Happy birthday, Gweru – the city that transformed itself

The country’s third largest city, Gweru, will be 100 years old this year – and what a lot has changed in that time for what was a small village a century ago.

Once a village, now a bustling and dynamic city.
Once a village, now a bustling and dynamic city.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with The Zimbabwean, Nobert Nhutsve, a local historian and regional director of the Zimbabwe Millitary Museum, chronicled the area’s interesting history back to the Stone Age.

The name Gweru is believed to have emerged from the word Ikwelo, a Ndebele adjective that describes mountain-climbing.

“Discoveries of stone works at Senga Hill, a few kilometres from the city have been taken by historians to mean that the San and the Khoi Khoi were the first generation to settle in the area that then turned into Gweru,” he said.

He went on to mention that the first known traditional leader was Chief Hosheri, whose jurisdiction covered the current urban area. Chiefs Chiundura and Gambiza were the sub-chiefs.

“The potential of the then village to become a city was first noticed in 1893 by the colonial occupation army, which was travelling from what is now Harare to Bulawayo. After having become tired of travelling, the army made a stopover in the area now known as the Zimbabwe Military Academy.

“During the stopover, people noticed the fertile land and lush green grass and it convinced them that the area could become a base for the formation of an agro-based industry,” said Nhustve.

He added that, after the toppling of King Lobengula on November 4 1893 by the occupation army, questions began to be asked if it was possible for some members of the occupation band to come back and settle in Gweru. “The idea got support and some of the early settlers came back and started off with dairy farming. Consequently, the area started serving as a mid-way point between Bulawayo and Harare where travellers using the Zeederberg coaches, which were pulled by horses, would rest and get fresh supplies of food,” said Nhutsve.

The first buildings to be built were lodges and hotels and some are still standing. The Midlands Hotel in Main Street used to be the Horseshoe Inn; Latham Hotel is now Gweru rural police station, and the Masonic Lodge was turned into flats in 1903.

Next to be built were administration buildings, followed by surveys and, in 1894, the marking out of roads by a surveyor called Peter Falk.

Nhutsve said that the building, which today houses the mines commissioner on Main Street, was the first stock exchange centre and was built in 1898. The present Gweru district administrator’s office was the magistrate’s court in 1895. The railway complex was built in 1901. The first residential area wasMtapa surbub.

“At first, the authorities had a policy that the blacks were not supposed to settle in the urban centre but concentrate on their farming in the surrounding areas. However, the policy was later changed because of the increase in labour demand. Accordingly, Mtapa surbub was then constructed starting off as a string of rooms that accommodated between four and six people,” said Nhutsve.

He added that other suburbs then, including Mambo and Ascot. Senga suburb was built in 1946 and houses in Mkoba were ready for occupation in 1960.

Jeannie Boggie was responsible for the building of Gweru’s clock in “memory of women, men, little children, trek oxen, horses, mules and donkeys of 1859 to 1896 without whose aid Southern Rhodesia would not have been in place”.

The lady went on to donate £3,000 for the construction of the now Zimbabwe Millitary Museum.

After independence, the only major development in Gweru was the building of the Irvine suburb, the brainchild of the first black mayor, Patrick Kombayi.

Hamutendi Kombayi, the present mayor said: “We have reached the 100-year mark, but we should also be forward-looking. As a mayor, I want to also leave a legacy. We need to come up with more infrastructure. There is need for state-of-the-art sports and recreation centres. That is my focus.”

The mayor added that his council was happy about its latest effort to match modern standards through erection of solar-powered traffic lights meant to reduce the impact of load-shedding.

Meanwhile, celebrations have been lined up to mark the centenary achievement.

Alderman Kenneth Sithole said: ““We have invited all the people of Gweru who have ideas that can be used to make this a big occasion to come forward. The main celebrations will be held in July.”

Residents told The Zimbabwean that they were upbeat about the coming centenary celebrations.

“We want the city fathers to ask for permission to have the main street closed for a week so that the celebrations are made big. Braai parties, road-shows and other events can then be held in that street,” said Tinashe Moyo from Mkoba suburb.

“Centenarians should be brought forward at the celebrations so that they can tell us stories of their experiences,” said another resident, William Berekwa.

Post published in: Analysis

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