By Bruce Ndlovu
While most people that reside in Bulawayo take pride in the title of the City of Kings, legendary arts practitioner Cont Mhlanga says the name does not bring out the city’s true cultural identity and therefore holds little value for him.
“Look around you,” he told Sunday Life this week. “How many cites and buildings would you say represent the true essence of Bulawayo? I mean the Bulawayo that was not drawn up by its colonisers.”
For Mhlanga, the landmarks that define Bulawayo are not true to what the city’s founding fathers had in mind when they settled in what would later become the south west of a larger Zimbabwe.
The Victorian buildings, so often the pride of many in Bulawayo, are not cultural landmarks that Mhlanga wants to celebrate. He is in search of what came before them, what defined the city before it was given a new architectural and cultural direction at the barrel of the gun.
“We’re trying to bring out the art and history of Bulawayo and this is not the Bulawayo that was designed by colonialists. The reason why we lack cultural tourists in Bulawayo is because we’re selling the colonial legacy, we’re selling a Bulawayo that only celebrates colonial relics.
When people come and visit Bulawayo they must think we’re proud of having been colonised because all that we celebrate dates back to the days of colonialism.
Those people must be saying people from Bulawayo must show us what they had before colonialism,” Mhlanga said.
Never one to sit on his laurels and watch others put in the hard labour, Mhlanga is determined to be at the centre of another cultural revolution, a revolution that will make the country’s second largest city an enviable cultural destination. As always with everything Cont Mhlanga related, this revolution will begin at Amakhosi.
The cultural centre is undergoing renovations and two things are uppermost in Mhlanga’s mind: the centre’s once defunct food court and a musical based on the life of Queen Lozikeyi. All this is part of Mhlanga’s grand plan to bring to life different pieces of a puzzle, a puzzle that, when complete, will become reminders of the city that Ndebele king Lobengula left behind.
“We are currently doing renovations which are very costly and all that is connected to the Lozikeyi musical. There’s no point in undergoing the very expensive process we’re undergoing now if there’s no cause. So what exactly is our cause? What we’re trying to recreate is King Lobengula’s old Bulawayo. So we have what we call Inxwala Food Court which is now under renovation at Amakhosi.
“This was the centre where everyone used to gather to eat food that’s true to the traditions of Bulawayo. We have Emazingeni History Gallery.
We’re currently in negotiation for that. It’s called Emazingeni because that is where the first four houses that were built there are and they’re all made of amazenge. Only one stands now and by that I mean that the thatching in the other three houses has collapsed and only the metal structures remain. We’re trying to raise them up again and in addition to that we have Old Bulawayo and the Carnival Park at Pupu Shangani.
These four places will be the nerve centre of the cultural tourism that we’re trying to give birth to in Bulawayo,” he said.
All this, Mhlanga said, was in attempt to show how the city was before the dawn of colonialism. If those in the arts did not do so, Mhlanga said, it would seem as if Bulawayo’s history started at the birth of colonialism.
“We’re therefore trying to revive a unique culture and we want to call it King Lobengula’s Ancient City of Bulawayo. We’re taking certain places in Bulawayo as spaces of unique cultural significance. The musical about Queen Lozikeyi fits into all of that because it shows us our life before all these changes.
The same goes for 1894 the Musical. We want a musical that we can take around the world and make people curious about what exactly this place called Bulawayo is all about,” he said.
Mhlanga said that Amakhosi’s latest venture was the culmination of a vision, a vision that began taking shape when he coined the centre’s trademark motto, “Umkhulu lomsebenzi”.
“I’ve never spoken about where the phrase Umkhulu Lomsebenzi came from but today I will. In its full meaning the phrase just means that the job of redefining oneself is big. This is because in the past we have not been able to define ourselves truly and what we’re doing now is part of that process,” he said.
After recruiting a new cast of young arts practitioners to spearhead Amakhosi’s revival earlier this year and reopening the famed centre’s famed theatre unit, Mhlanga said he was happy with the progress shown so far. The production, 1894 is set to open the way for Lozikeyi the Musical, a play that will feature a cast of old and new stars. Sandra Ndebele is expected to be the lead.
“The musical 1894 is a precursor to what we want to achieve with the Queen Lozikeyi musical. The Lozikeyi musical is expensive so you can’t do it without creating the right conditions for it. So 1894 is a school, it is our way of saying vulindlela.
We’re right now in the right direction but a bit far off from the finished product that is Queen Lozikeyi the Musical. We’re behind in terms of the design, the lighting and we’re not yet there with the musical production. The stage lights we acquired from outside the country are arriving this week and then we’re going to train our designers and set up other systems,” he said. The Sunday News