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The Land Where Rhodes Fell

Essay | A reluctant encounter with the grave of Cecil Rhodes 

Published by Moxy Magazine

In 1995, I traveled to Zimbabwe to conduct field research on the use of technology in schools. This essay recounts my encounter with the grave of Cecil Rhodes, who hacked his tomb into the most sacred place in the country. 




In the place called Bald Heads, Matobo in the Nedebele language, boulders articulate the landscape – large, oblong, tumbling toward each other, standing upright and tall, or softly rounded. The granite came two billion years ago or more, forced up from the infernal center of the earth, to be worked by time, rain, sun, and yet more time. Some stones balance, one atop the next, mother and child stones. Kopjes is the local word. Some are smooth and gently curved, whalebacked. Dwalas, they’re called. Boulders to the horizon, and beyond. On the inside curve of these rocks, thousands of years earlier, the San people mixed animal blood, soot, and crushed stone to make paint. And with the paint, they made stories: of successful hunts and hunts gone wrong, of animals and tricksters, and of a chameleon who brought immortality, a cooling drink from a sacred stream. But he came too slowly, always careful with his steps, and the water dried up, and so we humans die.


I stand inside the entrance to the national park that houses the grave of Cecil Rhodes. This is the meeting point set by the guide who will lead me and a few others into the bush. Rhodes, founder of the De Beers diamond company and architect of Britain’s brutal colonization of southern Africa, divided these lands and people, extracted its minerals, imported British administrators and farmers, and in 1895, he named the country for himself: Rhodesia. So it remained until 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence in a war of liberation, called the Second Chimurenga, and changed its name. 

The entrance opens onto a large stone platform. There is a ticket office in a wooden shed, a woman at the till. An arrow-shaped sign points up a set of steps, Grave Site. It is also the summit of Malindidzimu, the hill of spirits, though no sign relays this information.


Just a few weeks have passed since New Zealand’s All Blacks lost to South Africa’s Springboks in the Rugby World Cup final, the first match hosted in post-apartheid South Africa, depicted in the film Invictus. So now, everywhere I go, Kiwi fans are there too. After all, they told me, ‘we’ve come so far, why not see a bit of Africa?’ They form a kind of Greek chorus for my travels – albeit a hard-drinking chorus. And here they are again, filing off a tour bus. Their visit to this site, combined with the thousands that follow, add over a half million dollars a year to the country’s parched economy, and the park, a land grant from Rhodes himself, is Zimbabwe’s oldest. To work here is to have one of the area’s best jobs.

But me, I’m here to experience something else entirely. This land, these rocks, have sheltered humans since the stone age. I am just one more in 13,000 years, a speck on eternity’s clock. What was this place, before Rhodes, with an intuitive flair for appropriation – before he chose the most sacred hoodoo rocks in the country to bury himself, if ever he were to die?

Which he did do.

That is what I’m hoping to see – not a grave. Yet it seems I cannot not see this thing.

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