I am not a prophet of doom or an evangelist of fantasies but an equally qualified preacher of reality. Zimbabwe is beyond any shadow of doubt one of the world’s most phenomenal tourist destinations. This is so because of her variety of flora and fauna, majestic landforms and of course, exceptional manmade structures like the Great Zimbabwe ruins and the Birchenough Bridge, which constitutes the fundamental basis of this opinion piece.
I hate sounding too radical in my discourse, for some specific reasons, but may I hasten to say, if one has ever been to the Birchenough Bridge and does not testify to its splendor and grandeur, he or she is either blind to aesthetics or in need of some service of a psychiatric doctor. This assertion is not typical to putting lipstick on a female frog hoping that it will win the Miss World beauty contest; it is just calling a spade what it is exactly – a spade not a big spoon. The Birchenough Bridge is enough to compel one to the realisation and belief that there is no barrier too big to the human spirit or a task too enormous to be attained by a combination of human ideas and efforts. It is so rare and nice a place to be.
Speaking on the sidelines of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly last year , former Zimbabwe’s learned and eloquent Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister, Dr Walter Mzembi, exhorted fellow citizens to speak good about their nation especially in the diaspora in order to attract tourists into the country. While freedom of expression and the right to protest are not a myth given that they are enshrined in our constitution and of many other nations. Zimbabweans anywhere are allowed to lawfully and peacefully express any forms of their discontentment. Whether these protesters are wrong or correct is of course, a discussion for another day. However, it is quite imperative for the citizens of Zimbabwe to harness patriotism and portray their nation in good light in as far as making known the spectacular tourist resorts in the tea pot shaped country we call Zimbabwe is concerned. Politics aside, patriotism being defined or rather redefined within the parameters and confines of one’s love for his or her country not political affiliations, one may consider taking a leaf from Dr Mzembi’s sentiments and also, articulate the lulus of own country in various parts of the world.
As one of the local based tourists, I went to The Birchenough Bridge recently to quench my thirst for aesthetic scenery. Surely, the Birchenough Bridge is one of the best mechanical structures in Zimbabwe and its economic value can never be undermined. The Birchenough Bridge is a name used simultaneous for the country’s greatest piece of civil engineering which made arguably the third largest Zimbabwean river , Save, passable .
The bridge provides a link between Buhera and Chipinge in the eastern side of the country or Manicaland Province. Its construction was completed in 1935 and as I write, it is the only bridge in Zimbabwe without support or piers on the bottom providing it with reinforcement it is also, one of the very few bridges in the world with such characteristics. The structure was named after Sir Henry Bechnough who doubled as chairperson of the critically acclaimed Beit Trust, an organization which funded and administered its construction,and also presided over the British South African Company (BSAC) up until his death in 1937, I have learnt.
Interestingly, the northen side of the bridge have walls which contain the ashes of Henry Birchenough and his wife Mabel in honour of their contribution to the development of the infrastructure of the by then Rhodesia. Still on this note, a prolific civil engineer designed the bridge by the name Ralph Freeman who was also the architectural designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia; as a result, the Birchenough Bridge and the Sydney Harbour bridge are identical to some greater extent, albeit the later is longer than the former. This arc-bridge is also extra – ordinary due to its length of 378m and the clearance below its deck is approximately 15m.
On the other extreme, ‘Birchenough Bridge’ is a name given to the village located close to the bridge, whose residents largely depend on small scale farming to eke a living , using the irrigation facility linked to Save river, which is technically pronounced, Sa’ve.
The importance of Birchenough Bridge as a potential haven for both local and global tourists is manifold.
Firstly, the mechanical structure is of uttermost and paramount importance intellectually, especially to Intergrated Science students in high schools of Zimbabwe as well as civil engineering students the world over in various tertiary institutions. In Zimbabwe’s secondary school curriculum , the ordinary level Intergrated Science syllabi has a topic which deals with structures and mechanical systems, these are dams and bridges in particular.
If my memory serves me right- I’m sure it does- the recommended text book and mandatory syllabi of the above mentioned subject embodies the concept of how arch bridges support forces exerted by loads on them , Focus on Science Pupils’ Book 4 even have a picture of The Birchenough Bridge and explains at length on how the historic property works. Therefore, Birchenough Bridge can and should be used as a real media in teaching and learning of the afore-mentioned concept in high schools of Zimbabwe and civil engineering classes of various tertiary institutions the world over.
This concept of arch bridges should be well explained right at Birchenough Bridge where students can record, observe and manipulate the real object – much to the assimilation of the concept. More often than not, educational gurus recommend the use of real objects in teaching and learning of science as effective instruments of facilitating grasp of the concepts taught. In this wavelength, educational institutions concerned are urged to take an educational tour to Birchenough Bridge and learn better.
Ostensibly, students are among others the potential target group of tourist , who, if aware should visit this resort . This proposition is not only premised on the scientific value of the structure but also its geo-location. Remember, as mentioned earlier on, the bridge is on Save river, hence or otherwise, thegeography departments of schools may also galvanize with science educators and use that landform to teach on ‘Rivers’ , another critical component of physical geography embedded in the geography syllabus at both ordinary and advanced level .
