The importance of symbols and monuments

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IT’s sad we have not yet realised the significance of monuments and symbols that we create to remember the milestones of the story of our nation.
When American Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July 1969, the first thing he did was to hoist the American flag on the lunar surface.
As he stepped out of the lunar module on to the lunar surface, his crackling voice hissed on the radio on the wall of our dormitory at Kutama College that evening: “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,”
If indeed it was ‘mankind’ he meant, why hadn’t he also hoisted the UN flag alongside the American?
He was later joined by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin and together, they spent two and a half hours on the moon. They made history.
Similarly, when the same Americans entered Bagdad and toppled Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War in 2003, the first public act they undertook was to bring down the huge statue of Saddam Hussein at the centre of the city to seal their victory.
Those acts might seem small and insignificant but they are more than a mere declaration of presence; they are a claim of ownership. They are a powerful statement that they have conquered and are now in charge.
We grew up believing David Livingstone was the first person to see the Victoria Falls because that was what we were taught at school. In the books there, there was a picture of Livingstone’s statue looking over the majestic falls that he had named in honour of his queen, Victoria. The statue is still there for visitors to see.
There is a mistaken belief we didn’t erect any monuments to our memory. The truth is we erected monuments to our memory, no matter how small. I remember the kindergarten drawings of men with spears in pursuit of wild animals on the hanging rocks on the side of the mountain as we herded cattle in the shadow of the Hwedza Mountains many years ago.
We were told the drawings were made by people called the bushmen, vana mandionerepi, literally meaning where have you seen me? The people were said to be so fussy about their short height they dared you to say it.
And if you were foolish and you said it, they beat the daylights out of you. The myth was so strong and so real it was as if the Koisan, the other name of the bushmen, had left the mountain and their paintings just recently.
And as a result, we were always on our guard, afraid to bump into one around the corner. It is this indelible evidence of their distant presence that we remember them for today.
Then there are the famous Zimbabwe Birds that disappeared from Great Zimbabwe during colonisation.
There is a statue of a man riding a horse on the open space behind the National Archives anybody hardly remembers. What some people might remember are the other two statues together with it: the one of Cecil Rhodes standing on a pedestal and another of Alfred Beit sitting in a high chair. Alfred Beit was Rhodes’ business partner at De Beers, the diamond conglomerate that controlled the global diamond industry. Beitbridge over the Limpopo to South Africa was named in his memory. They say while Rhodes took care of the politics, Beit took care of the business side.
Rhodes’ statue was removed from the island in the middle of Samora Machel Avenue between the High Court and Munhumutapa Building in 1980 immediately after independence.
Then, it was called Jameson Avenue, remember Leander Jameson? He was Rhodes’ closet friend. There are steamy stories about their relationship but what is known is that they both died single. His grave was carved in the rock alongside that of Rhodes at the Matopos.
The name of the statue of the man riding a horse dumped behind the National Archives is called Physical Energy. The idea was conceived by CG Watts as early as 1870 , a personal idea to represent and symbolise the ‘dynamic vision, energy and outlook’ of Rhodes. Watts idolised Rhodes. The statue was only completed just before Rhodes’ death in 1904. We have a different interpretation of the statue. The reason it ended in Northern Rhodesia was because Southern Rhodesia already had enough statues of Cecil Rhodes. Former Zambian leader, Kenneth Kaunda, summarised our feelings.
He said the statue symbolised the relationship between the black man and the white man in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
The black man was the horse and the white man, the rider. He removed the statue in front of the High Court in Lusaka immediately after independence in 1964. That was how it eventually ended up in Salisbury at the corner of Jameson Avenue and Rotten Row until our own independence in 1980 when we whistled it for safekeeping in the open space behind the National Archives.
I disagree with the African students at Oxford University who wanted Rhodes’ statue there, removed. Rhodes was a British citizen and his dream of an Empire that stretched from Cape to Cairo was in the interests of the British people. It is unreasonable to try and deny him peace and rest among his own people in his own country. For some people like me, the real problem is the continued presence of his remains at the Matopos because that is our space.
It is reasonable to expect the remains to be removed and handed into the custody of the British. It is also reasonable that our cultural artefacts taken away by the British be returned. Why do they seem to find it difficult to understand the simple point?
We haggled over the statue of Joshua Nkomo or Father Zimbabwe in Bulawayo to a point where we almost abandoned the idea of erecting one in his honour.
Someone said in the Daily News Mbuya Nehanda did not live, that she was a myth and that it is futile to continue thinking and talking about her.
Even if she was a myth, isn’t she an idea we can rally around? She is a unifying force.
There was a Msasa tree along Josiah Tongogara Avenue where Mbuya Nehanda is purported to have been hanged. Sometime last year, the tree was uprooted by the wind. It’s naive to imagine they could have carried out the death penalty on a tree. Only a kangaroo court, similar to the one that tried and condemned to death Chief Makoni at Gwindingwi in 1893, could do such an audacious thing.
The makeshift court at Gwindingwi took less than an hour to try, sentence and execute Chief Makoni with a firing squad. In Mbuya Nehanda’s case, they couldn’t have brought Judge Watermeyer all the way from the High Court in Cape Town to try and pronounce a death sentence to be carried out on a tree!
But still that does not stop us from turning the place, where the tree was, into a shrine, a unifying point.
We must remember the people and events that helped to shape and define our lives. Creating symbols and monuments to honour such people and events is a critical way of keeping their memory alive.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Very good article Kanengoni. What do the authorities say to you when you mention the need to have monuments and statues of such luminaries like Mbuya Nehanda and Kaguvi?

  2. that was nice kanengoni and at least now its better to understand the value of present, current and future history. therefore the significance of the symbols and monuments can be acknowledged.

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