Not the Master's Tools: Learning from the Great Zimbabwe Landscape

Not the Master's Tools: Learning from the Great Zimbabwe Landscape

Résumé en français

Les paysages dans le continent africain sont de la plus haute importance car, contrairement à d'autres continents, ils sont parfois le seul moyen capable d'enregistrer l'histoire bâtie de l'Afrique. Dans son article intitulé "Utu in the Anthropocene", Rod Barnett affirme que "les outils du maître ne démantèleront jamais la maison du maître". Ces sentiments, exprimés alors qu'il se demandait s'il était possible de concevoir des projets pour les communautés indigènes ayant reçu une formation occidentale, trouvent de l’écho chez de nombreux designers en Afrique aujourd'hui. Dans cet article, je m’intéresse à l'ancienne cité du Grand Zimbabwe et j'examine son histoire riche et sa signification aussi bien dans le passé que dans l’avenir. Je m’interroge également sur la manière avec laquelle les preuves d'une grande compétence et d'unprogrès technologique ont dérangé les maîtres coloniaux qui ont tenté de déposséder les propriétaires légitimes de leur héritage. J’aborderai ensuite, les aspects uniques qui distinguent ce paysage et ce que nous pouvons apprendrede l'histoire de sa gestion en tant que site d'intérêt culturel. Enfin et dans le même contexte, nous verrons en examinant la conception du "village Shona", comment ce que nous pouvons apprendre de nos paysages indigènes peut nous aider à concevoir et à construire de futurs héritages.

Landscapes on the African continent are of utmost importance because unlike other continents they are sometimes the only way that Africa’s built history was recorded. In ‘Utu in the Anthropocene’, Rod Barnett states that ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. These sentiments, made as he grappled with whether it is possible to design for indigenous communities having received Western training, are echoed by many designers in Africa today. In this paper, I look at the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe and examine its rich history and significance in the past and future. I also consider how the evidence of great skill and technological advancement brought discomfort to colonial masters who tried to dispossess the rightful owners of their legacy. Secondly, I explore the unique aspects of the landscape that make it stand out and what we can learn from the history of its management as a culturally significant site. Finally, looking at the design of the ‘Shona village’ within the same context, how we can learn from our indigenous landscapes to inform how we design and build future legacies.


As designers on the African continent, we are often plagued with the question: ‘is it possible for us, having received scientific and non-indigenous education and training to be equipped to design for indigenous people and specifically on the African continent?’

Can we possibly put aside our biases and learn from systems that are sometimes the antithesis of the training we have received in institutions of higher learning? In his paper ‘Utu in the Anthropocene’ Rod Barnett (2021) profoundly echos Audre Lorde's (2018) sentiments that ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, meaning that the answers to these questions cannot be found within the scope of our Western education. Therefore, it is of great importance to constantly approach design for indigenous people from a position of learning.

Contextualising Landscape Architecture

Looking at the history of landscape architecture as a discipline, it is sometimes difficult to grapple with the African context. Fredrick Law Olmsted, for example, is often credited as being the father of landscape architecture, and his contribution to the field of landscape architecture is extremely valuable. However, history is relative and therefore one may argue that he is indeed the father of American landscape architecture but certainly not African landscape architecture. Viewing modern design through the lens of contextual history would be more beneficial to designers today.

In order to understand the contextual history, one must consider what is considered the ‘zero point’ of the discipline, which is its origin in both space and time (Mignolo 2011). Julian Raxworthy (2018) states that this at times proves difficult in the case of landscape architecture due to the temporal nature of plants which are a major component of landscape design. Despite the fact that landscape design has a similar effect on landscapes as architecture, plants, the main design material, are ephemeral and therefore their effects are felt temporarily unlike, for example, bricks (Brisbin &Thiessen 2018). There is also the issue of ‘denial of coeval’ where indigenous methods and people are considered pre-contemporary (Fabian 1990). Therefore, he argues that it is necessary to re-orient the zero point to accommodate other knowledge systems and practices.

In order to understand the role of Indigenous knowledge and practices and their effect on modern landscape design, one can look at Great Zimbabwe as a case study. Great Zimbabwe is an ancient city landscape consisting of remains of drystone wall structures and earthen houses, occupied by the Shona people between 1100 and 1450 AD. The design and construction of the city is sophisticated and drew the interest of many foreigners and archaeologists. Unfortunately, a lot of its history was destroyed during that period. It is currently listed as a World Heritage Site, resulting in its protection.

