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More writing on the wall

Bulawayo feels like a city in reversion, subsistence poverty overlaid with lush decay. Once grand houses stand empty, crumbling as vegetation re-stakes its claim. Compound walls are in a state of disrepair, razorwire domestic defences blunt compared to those of neighbouring South Africa. Parts of the city lack power and sanitation but it is very safe our driver assures me.

Still, there are five police roadblocks between our lodging and the airport. It transpires that in Zimbabwe it is appropriate to smile at police: at number three I do not and am asked why I am angry. I’m not; smiles are easy currency and Zimbabwe invites them.

Matobo Hills is our first destination. The lodge is built into and around the ancient granite outcrops that, long stripped of their encasing layers of softer rock, rise in balancing boulder tricks above the arid scrubland. At dawn they glow pink, red, gold. Zebra browse below, mongooses sun themselves above.

Matobo hosts one of Africa’s last herds of white rhino, but numbers are impossibly low – perhaps 40 animals, all annually de-horned in an attempt to discourage poachers. Standing in thigh-high grass less than ten metres from a mother and her half-grown off-spring – our second siting of the day and far more placid than the first – it is difficult not to see them as doomed. Further north a once thriving population has been reduced to a single bull, kept under 24hr armed guard – it has the feel of a lonely life sentence.

Later we go in search of another potential victim of greed. On a cave wall deep in the park ochre rock paintings reflect the worldview of the San people, one of the fourteen original population groups to whom we owe our mitochondrial DNA. Hunters, animals, grain bins and rituals overlay one another in a glorious riot. And our being there, our footsteps and voices, our cameras and breathing, alter the conditions of the cave, accumulating into damage that will ultimately destroy this 10,000 year old record of a peoples’ existence.

Fortunately the caves are rationed: of the 3000 known rock art sites, only 20 are open to the public, which makes them safer than the San, whose remaining ancestral lands in the Kalihari are currently under assault from the mining industry and Government of neighbouring Botswana. The discovery of diamonds in the San’s Ancestral Lands Reserve has seen a series of campaigns to force them out. Schools and health posts have been closed and water supplies cut off. A landmark legal case that dragged out over four years in 2006 saw them regain the right to enter their lands; a second case, arguing for access to water, was launched in 2010. There is a horrible irony to a Government tourism industry that touts their indigenous people as a tourist attraction while ignoring the rulings of its own legal system and disallowing the continuance of their traditional way of life. Like the wholesale destruction of ecological systems and extinction of species, it is a story that is not unique to Africa.

We end our day at Cecil Rhodes’ grave, where the flames of sunset warm the hilltop’s monolithic boulders to glowing ochre and elephant shrews – one of Africa’s ‘little five’ – join our sundown celebration. Rhodes’s place in Africa’s history is currently under the eye of historians; his story under revision from conquering hero and builder of empire to architect of racial segregation and genocide.

South African universities have this year seen student protests focussed on the ongoing veneration of this man who reshaped half a continent. Ultimately one of Empire’s wealthiest men, he can hardly be argued a philanthropist, but he was also a product of his era and the Eurocentric worldview that then prevailed.

Despite my reservations I feel privileged to be here, not for Rhodes, but for the moment of the sun shedding its colour along the horizon and the sense of the sacrosanct that the surrounding, and far older, graves of chiefs confer.

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