Livingstone and Rhodes in Africa: What Shall we do?

President Robert Mugabe, in an exclusive press conference in Harare, 2015, jokingly shares a few laughs with President Jacob Zuma over their shared affinity with the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes. Coaxed by the applauding audience and the press, he continues saying that whereas South Africa has Rhode’s statue in Cape Town, Zimbabwe has his bones in the Matopos Hills. The charismatic pariah-president banters out a few rhetorical questions targeted to no one in particular: “We are looking after the corpse. You have the statue of him. I don’t know what you think we should do. Dig him up? Perhaps his spirit will rise again, what shall we do?”

2 522, 4 km away in Cape Town, the Rhodes Must Fall movement is raising similar questions but with little mirth or conviviality. The protesting students of 2015 and 2016 across the country have drawn attention to the in/visible vestiges of colonialism and it is from this lead that I begin to consider the fact of nomenclature in relation to Southern African cities, towns, and a similar interest is equally viable in looking at features such as rivers, dams and mountains, of which I am unable to comprehensively do so in this brief essay but encourage the readers to proceed in that concern. It was with this heightened sense of curiosity in considering the names of cities that I embarked on a trip to visit a town called Livingstone in Zambia.

Sometime when the airplane levelled above the clouds, I retrieved a magazine out of the pouch that secures, amongst other reading materials:  instruction manuals detailing what to do in the event of an accident, catalogues and brochures advertising jewelry and other luxury commodities and refuse bags. A comely Tonga woman with a full set of white teeth filled the front cover. A brief browse promised a copious amount of ‘environmental facts and tourist attractions that Livingstone boasts. From this cursory and semi-conscious perusal, I obtained that Livingstone lies in the southwestern part of Zambia, a few kilometres from the Zambezi River and the Zimbabwean border. All this I knew, but without the technical and quantitative specificity that the magazine detailed. My familiarity with this SADC region stems from having crossed its various borders  more times than I can remember as a child and as a young adult. My travelling this region has been for numerous reasons, some being: going to and from boarding school, visiting relatives for the holidays and emigrating from one country to another as I have done on three occasions.

The plane begun to descend, revealing a modest airport that looked more like a lone warehouse in the middle of a resplendent field. Its simplicity was confirmed on the ground, with its one story building that gives the sense that it has remained unchanged since at least the 80s. Moreover, the internet was down which confirmed the feeling that I had travelled back into simpler times. The genteel marshals, beckoned us off the tarmac and into the main building.  Appearing to be getting along fine without Wi-Fi, they made me feel snobby for repeatedly glancing at my phone and willing it to connect to something.

I learned, from the magazine, that Livingstone town was established in 1905 and was named after the itinerant British Victorian missionary and explorer Dr. David Livingstone. Dr. Livingstone explored the area extensively and for his efforts he is credited with ‘discovering’ the Victoria Falls. This wonder of nature, comprising of a series of waterfalls that feed into the Zambezi River is and was known as Mosi-oa-Tunia in the native Tonga long before Livingstone came trudging through the undergrowth. It was a major colonial settlement, and in 1911 it was the capital of Northern Rhodesia (pre-independence Zambia) up until 1955.  Its centrality in colonial governance is made obvious by its proximity to the Zambezi River, which provides passage into Zimbabwe (previously called Southern Rhodesia). The two Rhodesias and Nyasaland (modern day Malawi) were known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1911. This federation was administered by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) on behalf of the British government. Fast forward to the present one finds that some places have retained the names that they were given under the administration of the BSAC.

In comparison to Rhodes, Dr. Livingstone’s reach is as modest as the town he has come to lend his name to. On the contrary,  being a man set not to be overshadowed, the indomitable Rhodes lent his name to two countries. This uncannily signifies the different but related aspirations of the two imperialists—one was fishing for souls of the heathens and the other was committed to the accumulation of capital and power, and land. Both men irrevocably remain a part of Southern Africa, each claiming a burial ground in the region.

Returning back to President Mugabe’s remarks, do we exhume them?