The city boasts walls up to twelve meters high, built without mortar, a feat of architecture and engineering, as well as numerous earthen (daga) houses built over an area of approximately 720 hectares (Ndoro & Pwiti 1997). There is also evidence of a vibrant array of plant life that was present in the past. The site has a rich history as well as many intangible and cultural aspects nestled within its landscape (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Great Zimbabwe (Source: Simonchihanga 2017)

The Cultural Meaning of ‘Landscape’

In many indigenous cultures, landscape is both open-ended and all-encompassing.

This often differs from a contemporary understanding where ’landscape’ and ‘site’ are synonymous. In many indigenous systems, the landscape is at the centre and human beings are simply a part of the landscape. Similar to this is the aboriginal understanding of ‘country’. In the Shona culture, one is said to be a ‘son of the soil’ as evidenced by practices, such as burying a child’s umbilical cord (Sinamai 2022). This shows a deep linkage and an intimate relationship between the landscape and its people which may be unfamiliar to many Western societies.

As I look at the landscape of Great Zimbabwe, I will focus on some of the temporal and intangible features of the landscape (plants, soundscape, water, and culture) and how they influence design.

Plants of Great Zimbabwe

The tragedy of Great Zimbabwe has been documented as a story of loss and plunder. Initially by colonial masters seeking to find treasure and later by archaeologists trying to discover the true history behind the magnificent dry-stone towers. In these investigations the entire landscape was transformed, especially the plant life. Unfortunately, unlike the architectural heritage, plant life was lost (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Plant life of Great Zimbabwe

When Mrs J Theodore first went into the Great Zimbabwe ruins, she described it as an ‘enchanted forest’ (Brisch 2012). This referred to the vegetation that had taken ownership of the landscape covering the stone-walled ruins. The ‘enchanted garden’ is no longer present today, however, it speaks to the story of Great Zimbabwe.

Some of the vegetation that exists there today, such as the two Red Milkwood (Mimusops zeyheri) trees, is significant in contemporary Zimbabwe. The interweaved growth of the bough is claimed to symbolise the unity between the ZAPU and ZANU political parties (Sievers & Wintjes 2015). The trees also show a history of attempted preservation through cement infilling of their hollows. Although the face of vegetation is ever-changing within the landscape of Great Zimbabwe, it still lends its voice and influence on contemporary narratives in present-day Zimbabwe (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: 1898 photograph by Mrs Theodore Brent of lianas and trees around the Conical Tower (Source: National Archives of Zimbabwe, pub. in Garlake 1973 p. 100)
Figure 4: Conical tower and Red Milkwood trees on a Zimbabwe currency note

Water in Great Zimbabwe

The Chisikana spring is of great cultural significance within the Great Zimbabwe landscape. It was a water source for a stream that fed into the neighbouring Mutirikwa river. The spring and its water were considered sacred and therefore only used to brew beer for sacred ceremonies (Sinamai 2022).

During colonisation in the 1890s, the Rhodesian government appropriated the landscape of Great Zimbabwe and completely transformed it into a tourist hub. Part of the transformation included the construction of tourism facilities, such as hotels and a golf course (Fontein 2006).

The Chisikana spring emptied into a site that had been allocated for a golf course thus making the area marshy. To make way for the new development the spring was blocked by filling it up with cement and planting Eucalyptus trees near the source. This placed the community in a difficult position as these actions prevented them from carrying out their traditional spiritual practices using the water from the spring (Sinamai 2022).

The communities claimed that the cement and the exotic trees had ‘locked’ the landscape’s memory and should be removed. Fortunately, this was done, and the spring was opened in the year 2000, graced by the presence of elders and chiefs of the three surrounding clans. During the opening, they were able to carry out their traditional ceremony. After a few days, the spring flowed freely. However, the local community do not currently have free access to do as they wish (Fontein 2006).

The Soundscape of Great Zimbabwe

In the early 2000s, Great Zimbabwe was used as the site of music shows that the government put on to promote unity, which resulted in complaints from the local community. In 2016, Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe also held his birthday there, adding to the irritation of local communities, who claimed that the introduction of these outside influences desecrated the Great Zimbabwe landscape.

