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An Alternative History of Bulawayo The Scouts Movement

Present day Bulawayo - Southern Eye

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I was born in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo. Affectionately known as the ‘City of Kings’, Bulawayo is in Southern Zimbabwe and is home to the Ndebele tribe, descendants of the Zulu kingdom of South Africa. It takes its name (which means ‘the place of slaughter’), from the result of a bloody battle which lead to the ascension of King Lobengula to the throne. Lobengula was the king of the Ndebele nation and was a progressive king who wanted to embrace the arrival of white settlers to exploit their ability to mine minerals from the rich fields that dotted the landscape of his kingdom.

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Ultimately that would prove to be his undoing as the settlers realised the unlimited riches that lay beneath the earth and began a campaign to overthrow the king and lay claim to the land for themselves. This political history of Bulawayo has spawned numerous versions of how Lobengula sold out his kingdom in return for packs of sugar however it neglects to mention that colonialism had been well and truly underway and for Lobengula to have held out that long was testament to his strength.

King Lobengula - bulawayo1872.com


The Matobo Hills - joanfrankham.wordpress.com

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But Bulawayo also has a proud history of firsts that reached far beyond the borders of Zimbabwe’s land-locked territory. One of these is that 25km from Bulawayo city centre, lie the Matobo hills where the early foundations for the Scouts Movement were established. Lord Robert Baden-Powell is credited with the founding of the Scouts but this would not have been possible without the work he carried out there under the American, Frederick Russell Burnham.

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Baden-Powell, an officer in the British Army was stationed in the Matabeleland region of Southern Zimbabwe when he met Burnham. The friendship they struck up was to prove pivotal as Burnham, who had grown up around Sioux indians, taught Baden Powell the skill of woodcraft.

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The irony is that this happened at a time when the British Army was Robert Baden-Powell actively engaged in a bloody battle dubbed ‘The 2nd Matabele War’ with King Lobengula’s troops. During breaks in the fighting, the two men would venture to the Matobo hills to practice and perfect the early ideas that would lead to Baden-Powell writing ‘Aids to Scouting’, widely held up as the first manual for the Scouting Movement.

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Bulawayo’s hills provided Baden-Powell the perfect environment to learn from Burnham and also develop the skills of rope craft, tracking and survival that now form the curriculum of the modern Scout’s training. This Frederick Russell Burnham little known fact is usually given very little space in the retelling of the history of the Scouts. The modern version mentions little of those formative days and how it was only on Baden-Powell’s return to England that the first jamboree was held in Brownsea, Dorset in 1907.

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For most of us who grew up in Bulawayo, there was a strong connection to the colonial story of the city and its role as a place where the great King Lobengula was victorious in many battles. However stories such as this rarely enter into the mainstream conversation. Perhaps


it was Baden-Powell and Burnham’s ties with colonial Britain that make it difficult for them to be attributed with anything achieved in the midst of an attempt to overthrow a sovereign king. It is from the spoils of the 2nd Matabele war that Baden-Powell and Burnham managed to enjoy much of the freedom to roam the Matobo hills and engage in past times that the locals were now unable to enjoy. In my view this is in all probability why the modern Scouts organisation is careful not to play on their colonial past.

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Cecil John Rhodes illustration by Baden-Powell


Bulawayo - An alternative History  
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