As if that was not enough, the evergreen fields can be used as ‘realia’ or real objects in the teaching of ‘Farming’ one of the cardinal topics in the study of economic Geography in high schools of Zimbabwe. In addition, the settlement pattern of people living in the Birchenough Bridge village is so unique such that Geography teachers might as well use them as referral points in teaching on ‘Settlement’ an integral aspect of Human and Social Geography .
Need I say more?
Surely, Birchenough Bridge is of great value to learners and classroom practitioners alike especially in high schools and tertiary instititutions. In this plight, this magnificent place has to be tourism sensitive . Hence, there should be a counter where tourists can pay a very reasonable amount for touring the place . This would not only create employment or boost government revenue but also raise the Zimbabwean flag high as a place of substance, thereby creating in young citizens a sense of belonging and patriotism. Not only that, the growth of tourism in a country accelatrates the growth of other sectors for example , the transport and retail sector benefits immensely as tourists use their services and products respectively. This will further imply that as tourist expands solidly and grow strongly, obviously, that will lead to the development of the host nation’s gross domestic product, which, in layman’s terms denotes economic growth.
This automatically brings me to my next point.
Having said that, I perceive that the first port of call for promoting Birchenough Bridge as a tourist luring resort is to lower prices of goods and services, which should be set to be provided. Idealistically, when prices of goods and services are temporarily and initially lowered it will promote consumption , then, in the long run prices can be raised for sustainability . Rationally, there is nothing more attractive to tourists than an affordable tourist destination. In this regard, a very affordable fee should be charged for one to experience the wonders of Birchenough Bridge. In my humble opinion, to make matters easy for the villagers of Birchenough Bridge, they must be given a gate pass to use when passing by the place on their daily routine at no cost. To that effect, they should produce an acceptable identification.
Tourism works hand in glove with the hospitality industry. Indeed and in fact, the correlation between the two is inevitable. If at all, this place is going to revolve into the tourist destination it has the potential to be , the need for good but affordable accommodation can never be understated. It is neither open to doubt nor close to ambiguity that having a vibrant tourist destination with mediocre hospitality is as impossible as it is to impregnate a man. Currently, there is Birchenough Bridge Hotel and Conference Centre nearby, which is costing US $20 and $25 per room, for accommodating one and two people for a day respectively. Their meals are pegged at $ . This can be justified to some extend but still, what is ironic is that, the quality of service delivery was found wanting. The hotel as I saw it , is still far from reaching world class and there are some serious need for renovations for it to be tourist friendly . There is also need for facilities like internet provision in the form of WiFi so that the place may attract visitors like members of the civic society working in and around Buhera and Chipinge for some non governmental organizations. In the 21st century a place without good internet provision is not hospitable for tourists both local and foreign due to the advent of technology.
The other cause for concern at Birchenough Bridge , in line with its tourist destination potentiality is the deplorability of the road leading to the bridge and hotel. Accessibility is a key factor and the road networks to tourist destinations should be fit for use without tourists having to go through some form of glitches .
The local community has also been, in recent years, a threat to the development and ultimate well being of the Birchenough Bridge as a tourist destination. This has been through vandalism of the property, for instance, some electricity wall sockets used for spray painting machines and other purposes deemed necessary along the bridge were damaged. Such a behavior by members of the community is foolhardy and can never be condoned to say but the least. There is need for some tight people friendly security to safeguard this worth resource we find ourselves stewards of.
Any perpetrator of vandalism of such a national property of this magnitude should be made test the ferocity of their medicine by facing the wrath of the law. It is our collective responsibility to promote and protect Birchenough Bridge ,and most importantly , if we are to boost our tourism industry – that is a battle we cannot afford to lose or back away from ! Life in general runs on the principle and vehicle of cause and effect. Before we can boast of a boost in the tourism sector we have to foster for tourist magnetic field; with the quality of our infrastructure through our actions and or inactions as responsible citizens.
It also goes without saying that , a bridge is as great as the river upon which it is constructed . In the same vein, Save river should be protected from notable stream bank cultivation which amounts to its siltation and a relative decrease in its water holding capacity, which will jeopardize fishing prospects and hamper the provision of large amounts of water onto the irrigation farming sites. This may in turn, culminate in reduction of yields and poor standards of living for those who fend for their families with the proceeds of their farming activities.
As a matter of fact, tourists do not visit places they do not know of. Marketing and advertising are cardinal in the tourism and hospitality industry just like in any other viable business domain. Suffice to say, there is need for a rigorous marketing of Birchenough Bridge as a tourist destination. This can be done through catalogues and magazines distributed in well established hotels which accommodates many tourist across the country like Holliday Inn, Carebea Bay, Trotbeck Inn and many others . The media, both print and electronic, can also be instrumental in promoting the Birchenough Bridge to be an oasis of tourists. Transforming places like the Birchnough Bridge into viable tourists hum is a herculean task for the new minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Cde Priscah Mupfumira.
Overarchingly, after some of the strengths, limitations and suggestions has been explored on Bechnough Bridge as a tourist destination, it doesn’t need one to be a rocket scientist to conceptualize and contemplate the possibility of making Birchenough Bridge a better place to be for tourists. After all, I’m not a prophet , my charismatic brother Emmanuel Makandiwa is, but seeing tourists flocking to Birchenough Bridge is possible in our lifetime .Yes. It only calls for a robust all stakeholders’ commitment.
Elton Gomori is an academic, author, analyst and commentator. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted via email on [email protected]