Inhabitant of Bulawayo, 1890
The city was founded by the Ndebele king, Lobhengula, the son of King Mzilikazi born of Matshobana who settled in modern-day Zimbabwe around the 1840s after the Ndebele people's great trek from Nguniland. The name Bulawayo comes from the Ndebele word KoBulawayo meaning "a place where he is being killed". It is thought that, at the time of the formation of the city, there was a civil war. A group of Ndebeles not aligned to Prince Lobengula were fighting him as they felt he was not the heir to the throne, hence he gave his capital the name "where he (the prince) is being killed". It is said that when King Lobengula named the place "KoBulawayo" his generals asked "who is being killed mtanenkosi (prince)?" and he replied "Yimi umntwanenkosi engibulawayo", meaning "it's me, the prince, who is being killed". At the time Lobengula was a prince fighting to ascend his father's (Mzilikazi) throne. It was common at the time for people to refer to Bulawayo as "KoBulawayo UmntwaneNkosi" "a place where they are fighting or rising against the prince". The name Bulawayo is imported from Nguniland which was once occupied by the Khumalo people. The place still exists: It is next to Richards Bay.
In the 1860s the city was further influenced by European intrigue, and many colonial powers cast covetous eyes on Bulawayo and the land surrounding it. Britain made skillful use of private initiative in the shape of Cecil Rhodes and the Chartered Company to disarm the suspicion of her rivals. Lobengula once described Britain as a chameleon and himself as the fly.
During the 1893 Matabele War, the invasion by British South Africa Company troops forced King Lobengula to evacuate his followers, after first detonating munitions and setting fire to the town. BSAC troops and white settlers occupied the ruins. On 4 November 1893, Leander Starr Jameson declared Bulawayo a settlement under the rule of the British South Africa Company. Cecil Rhodes ordained that the new settlement be founded on the ruins of Lobengula's royal kraal, which is where the State House stands today. In 1897, the new town of Bulawayo acquired the status of municipality, and Lt. Col. Harry White became one of the first mayors.
At the outbreak of the Second Matabele War, in March 1896, Bulawayo was besieged by Ndebele forces, and a laager was established there for defensive purposes. The Ndebele had experienced the brutal effectiveness of the British Maxim guns in the First Matabele War, so they never mounted a significant attack against Bulawayo, even though over 10,000 Ndebele warriors could be seen near the town. Rather than wait passively, the settlers mounted patrols, called the Bulawayo Field Force, under Frederick Selous and Frederick Russell Burnham. These patrols rode out to rescue any surviving settlers in the countryside and attacked the Ndebele. In the first week of fighting, 20 men of the Bulawayo Field Force were killed and 50 were wounded. An unknown number of Ndebele were killed and wounded.
During the siege, conditions in Bulawayo quickly deteriorated. By day, settlers could go to homes and buildings in the town, but at night they were forced to seek shelter in the much smaller laager. Nearly 1,000 women and children were crowded into the small area and false alarms of attacks were common. The Ndebele made a critical error during the siege in neglecting to cut the telegraph lines connecting Bulawayo to Mafikeng. This gave the besieged Bulawayo Field Force and the British relief forces, coming from Salisbury and Fort Victoria (now Harare and Masvingo respectively) 300 miles to the north, and from Kimberley and Mafeking 600 miles to the south, far more information than they would otherwise have had. Once the relief forces arrived in late May 1896, the siege was broken and an estimated 50,000 Ndebele retreated into their stronghold, the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo. Not until October 1896 would the Ndebele finally lay down their arms to the invaders.
In 1943, Bulawayo received city status.
In recent years, Bulawayo has experienced a sharp fall in living standards coinciding with the severe economic crisis affecting the country. The main problems include poor investment, reluctance by government to improve infrastructure and corruption and nepotism leading to most original dwellers of the city migrating south to the neighbouring South Africa. Water shortages due to lack of expansion in facilities and supplies have become steadily more acute since 1992. Cholera broke out in 2008. Though the city is the centre of the southern population generally categorized as the Matebele, the composition of the city is made up of people from all over the country. The Central Business District has the widest roads which were deliberately made so to accommodate the carts that were used as a primary means of transport back when the town was planned and erected.
Bulawayo is nicknamed the "City of Kings" or "kontuthu ziyathunqa"—a Ndebele phrase for "smoke arising". This name arose from the city's historically large industrial base and specifically draws from the large cooling towers of the coal powered electricity generating plant situated in the city centre that once used to billow steam and smoke over the city. The majority of Bulawayo's population belongs to the Ndebele ethnic and language group (otherwise known as Northern Ndebele).
Kenilworth Towers, residential flats