at the beginning of August. You could call it pandemic produce, though I’d rather not, as at present it appears to be wholly disease free.

Sturon onions anyway are supposed to be good keepers. On the other hand, onion consumption in the Farrell household is so considerable, they will probably not last long. A field full would better cover a year’s culinary requirements. Still, when we’ve eaten these, there will be the leek crop to start on. That should see us through to spring when hopefully the world will not be so demented.

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Lens-Artists: Creativity in the time of covid   This week Tina at Travels and Trifles has set the challenge. Please go and see her very lovely photos.

Past Lives ~ Beneath A Tropic Sun

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Goodness, was this us – a seeming lifetime ago and half a world away from the present Sheinton Street homestead? Here’s Graham managing to look so unruffled in the steamy, sun-baked precincts of the old Portuguese fort in Mombasa. And there’s me perched on a rustic stool at a Tiwi Beach beach bar, a cooling Tusker beer to hand, a refreshing breeze off the reef. I’d not long run away from Shropshire with hardly a thing to my name. You could call it a mid-life caper; it was supposed to last three months, but somehow stretched into eight years. By the time I resumed permanent occupation of home territory, I did not recognise the place; it took us a lot of adjusting. These days I’m not recognising it either.

Back then Graham had not long completed his Masters field work on the Larger Grain Borer in Mexico. This tiny beetle of Central American origin is a voracious pest of maize, though it started out as a wood borer before it developed a taste for corn. If a grain store is badly infected you can hear it grinding its way through the cobs. Oh yes, it also likes another food staple of particular importance in West Africa: dried cassava. In the 1970s it was imported into Africa in a consignment of food aid and has invaded much of the continent since, most notably spreading along the line of rail. (A grim, if non-intentional “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” situation).

In its home territory LGB is prey to another beetle Teretrius nigrescens, TN for short, which keeps it in check. In Africa, though, the alien invader had no controlling predator. And so in 1992 Graham went out to Kenya on a 3-month consultancy project to work with farmers in affected areas: the Taita Hills near the Tanzanian border and Ukambani just north of the Tsavo national parks. The aim was to enlist their help in field trials to release stocks of TN which had been screened and bred by a British agricultural research institute. The three months extended to nine, and so began a series of contracts that took us next to Zambia, then back to Kenya until 2000.

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Our homes in Lusaka and Nairobi were way-stations for itinerant British crop scientists and socio-economists; the expatriates we mixed with were all aid gypsies who had roamed the globe from the Falkland Islands to Uzbekistan and Outer Mongolia; the Kenyan crop scientists Graham worked with were generous and welcoming; they had their own research projects that were dependent on UK funding; but some of them too had their own views about the value of foreign aid, and the abject dependency it too often created.

We were all caught up in the ‘development’ paradigm: the givers and receivers; a mindset predicated on notions of indigenous people’s ignorance and incompetence, while actually serving donor interests in other peoples’ lands. Our next door neighbour, a Kenyan human rights lawyer, put it bluntly: all aid should end. We’ll go back to ground zero, he said; it will be painful, but we will develop on our own terms. His wife was running a Nairobi slum project, set on undoing all the years of imported misinformation about infant feeding, and helping poor urban mothers to return to breast feeding their babies. On our late afternoon walks she would tell me the stories of her daily encounters. It didn’t take me long to fathom that in colonial and post-colonial Kenya things had been, and still were, going badly awry. Unpicking it was quite another matter.

