Bulawayo

Bulawayo

Home to over a million inhabitants, Bulawayo is Zimbabwe's second-largest city and the capital of Matabeleland. Once an industrial centre, it has lost some of its wealth but is still a vibrant city with an atmosphere of shabby gentility. So come for a day or two to explore museums, lovely parks, arts and crafts shops and reserves in the immediate vicinity.

Bulawayo has a key location on Zimbabwe’s road network, and with good air links to Johannesburg it’s also an efficient entry and exit point. Thus travellers usually pass though Bulawayo when travelling between Matobo Hills National Park and Victoria Falls, Harare or Hwange National Park.

What to do and see: activities in Bulawayo

Bulawayo’s broad, tree-lined boulevards are bordered by slowly fading colonial buildings of an early Victorian architecture, their verandas alive with the hustle and bustle of urban Africa. Soak up the atmosphere whilst strolling through the streets, wander through the botanical gardens or one of the beautifully laid-out parks, and try restaurants known for excellent steaks. You can even go swimming: next to the botanic garden is Bulawayo’s outdoor swimming pool, whose brightly coloured changing cubicles have the charm of a 1920s movie.

There’s also plenty of opportunity for shopping. Just out of town along the Old Falls Road, the Mzilikazi Arts and Crafts Centre offers a range of locally crafted souvenirs such as sculptures, basketry, pottery, beadwork and woodwork. Induna Arts and Fazak Gift Centre are other curio shops worth browsing through. For relatively Western-style shopping, head for the Bulawayo Centre and Bulawayo City Hall.

Museums in Bulawayo

Bulawayo is home to a few interesting museums, some of which are of national importance. Below is a selection of those most popular with visitors.
  • The Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, which was opened in 1964, illustrates the country’s history, mineral wealth and wildlife. You’ll also find the world’s second-largest mounted elephant here.

  • Bulawayo’s National Gallery is a branch of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. It’s based in the attractive two-storey Douslin House on Main Street, which dates back to the turn of the century.

  • Travellers interested in historical railways might like to visit the Bulawayo Railway Museum, next to the city’s railway station. Its exhibits date from 1897, and include the personal railway coach of colonial mastermind Cecil Rhodes.

Around Bulawayo: game parks and reserves

If you’re tired of urban life and would like to indulge in nature, consider one of the nature reserves and game parks near Bulawayo.
  • Less than an hour's drive from Bulawayo is Matobo Hills National Park, formerly known as Rhodes Matopos National Park. As you leave the city to the south, increasingly big granite outcrops come into view, until you enter the dramatic, rugged scenery of the Matobo.

  • Just 22km west of Bulawayo lie the Kame Ruins, a UNESCO World heritage site that dates from the late Iron Age. The surrounding area is protected by the Mazwi Nature Reserve, where you can go on walks and drives.

  • Only a 30-minute drive from Bulawayo, Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage and Research Centre is home to orphaned and sick animals, including lion, cheetah, leopard, black rhino, several antelope species and a variety of birds.

Geography of Bulawayo

Bulawayo is located on a plain in the south-west of Zimbabwe, near the watershed between the Zambezi and the Limpopo drainage basins. The city slopes gently down to the north and north-west, whereas to the south the terrain is more undulating, merging into the Matobo Hills. At an altitude of 1,350m above sea level and mostly cooled by a south-eastern airflow, Bulawayo enjoys a very agreeable sub-tropical climate.

History of Bulawayo

Bulawayo’s historical importance lies mainly in its early days. It was founded in 1870 by King Lobengula and was originally named koBulawayo. Meaning ‘place of suffering’ or ‘place of rejection’, the old name refers to the bloody tribal wars fought here during the creation of an Ndebele nation and King Lobengula’s ascension to the throne.

Bulawayo’s mineral resources meant that the Ndebele weren’t the only people interested in the land. Conflicting interest came from the armed forces of the British South Africa Company (BSAC), led by Cecil John Rhodes, and the resulting Anglo-Ndebele wars eventually forced Lobengula to flee Bulawayo in 1893.

Under the rule of the BSAC, Bulawayo became a flourishing town of traders, prospectors and European settlers, whereas the Ndebele were increasingly exploited and discriminated against. This, along with a long drought and a plague of cattle disease, led in 1896 to a brief, bloody uprising known as the second Matawelele War.

Although the Ndebele were outnumbered by Rhodes’ forces, and had to retreat into the Matobo Hills, their guerrilla resistance forced Rhodes to make concessions when he eventually negotiated peace. Yet only a year later the nation was officially named ‘Rhodesia’ after its colonial ruler, and the white-minority government that was installed attracted more and more European settlers.

Over the next century, Bulawayo’s part in the country’s development declined. In the 1970s, during the war of liberation, the city was closely associated with the ZAPU forces, led by Joshua Nkomo. However, after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo and indeed Bulawayo were all effectively sidelined by Robert Mugabe and his more powerful ZANU PF – who consider Harare to be their home city. Thus Bulawayo remains very much less important in the government’s eyes than the capital, Harare.

Economic development of Bulawayo

Bulawayo’s railway connections with Zambia, Botswana and South Africa initially made it an important hub of Zimbabwe’s transport and economy, home to many big concerns and industries like metal engineering and textiles. However, the breakdown of the railway and the consequent relocation of many companies to Harare deprived Bulawayo of its economic importance. The result was a deterioration of wide parts of the infrastructure and a decline in service delivery.

Today, fuelled by the economic crisis that beset Zimbabwe in the early part of the 21st century, unemployment rates are high, and many people have returned to farming and mining. Other, longer-existing factors such as the lack of a reliable water source in the area and the discrimination against the Ndebele people have added to these problems.

That said, Bulawayo still retains most of Zimbabwe's remaining heavy industry and capacity for food processing. In addition, the employment statistics do not include those working in the bustling, informal sector. As you walk through the streets of Bulawayo, it certainly feels like a busy city with plenty of people going about their business.
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