Let's work on our cultural treasures

HARARE - Any good travel writer will tell you that the best way to get the real feel of a country is to take a road trip because in that way you see the real things not just the tourist spots and you meet and interact with the local people.

When a tourist to Zimbabwe was heading to the Eastern Highlands recently, the request was for a quick visit to see rock paintings.

Time was short and because farm takeovers had left many rock paintings as good as “out of bounds” for passing tourists, a brief stop at Macheke town seemed a simple, safe and obvious option.

The rock paintings behind the Macheke Post Office are mentioned in published literature, directions are given and the paintings described as being easily accessible.

Some hundreds of metres off the main road, a small rusty black sign obscured by grass reassures you that you are in the right location despite all indications to the contrary.

What followed was shameful and embarrassing for a Zimbabwean to have to show a foreign guest.

This ancient site has become a public toilet strewn with tissue paper, human faeces and garbage.

The tall grass was higher than a man’s height, the path completely obliterated, overgrown with bushes, shrubs and creepers.

Stepping over piles of faeces, it took gritty determination to proceed; the urge to abandon seeing the paintings was almost overwhelming.

Four unemployed young men appeared and with their bare hands cleared a path for us to the paintings.

They knew these ancient images were there on the rock face: so near and yet so far. They snapped off branches, ripped out creepers and flattened tall grass and shrubs, clearing a track to the rock paintings.

Once there, gazing up at rock paintings which experts believe were painted between two and 10 thousand years ago, the scratched and sweating young men surveyed the visitors far more attentively than the rock art.

One said he thought the paintings had been done by his great grandfather.

It is hard to believe that this is happening in the same Zimbabwe that was recently awarded the 2013 “world’s most preferred cultural destination”.

Praising Tourism minister Walter Mzembi on the award last week, President Robert Mugabe said: “I wonder how many of us are aware of the historic treasures that we own. We need to leverage these treasures to attract visitors… they define our cultural diversity.”

The case of the disgracing state of the surrounds, difficulty in accessing the site and lack of protection of rock paintings behind  Macheke Post Office is one of hundreds of similar examples.

The sites of these priceless, irreplaceable historic treasures desperately require the attention of minister Mzembi as much as our big money-spinning tourist resorts like Victoria Falls, Kariba, Hwange and Great Zimbabwe Ruins.  

Minister Mzembi also needs to also focus his attention to other parts of the road trip that tourists travel.

The diabolical state of roads off the main highways has reached a crisis of national proportions.

It discourages tourists from turning off into any of our towns and cities, depriving us of the much needed revenue such visits bring.

Then there’s the fact that after every few kilometres, on any highway, we see people urinating on the roadsides.

Is this a cultural aspect that we want tourists to go away remembering?

The Tourism and Transport ministers need to collaborate so that part of the revenue raised from the impending tollgate fee increase is allocated to the construction of safe, clean, serviced restrooms at regular intervals on the highways.  

It’s not just the destination that will put Zimbabwe back on the tourist map, it’s also the road trip.

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