Uganda railway poster

We British have our great explorers, Speke, Burton, Stanley et al to thank for informing us of East and Central Africa’s potential for exploitation and domination. In the late 1880s Britain’s invasion of East Africa was in the form of a military backed corporate enterprise: the Imperial British East Africa Company. They established their foothold  in a series of small forts across the territory we now know as Kenya. They did business by treaties, whose insidious long-term conditions the local people did not grasp until it was too late. When talking failed, military operations followed, targeting especially recalcitrant communities with punitive campaigns. This continued until 1914. The IBEAC’s interest was in the potential plantation wealth of landlocked Uganda to the north west. But to reap any rewards there they would need to build a 650-mile railway from Mombasa port, at that time a possession of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

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Shimba Hills smallholdings, southern Kenya

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In 1895 after the IBEAC went bankrupt, the line of rail surveyed but barely begun, the British Government proclaimed the territory a protectorate. The railway project was approved by Parliament in 1896, for by then thoughts of war with Germany were to the fore, and it was believed, if the territory were not secured, the enemy could sabotage the Nile headwaters in Uganda and so drain the distant Suez Canal dry, thereby strangling British trade with its other key occupied territory, India. And so the building of the Uganda Railway (using many thousand imported Indian labourers) began. Among disgruntled Members of Parliament back in London it came to be dubbed the Lunatic Line.

(Which is making me think: never was a lyric more apt: “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”)

At the time when all these plans were simmering, Uganda was described as a powerful and highly developed feudal state:

The country was populous, productive and highly cultivated. (Permanent Way  vol 1  M F Hill p 25).

This image ‘populous, productive, highly cultivated’ is worth fixing in the mind’s eye. I think I can be pretty sure that this is not how most people think of any African nation, past or present.

The 1892 reports of the IBEAC railway surveyors who trekked up from Mombasa in a caravan comprising 7 Europeans, 41 Indian surveyors, 7 Swahili headmen-interpreters, 40 African soldiers (askari), 270 porters, 24 cooks, servants and gun-bearers, 60 donkeys, also described the farming communities they traded with for supplies:

When they reached Ukambani (one of the areas later involved in the LGB-TN release project) the survey report states:

All about here large supplies are obtainable, as much as 4,000 lb of flour can be bought in one day by a passing caravan. The people (Akamba) are industrious and thriving, good cultivators, and possess large herds of goats and sheep. (Permanent Way  vol 1 M F Hill p72).

And then when the expedition reached the Central Highlands near present-day Nairobi, the Kikuyu settlements within the forest fringes are described as follows:

For the last few miles the path up to the Company’s post lies entirely through fields of grain and sweet potatoes…Long tapering spurs and narrow valleys, covered alike with waving cornfields. Clumps of graceful plantains and sugar cane, endless acres of sweet potatoes. (ibid p 74)

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Smallholder farms, Escarpment, the Rift Valley just north of Nairobi, taken around 1997.

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So: you may wonder, what happened to all this local prosperity and know-how? And it’s a question I am leaving with you. There are many answers and angles. Some of them I found in my readings of fifty years’ worth of Kenya colony’s agriculture reports, wherein I discovered that many traditional, long tried cultivation practices were actively discouraged by agriculture officers since they did not yield produce of export quality. It was a situation of totally conflicting interests. Ironically too, about the time we were leaving Kenya in 2000 I heard that German agricultural consultants there were advocating that smallholder farmers should return to mixed crop planting strategies, this to reduce the need for pesticides. Re-inventing wheels is a significant characteristic of foreign aid projects.

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Kenya Agriculture Research Institute entomologist, Paddy Likhayo, using a pheromone trap to monitor insect numbers around Kiboko, Ukambani.

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While Graham pursued food-decimating beetles and smut fungus on fodder grass, I wrote fiction: three short novels for the African children’s literature market, a picture book, Flame Tree Market,  that won first prize at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995, and many short stories for the US children’s magazines produced by Carus Publishing, Spider, Cricket and Cicada. The first of the short stories, Dudus, (Swahili for insects) made use of Graham’s LGB-TN project in the storyline.

I suppose at heart my aim was to explode that development paradigm that keeps us in the rich world seeing receivers as beholden and incapable of helping themselves, and donors as those who know what’s best for so-called undeveloped nations. It touches me more than anything that my story book Jessicah, about a street girl, originally published as Jessicah the Mountain Slayer by Zimbabwe Publishing House, and Flame Tree Market  have continued to be published by Phoenix Publishers in Nairobi for the last 24 years. And yes, they do pay me royalties.

