The Sunday Mail
STODART Hall, located in Zimbabwe’s oldest township of Mbare, makes little impression of a national monument that it should be.With paint peeling off its walls and rather insipid surrounds, the hall boasts neither the majestic charm nor the warmth of other iconic monuments such as the National Heroes’ Acre.
Yet with all of its flaws, Stodart Hall, which is also Mbare’s biggest community centre, claims a high but uncelebrated place in the corridors of history.
Not many people, especially younger generations, will know that it was in this emblematic building, at the outset of the Second Chimurenga, that nationalists met and plotted confrontation of the colonial Government.
It was also on the same soil that, on July 20 1960, youths are said to have bravely fought back a cordon of Rhodesian police, setting off a new phase of resistance against racist white rule.
“That was the first day I met the President, Robert Mugabe,” said Takaendesa Masawi (81) who has lived in the suburb since early 1950s. He had been giving a speech and as young people we were really inspired by him.
“He had just come back from Ghana and he spoke with verve and conviction. By the time he walked off the stage the streets were lit, the police simply didn’t see it coming.”
Ultimately, Stodart Hall put Mbare on the map as a political hotbed and the regime would descend heavily on the suburb leading to the arrest of a number of nationalists. Today, the hall is a place of last vigil for deceased national heroes, a number of whom met there for meetings.
One after the other, heroes of the struggle such as the late Vice Presidents Joshua Nkomo, Simon Muzenda and John Nkomo were taken to Stodart Hall for masses to pay their last respects. However, very few people can identify with the history surrounding the structure.
Few of the youths who often go to the iconic hall for social events, sports and music shows know why the struggle heroes are brought to Stodart Hall for state funerals. Instead, they know it more as the home of Zim dancehall, given the number of dancehall concerts that are held there annually.
“It’s a bit of a disappointment looking at the state of the hall as well as the little commitment from the youngsters to learn more about it,” said Sekuru Masawi.
“But on the other hand, you cannot blame the youths, the authorities have not accorded this place the right care, which matches its historical importance. So the youths end up taking it for granted.”
Stodart Hall is, however, not known for political reasons alone. Adjacent to the George Hartley Swimming Pool, popularly known as KwaNowero and the Stodart Netball Complex, the facility is now used for musical gigs, church gatherings and conferences.
Despite its modest appearance, the facility has since the colonial era attracted international artistes. Stodart Hall hosted Sir Cliff Richard, a British pop singer and actor, during his tour in the 1960s.
In recent times, famed Jamaican artistes like Capleton, Turbulance and Luciano whose music identifies with daily struggles in townships have also graced the hall in their respective tours.
Music Promoter Partson Chimbodza said the hall is of great importance to the music industry particularly Zim dancehall.
“I can’t say much about the role it played during liberation struggle but it has been of great importance in uplifting talent in Mbare,” he said, adding “Artistes would converge to showcase their talents because of its centrality and we thank the City Council for availing such a facility, which has nurtured renowned artistes from dance, theatre to music.”
When The Sunday Mail Society paid a visit to the place on Wednesday, it barely had life, with a handful of students milling around the complex. There is no green lawn or flowers around to decorate the famous hall.
Even the roads, which lead to the memorial site are in bad shape and residents who talked to this publication said they are only patched whenever a deceased hero is brought here for last respects.
Residents also complained that the infrastructure around the complex continues to decline with little attention. Harare City Council, who are the owners of the property, maintained that they do routine maintenance but called for the support of the community.
“Stodart Hall is routinely maintained,” said council spokesperson Mr Michael Chideme. “There is an annual budget set aside for that. But it must be understood that Stodart Hall is in the category of reserved buildings, meaning you cannot do too much changes or renovations to the building because it is a historical site.
“We also appeal to the community and to owners of properties around that area to chip in and help improve the surroundings.”
Curator of Historic Buildings at the National Museums and Monuments Mr Godfrey Nyaruwanga said Stodart Hall was not yet a national monument but hastened that a dossier to proclaim such status is almost ready.
“For now the building is only a protected area but we are almost through with a dossier to proclaim it a National Monument,” he said.
“It’s a process but eventually we will get there. It’s not only Stodart Hall but also Mai Musodzi Hall and President Mugabe’s house in Highfield that we are focusing on this year.”
Stodart Hall is just another star in the pool of Mbare’s monumental features, which include the Pioneers’ Cemetery, Mai Musodzi Hall and the domineering Rufaro Stadium.
Like Stodart Hall, much of these sites are crying out for attention and maintenance. It is a similar situation at Highfield’s iconic Mushandirapamwe Hotel.
The hotel, one of only a few black-owned establishments back then, was a hideout and meeting place for nationalists, including President Mugabe. Yet today, hordes of informal traders’ mill outside the building with little respect for what it once stood for.
There are many more places that should tell the story of the liberation struggle but now reflect disillusionment instead.
Near Kwekwe, in Midlands Province, is Sikhombela. It was the prison camp where President Mugabe used his superior education to become “headmaster”, teaching other jailed nationalists and forging the father-figure image.
Today the area is overrun by armies of illegal gold diggers and peasant farmers who care less about what happened there.
In other countries, such historical community centres attract huge township tourism and Zimbabwe could take a leaf and benefit too. But until Stodart Hall is given due recognition and care, it may just go down with its rich history and culture.