The bus slows gently as the driver changes down through the gears; annoyingly the moment before it stops he breaks sharply and sends every passenger lurching forward from their seats. After settling back into my original position I look out the window and notice another person waiting to board. This can only happen in Africa; surely not another soul can fit on the bus.
An old man holding a rudely constructed cage made from sticks and wire, full of unhappy chickens steps on, he speaks to the driver in Shona the local language and hands him a coin. I laugh to myself when I see the old man is wearing a woolen hat and large coat, the temperature is around 38 degrees and I’m finding it unbearable in shorts and T shirt. My heart went out to the poor chickens inside their prison, their heads hanging out constantly gagging for air.
How many chickens would survive their journey? Also how many of us passengers would survive ours? The cramped hot conditions on this bus were intolerable. I felt like I was in a cage. I felt like a Chicken.
This was my first experience of public transport in Zimbabwe. My plan was to spend three months traveling throughout the country, mainly riding these small Mitsubishi buses. Unbelievably I’d soon start to look forward to boarding them; I would find pleasure in other passengers company and happily daydream whilst looking out of the window. My love for this cramped, basic transport materialised whilst on a journey to the ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe. I knew little of these Great ruins, only that it was a place I had to visit.
Leaving Bulawayo the second largest city in the country my destination was Masvingo, which was the nearest town to the ruins in the south east of Zimbabwe. Before 1980 Masvingo was called Fort Victoria but after independence the name was changed. The driver revealed the journey was three hundred and eighty kilometers, cost eight American dollars (the currency which is now used to stabilise the economy) and took five hours. I could not complain about the price but generally drivers underestimate arrival time by a couple of hours.
The route would take me via the A6 through the small settlements of Esigodine, Mulujawane, Mbalabala, onto the A9 which crossed the beautiful Insiza river, a life line to everything in the area, through Pambuka, Zvishavane, over the Runde river and then finally through Mashava before arriving at Masvingo. These very British sounding road names need to be respected. In Zimbabwe motor vehicles have to swerve constantly for unconcerned livestock, avoid hitting potholes a grown man could get lost in and pull over what seems every 30 kilometers for tollgates. The tolls are only around one American dollar but are enforced by police armed with AK47’s, they are usually a friendly bunch but give every vehicle a close look for anything illegal, bribes are meant to be fairly common which is not surprising as the police wage is so small.
Every town and village I passed through was bustling with activity, there was always people waiting, usually women trying to sell food and drinks to the passengers. Pushing, shouting and banging on the window feebly trying to get noticed, trying to earn a living. It was very hard to look these desperate people in the eyes knowing you cannot help them all. Zimbabwe is generally a country you hear about in the news for the troubled times it has gone through. Disease and starvation has killed thousands in the last few years, with an unsupportive government it amazes me how people live with smiles on their faces, the African sense of humor never seems to evaporate. The country is changing rapidly, life is defiantly improving, people are happier but the stories of bad times are still on peoples lips. I hid these depressing thoughts in the back of my mind when finally the bus pulled into Masvingo. I knew these mental images would reappear at a later date, but for now excitement took hold as I would be visiting the Great ruins first thing in the morning.
On first sight of the ruins you cannot appreciate their magnitude. To start with all you notice is a rocky hill, but this Royal Palace takes your breath away the more you explore them. They were built in the 11th Century and shout the old Kings status and political power. The most prominent feature is the eleven-meter high walls, which extends two hundred and fifty metres, this is known as the Great Enclosure. The only other ancient structure in Africa to beat its size is the pyramids of Egypt. Every stone was laid upon one another without the use of mortar, which is very impressive as they are still as strong as the ground they were built on.
There is a theory that says the word ‘Great Zimbabwe’ comes from an old dialect of Shona, and simply means ‘large house made of stone’ which is very relevant, because the hill I first noticed is exactly that. This hill has a warren of passages throughout and Royal Quarters dug into the rock face, as well as hundreds of other little rooms that would have been used for servants, cooking and even burial. One King who ruled here was suppose to be married to over four hundred Queens, but they were given there own area to live down in a nearby Valley. It is more of an ancient city as these ruins span about two thousand acres and in its peak would have been home to eighteen thousand loyal subjects, who would have gazed at the ‘large house made of stone’ with the upmost respect, just as I did.
We have all been recently reminded of famine, how countries in the Horn of Africa have suffered one of the worst droughts in years. I just hope Zimbabwe does not repeat the heartbreaking circumstances of the last ten years and it has a positive future. I believe tourism can make a huge difference to the poor rural communities such as the ones in nearby Masvingo. Zimbabwe is a country that has so much to offer, the people are so friendly, it has amazingly diverse landscapes, shockingly beautiful wildlife and ancient fortified ruins that will keep you thinking for hours about the kings who used to rule from them.
I want to thank the people of Zimbabwe and to the people who looked after me. Hopefully one day you will be able to thank them too.
Images courtesy of William Addison-Atkinson
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