Landscape consisting of granite rock formations, which balance on the surrounding hills. Herd of white rhinos strolling among huge boulders almost at one’s fingertips. One of the largest concentration of ancient rock paintings in southern Africa. Holy land inhabited by ancestral spirits. Cecil J. Rhodes’ final resting place. This is Matobo – one of the most magical and spectacular places I’ve ever seen.
Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe is now a protected UNESCO site where one can find respite far away from crowded tourist destinations and conflicts from the past. These conflicts were many – tradition, religion and culture had to struggle for survival over centuries. The idea to create the first national park in the country was perceived by local tribes as a colonial caprice. White settlers occupied the most fertile and picturesque areas. They could not accept the fact that “their land” was used by natives anyhow. They did everything to resettle local population elsewhere, accusing them of interfering with the natural environment, killing wildlife and practicing inefficient land management. Ndebele people fought for Matobo pointing out their strong cultural and religious traditions attached to this place. Racial segregation, however, had already gathered momentum and forced the Ndebele to leave these sites, where the national park was created soon after. Neither an uprising of local population nor a threat of digging up the remains of Cecil Rhodes and sending it back to the United Kingdom brought the results. Only a few years after the gaining of the country’s independence did peace come back to Matobo.
GoD SPEAKS FROM THE STONE
The name ‘Matobo’, attributed to these sites by a great Ndebele king, literally means “Bald Head”. The term ‘Matopos’ has been adopted as well, because it was easier for white settlers to pronounce this particular word. Regardless of the terminology, it is undisputed that these lands have a great cultural significance and a history dated back to the Iron Age. One of the most enigmatic religious traditions in southern Africa – cult of God Mwari, the supreme creator, was born in here as well.
Traditionally, people used to call their ancestral spirits to ask for help in their personal lives, while Mwari was the “highest authority” responsible for social affairs of great importance, politics and rain. The control over rain in particular gave him privileged position in the pantheon. A king called Mambo was responsible for transmitting the will of the deity and speak on their behalf as ordinary people were not legitimate to do so. Ancestral spirits used to take control over the king’s body during a trance and spoke through his mouth God’s decisions. Any violation of this order brought illnesses and disasters of all kinds. The Mambo played an important role in maintaining the world order while being a king, a medium and a tangible representative of the invisible. He used to live in affluence and was highly respected. When he died, darkness used to fall upon the kingdom and fire could be lighted again only after a new ruler was elected to share God’s will with the ordinary people. That custom lasted for centuries.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Matobo Hills became the center of religious worship. At the very same time, it became a scene of conflict between Mwari priests and the next heir to the throne, who apparently did not like the idea of being a mediator between the God and man. According to oral tradition, when newly-elected Mambo heard the divine voice, he reached for a weapon ready to fight the God and free himself from the responsibility laid on his shoulders. That was the last time when Mwari spoke to the king and cursed his people foretelling their defeat from the hands of a tribe “dressed in leather “. So it happened. A few years later warriors coming from the south conquered the kingdom. Mambo committed suicide throwing himself from Matobo Hills.
The victorious ruler from Ndebele tribe established a new kingdom called Matebeleland. Old traditions haven’t been forgotten though. It was believed that Mwari still protects these sites and that simple offerings made to the deity can bring luck as well as cause a downpour at any time of day or night. This argument persuaded a new king, who adopted local customs and continued sending gifts to Matobo temples in order to win God’s intervention. You never know… Apparently, even white farmers during a great drought that hit the area paid local dancers to beg Mwari for rain.
That’s all about history. We return to the present and beautiful Matobo Hills, where the cult of mysterious God is still alive. Although his sanctuaries are scattered around the country, most of them are rock-temples located in this area. Some hills are so sacred that finger-pointing at them is considered to be a bad omen, a taboo. According to traditional beliefs, a divine voice can still be heard from these rocks.
NOT ONLY THE VIEW OF THE WORLD
Being accompanied by an armed (“just in case”) guide, we continue walking through the burnt savannah’s grass. Some charred stumps are sticking out from the tired soil. Despite UNESCO’s protection, local population still considers this areas as their own, so poaching, planting, setting fire and other human interference is not uncommon. It’s October – the beginning of spring and the end of dry season in Zimbabwe. Fresh sprouts start to emerge and some new signs of life are already visible in this harsh landscape. “We have the world’s largest population of black mambas and leopards in this park” says a ranger as we enter into the bush. This statement makes us walk a little bit faster. We manage to get quickly to a vast glade with a wonderful view of the surrounding hills. After a few steps we are entering the most popular section of the park, although there is nobody else on the track. We are being accompanied just by the silence and breathtaking views.
We get to the top of the hill called by the Ndebele people “Malindidzimu”, meaning “house of ancestral spirits”. According to old tradition – some benevolent souls are custodians of this land. Those spirits reside in surrounding caves, forests and mountains. People still listen to their voices, consult fate and plan the future based on ancestral advice.
We are on the holy ground. Great colorful boulders give an impression as if someone aligned them one by one in order to form a mystical circle. Just in the middle of that circle lays a famous tomb of one of the most important figures in the colonial history of this country. “Here lie the remains of Cecil John Rhodes”, the inscription says.
Rhodes. On one hand – the engine of British colonization in South Africa and hence, the annoyance of local population. On the other – embodiment of human progress and the man well ahead of his era. Rhodes’ adventure with Africa began in the 1870’s, when health problems led him to seek refuge in a salutary, as it was believed climate. The climate did prove to be beneficial to his health, but Cecil did not waste time on treatments, but quickly got involved in local business and politics. He was a great entrepreneur. Few years later he took control over the mining industry in South Africa founding De Beers Mines (to date the world’s leader in diamond mining). He was a member of the Cape Parliament, Prime Minister and God knows who else. By cheating the local Ndebele king, he managed to acquire some huge tracts of land. After his surname two British colonies were named: Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). He was a visionary. His innovative concept “from Cape to Cairo” to built a railway connecting areas belonging to the British Crown stretching from South Africa to Egypt was one of its kind. Rhodes was a god. During his life some used to say that faith in this man is a substitute for religion and “his word and will constitute the law.”
Economic factors, war in Europe and then liberation movements in Africa prevented the realization of “Cape to Cairo” project. The railway line reached only Bulawayo and after this big dream just a bridge was left. It was not an ordinary bridge though, because at the time of its construction it was the highest railway bridge in the world. During the colonial era it served as a nexus between two Rhodesias. Today it serves as a local attraction for tourists who come to see one of the seven wonders of the world – the majestic Victoria Falls stretching between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It also gives a big dose of adrenaline to those who decide for a bungee jumping experience.
At the top of Matobo Hills thoughts involuntarily are being driven to the colonial times. Rhodes loved this place. He discovered it only a few years before his death. He called a view of the surrounding hills “a view of the world” (World’s View) and used to come here whenever he was looking for peace of mind. He used to come here to think about the fate of his beloved Rhodesia and the glory of the British Empire. Although he died in Cape Town, in accordance with his last will, his remains were buried at the top of Malindidzimu. His funeral was organized in line with local traditions of Ndebele people and with a moment of silence, so that ancestors’ spirits wouldn’t be disturbed… According to some historians, Cecil chose this site hoping that some day it would become an easily reachable destination for pilgrimages to his tomb. Fortunately that did not happen. One can still enjoy the beauty of African nature in a very original form of rock paradise without the necessity to share it with anyone. Fabulously colorful lizards hidden in the shadow add even more magic to this place. Indeed, you get the impression that the whole world can be seen from the top of the hill…