During the various celebrations, the local elders complained that both the type of music played at these events, as well as the instruments used, were inappropriate for the sacred landscape. They claimed that these activities led to the disappearance of sounds (ancestral voices and animal sounds) that were previously heard from the Great Zimbabwe (Sinamai 2017).

These ancestral sounds were an integral part of the landscape, giving the place a unique identity and playing an important spiritual role in the local communities. However, due to ignorance or disrespect of these sacred soundscapes, they were drowned out by the contemporary ‘noise’, thus undermining the landscape’s identity. The local elders claim that the silence of the ancestors and spirits is an act of anger and resistance to intrusion (Fontein 2006).

Landscape Maintenance Practices

As demonstrated, cultural landscapes can only be maintained using indigenous practices because the measures taken to conserve culture can only be informed by Indigenous knowledge.

Great Zimbabwe has undergone much destruction which has threatened its sanctity and the community’s harmonious existence with the land and the ancestors. Management practices, such as new roads and buildings within the ruins, the felling of muchakata (Red Milkwood trees), the rebuilding of the walls using cement and fencing, symbolise a new pattern of ownership and appropriation. The fence is a tool of separation of the landscape (both tangible and intangible) from its people. It also limits access and facilitates the collection of an entrance fee which is a great bone of contention (Fontein 2007).

Designing Future Landscapes

In 1986, an outdoor museum was designed and constructed, the intention being to improve the value provided to tourists through showing the workings of a ‘typical 19th Century Shona Village’ (Figure 5). It comprises an area for a homestead belonging to a wealthy man, as well as various traditional activity areas depicting the making of pots and smelting of iron. There is also a section for the n’anga (traditional healer) where herbal medicines are displayed, and where he occasionally emerges from his hut. This is one of the most popular attractions of the living museum.

Figure 5: Model Shona village in the valley of Great Zimbabwe (Source: Wozniak 1996)

The living museum was intended to depict an authentic village. However the design of the layout and components of the village are not accurate and therefore do not achieve the original intention. For example, the village seems to be self-sufficient in having its own mortuary as seen in Figure 6, which was unlikely in traditional Shona homesteads. Polygamy is also depicted, which is a common stereotype perpetuated about many African marital unions. However, this is inaccurate as most Shona marriages were in fact monogamous.

The housing typologies depicted are also not historically accurate, being much simpler than the structures of the Great Zimbabwe landscape within which they are built. Unfortunately, this simplistic depiction of a typical village may give the impression that the complex structures within Great Zimbabwe could not have possibly been built by the same people (Ndoro & Pwiti 1997). The juxtaposition begins to create doubt and leaves the history open to speculation, the very antithesis for which it was designed and constructed.

Figure 6: Plan of the model village (Source: Ndoro & Pwiti 1997)

In the design and establishment of this model village, an assumption was made that the archaeological remains of Great Zimbabwe would not be enough reason for tourists to visit the landscape.

Unfortunately, the components of this design seem to cater to the foreign visitor, while many of the items and practices found within the living museum are already known to local Shona people. The approach taken in providing this extra attraction may be comparable to the actions of the colonisers who built a golf course and installed exotic plants (Ndoro & Pwiti 1997).

There were many assumptions and generalisations made during the construction of the model village which completely changed the landscape. It may have seemed like a great idea to provide more visibility and attraction to the site according to western standards, but the lack of proper application of indigenous knowledge led to the production of an ambiguous outcome which is not well used or well-loved.


As designers with western training, we have the hard task of beginning to expand our ‘zero point’, accepting and embracing the fact that, despite our training, other contextual knowledge may be more beneficial to the way we design.

We must understand that even our fundamental understanding of basic concepts may be challenged. We, therefore, have a responsibility to hold other knowledge systems in high regard, and to be open to learning from them.

Both contemporary disciplines and Indigenous knowledge systems are necessary for future development. However, the future also calls for what Walter D. Mignolo (2011) terms as ‘epistemic disobedience’. This refers to hybrid knowledge practices that interact, go back and forth or even contradict both indigenous and Western discourse. Ours is a discipline that is continually evolving, therefore ensuring that our ways of learning are fluid and flexible - a requirement much more than a suggestion.


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