A unique pub tour in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, gives tourists a taste of local life you don’t get on a safari
In times of recession, they say, cinemas do well, but during a depression churches do better. For Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, that certainly appears to be true. Local historian Paul Hubbard and I are standing in front of an architectural gem of a cinema that is now a church, one that has fortunately left all the art deco trappings of the picturehouse intact. Miriam, the receptionist, tells me that they are growing fast with new sites opening every month, but down in the stalls one of the helpers tries to sell me his paintings. He’s been struggling financially since his family were evicted in a land invasion. Was he bitter?
He shrugs. “I was angry then, but not now. I prefer the city.”
Next to the nearby City Hall hawkers sit with their craft carvings and weavings waiting for tourists, but there are few takers: in fact Paul seems to be their biggest buyer, ever-eager to point out bargains: “Look, that stick is zebra wood – beautifully carved piece.”
I take the stick and also examine a six-inch-long conical basket. When I ask what it is, the lady screeches with laughter. “It’s called an umncwando.” Paul tells me. “That’s Ndebele for willy-warmer.” We move on.
Zimbabwe’s tourist business may be recovering but most visitors only connect with the safari lodges out in the bush. The opportunity then, to accompany Paul on a pub crawl that is newly available to tourists – “Maybe we should say architectural walking tour” – is irresistible. “Bulawayo has an amazing historical heritage. Look here – the Palace Hotel bar – this is where Stanley stayed in 1897,” says Hubbard. He pulls a face as we enter. “He said it was scarcely suitable for a gentleman let alone ladies.”
Inside the original dark panelling has been partly obscured by a Chinese dragon motif, but otherwise this is much as Henry Morton Stanley would have experienced it, excepting, of course, one other major difference: most of the clientele are a different colour. This bar, like others on the tour, were white men’s watering holes in a country that had racial divisions hardwired into it the moment Cecil Rhodes arrived in 1893.
Now, at the Palace bar, I was extricating myself from a debate on UK immigration policies, more precisely why the jolly man with gold teeth had been refused a visa. I express sympathy and ask if he had suffered?
“I had a farm,” he says, then adds with a laugh: “For nine months.” That was the period between inheriting a farm and then losing it to war vets. “Some of them were good guys.” He doesn’t appear particularly fazed: in fact everyone I was meeting here seemed to take reversals of fortune in their stride. Was there something in the beer?
Drinking up and moving on, we pass a lovely old department store, its elegant frontage dating back to 1895, then stop at Grey’s Inn. A sign at the door forbids “Transparent Dresses.”
Next is the King’s Head. “My Dad was a goldminer,” says Paul. “He used to play dice in here.” There are wooden plaques above the bar that still announce the tournament winners through the 1970s (Rhodesia came to a belated end in 1979) but all of those white people are gone.
At The Exchange, a gorgeously panelled bar filled with hunting and RAF memorabilia, Paul explains how prospectors would sell their nuggets over the road then scamper back to sink some beers. It still has a boisterous, good-humoured atmosphere, though no more gold-diggers. “Replaced with local politicians,” says Paul. “Do not get your camera out!”
At Cafe Baku we decide against the “Devil Juice: 2 tots $1” and stick with beer. Finally, we are back where we had started, at the Bulawayo Club, where Rhodes’ bust still broods in the lobby and his contemporaries are framed on the walls, little brass plaques recording their fates, often “killed in action”.
Outside the bar an aged sign reads: “Dress for ladies is difficult to specify. Happily, most ladies have good taste and problems do not arise.” We chat to a local black couple and persuade them to come to the snooker room, both protesting that they don’t know how to play.
Nothing much has changed in here since the slate tables were shipped from their Welsh quarry and carried, presumably by ox cart, halfway across Africa. The club members must have delighted in all the reminders of Edwardian England: the dark-wood panelling, the dour portraits, the ash wood cues, the bigotry about race, gender and dress. But even back then, however, they could not entirely exclude Africa. The balls, I note, are elephant ivory.
A full day tour of Bulawayo with Paul Hubbard costs £45pp (based on minimum of four people) through expertafrica.com
Source : Guardian