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By now you may be wondering about the success or not of the TN-LGB control project. Did it work? When I searched the available on-line literature this week, it seems that while TN has been exerting some control on LGB numbers in West Africa, the East African releases have ‘gone extinct’. It is thought TN prefers the humid tropics over the semi-arid tropics. LGB on the other hand, is utterly adaptable and has increased its menu to include plastic, soap, wooden domestic utensils and small-grained millet. Over a third of stored crops may be lost in 6 months.

All very dispiriting: a seeming charitable donation to relieve a famine situation delivered  fifty years ago to a Tanzanian port, creating the never-ending likelihood of significant food loss across East and Southern Africa. The upside is that the LGB project enabled the training of Kenyan researchers who are still on the front line, trying to improve the lot of pest-beleaguered smallholders. It’s something. Quite a big something.

Lens-Artists: under the sun

Quietness In Times Of ‘Isolation’

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In these corona days people who live alone may well feel they have had far too much quietness thrust upon them, while many family members, forced together into states of furlough, home working and home schooling, may long for some personal space and silence. In either case heartfelt commiserations are due. Meanwhile here in Wenlock we are lucky to have many peaceful spots, and though they are a little busier than in pre-lockdown days, there is still a chance for some quiet meandering, and especially here along the Linden Walk. These photos were taken a few weeks ago during the lime trees’ first flush.

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Mostly, though, we Farrells hardly need to leave our little domain for our ‘quiet moments’. He who is presently constructing a scratch model vintage Great Western Railway wagon has his shed in one corner of the garden, whither soft strains of classical music and the whirring of the lathe waft out over the flower beds. That or the sounds of heavy man-pondering.

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At the other end of the garden we both have the benefit of the garden fence to lean on, which we do often with a mid-morning cup of coffee or a sundowner glass of wine, while surveying the sky, the field, the guerrilla garden or saying hello to the odd passer by. At times we can stand in the field and chat (loudly) with the next door neighbours, who have been sheltering for medical reasons, over their garden fence.

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Near the back gate, between the honeysuckle and the Smoke Bush there is also the old Seat of Wisdom. This particular facility serves all who sit on it with a dousing of sage essence, this from the bush that insists on growing through the back of the seat no matter how many times we cut it back or move the seat. Recently we have let it get on with it, now certain that this ad hoc herbal treatment is most beneficial for body, mind and spirit. In fact I seem to remember sage figured largely in medicinal remedies during times of the  Plague.

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Finally on the daily-quiet-resort front there’s the field path to the allotment, which a little like Charles Darwin’s thinking path, though without the angst of evolutionary rumination, is a good place for my own brand of heavy pondering – on matters horticultural, or indeed for some silent ranting about the state of life, the universe and everything. For here’s the paradox: despite the immense good fortune of having at hand all these lovely places for peaceful contemplation, I can still feel another lockdown-regime rant coming on.  Time to head to the allotment then – execute a few weeds.

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Lens-Artists: A Quiet Moment  This week Patti invites us to capture peaceful interludes, places for reflection and the recharging flagging spirits.

Wild Rose ~ One Single Flower

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This year there is a slender tumble of dog roses beside the field hedge gap into the allotment. The hedge grows particularly tall just here, a straggle of self-seeded tree saplings and hawthorn in the shadow of a spreading ash tree. At first it seems a puzzling place for Rosa canina  to take up residence. So much deep shade. I’d certainly not seen wild roses growing there before, though they once scrambled over the sunny hedgerow further down the field. But then that was before last autumn’s hedge cutting, when the farmer’s tractor-mounted slash ‘n mash device grubbed them up as it passed. So perhaps this new briar, flowering now in less likely surroundings, is an expression of survival, the ash tree’s stalwart presence ensuring swift retraction of the cut and ravage blades; providing sanctuary from an indiscriminate uprooting. Perhaps we all need an ash tree in some form or another.

The photo was taken back in May as I headed home after a spot of evening gardening.

Lens-Artists: One Single Flower 

This week Cee has set the theme, inspired by her favourite quotation from the Buddha: “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.