My compatriots in South Africa are calling for the digging up of these bones and discarding them far away. This literal removal of statues, taking down of paintings and the renaming of buildings will consummate that historic catharsis experienced after one desecrates the monuments of one’s enemies. It is widely accepted that taking down statues does not and will not translate into institutional transformation. Mugabe, himself, sardonically makes this point (his suggestion is that we should let sleeping dogs lie). He chidingly quips that if anyone should be complaining, it is the people of Zimbabwe who have the bones of the man resting on their soil. The wiser still have been eloquent in articulating that transformation has a symbolic and a structural dynamic to it. It is not enough for the statue to be doused in poo or to be dethroned. But what is needed is a fundamental reformation of institutions. What this looks like or the form it takes remains to be agreed upon, and some approaches are available for analysis and possible implementation. However, I am persuaded that Livingstone (of all places!) offers an interesting case (study) to be pondered over. We have to ask whether the consent of Zambians (if we can even use the language of consent) to having one of their provinces named after Dr. Livingstone is evidence of their docility. Alternatively, could the perseverance of the “colonial” name indicate that, perhaps such politics of nomenclature are fundamentally trivial in the broader scheme of how people fulfil their lives, pursue material interests and raise families?

Returning to my journey, twenty minutes of driving away from the airport in Livingstone brings one to a central business district. It is unorthodox to a pair of eyes that have seen the likes of cities such as Johannesburg, Nairobi and New York, or Cape Town, Gaborone or Basel. Livingstone is a modest town with buildings that go no higher than five floors, informal market stalls and partly tarred untarred roads. Perhaps this is precisely its charm—time at a standstill. It seems to console the foreign traveler that time is in abundance, with the hassles of developed towns and cities far away and distant. It bequeathed me, from one imaginative way of looking at it, the promise of an eternal present (or past) and the ultimate tourist’s desire—time out. I, myself felt a rootlessness (which wasn’t particularly unpleasant) of having been sequestered from the “standard time” that I am accustomed to.

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From the perspective of Livingstone, the fast pace and over-development of the generic city seemed grotesque. The air of casualness that pervades the town comes off as a criticism of the man-on-the-streetism that one sees in a metropolis. This is the real Africa, I imagined one of my compatriots remarking. The ubiquitous attitude of unconcern in infrastructure was especially palpable , having just flown in from Cape Town, which is also colloquially known as Africa lite for its more European appearance and its cosmopolitan composition. So whereas Cape Town’s (in)famous Long Street offers the flâneur a fine selection of haberdashery, alfresco cafes and tattoo parlours, the equivalent in Livingstone offers little to match that. One does not sight the familiar characters that prance about the central business district of Jo’burg or Cape Town: the light-footed tsotsi, the middle-manager and the executive CEO.

In my time in Livingstone, I visited the museum located in the middle of the town. If there is prestige attached to being the oldest museum in Zambia, it is not easily discerned from this humble building. Standing sentry before its entrance is the head of Dr Kenneth Kaunda companioned by a man-size statue of the ubiquitous Dr. Livingstone, who standing erect on outstretched legs, wields his iconic walking stick associated with pioneering missionaries and settlers. Across the entrance in the cavernous foyer is a wall sized etching of the map of Zambia. This brings to mind Luis Borge’s paragraph-long short story titled, On Exactitude in Science (or On Rigor in Science, and the original Spanish-language title is “Del rigor en la ciencia“). In this story Borges reflects on maps and their aspiration to relate to the real territory that they represent. He sketches an empire whose science of cartography becomes so exact that nothing else suffices but a map the same scale as the empire itself. The walled map in the foyer serves as an indexical illustration that the visitor can refer to as they walk the different sections of the museum. Livingstone is more rural than anything else, albeit this community existing within a context of a golden age of tourism in the region. One seldom walks the streets for ten minutes without sighting shuttles and  safari trucks transporting camera wielding tourists. The Mosi-oa-Tunya falls attracts visitors from all over the world. Shortly after my departure, I read that, Hollywood film star Will Smith was spotted in the area.

Returning back to Cape Town where at present the statue has been felled, I am struck with a deep sense that discussions concerning and emerging from this invariably invokes and calls for a discursive intersection of history and geo-politics. I cannot imagine anyone thinking that the removal of the statue will actualise into broader socio-economic change. The insight readily available to me from my trip to Zambia is that Rhodes is as ubiquitous in Cape Town as his missionary counterpart is in Livingstone. Apart from that, dear reader, there is little else I can presently offer;  “I don’t know what you think we should do. Dig him up? Perhaps his spirit will rise again, what shall we do?”

By Zimpande Kawanu