JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
BEFORE there were glitzy banks, multi-storey office blocks, popular restaurants and shops on Lusaka’s Cairo Road, there was E.W. Tarry.Built in the 1920s as a farm stall selling agriculture machinery and fertilisers, this single-storey building was the first shop on Cairo Road (or at least one of the first), according to Kagosi Mwamulowe, who is regional director for the National Heritage Conservation Commission (NHC).
E.W. Tarry Limited Company was established as a machine distributor by Edward Wallace Tarry in South Africa in the late 19th century.
Years later, the company had grown and extended its tentacles northwards, opening shops in Bulawayo and Salisbury (Harare) in then Southern Rhodesia, and then the newly established settlement at Lusaka in 1927.
The company had become the largest importer of machinery on the mining fields in South Africa, and boasted of having entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes on its board of directors.
In 1881, Mr Tarry was listed as one of the richest merchants with a net worth of £150,000, according to Robert Vicat Turrell in a book titled ‘Capital and Labour on the Kimberley Diamond Fields, 1871-1890’.
Nine decades later, the building Mr Tarry built on Cairo Road still stands and is a declared heritage site.
According to the National Heritage Act, anything built before January 1, 1924 is considered a heritage site and is protected by law.
There are a few other buildings in its vicinity built within that era that are protected by law, including the railway station, the old Lusaka Boys School on Dedan Kimathi Road, the old Barclays Bank and Lusaka Hotel, which was built in 1914.
Over the years, the building has changed hands. After independence in 1964, it was owned by a company called Zambia National Holdings Limited, which was owned by the United National Independence Party (UNIP).
Then about 15 years ago, it was sold to Paza Trading Limited, a company which was owned by Mohemmed Ginwala.
After Mr Ginwala died in 2014, his nephew Irshad Ginwalla took over the running of the business, including the E.W. Tarry building.
But after so many years, the building had become deplorable and is now undergoing major reconstruction works to preserve it.
Today, this iconic building is hidden behind metal barricades, its roof stripped, exposing the wooden beams that have held the roof for 91 years.
Irshad’s company is spending US$430,000 (about K4.4 million) to restore the building with the works expected to be completed in November.
The company carrying out the reconstruction works is experienced in restoring heritage sites.
A few years ago, Swissco Construction Limited was engaged to restore the house in Lusaka where Oliver Tambo once lived during the apartheid era.
“We want to take a conservative approach so that the community benefits,” bubbles Irshad. “I want the public, the tourists to be aware of this place.”
Young and trendy-looking with a love for fancy motorbikes, Irshad does not look much of a lover of anything old-fashioned, but he exudes passion as he talks about the old building although five years ago, he did not even know the building was a heritage site.
He says when some of his colleagues saw him breaking down the building, they had suggested that he puts up something different, maybe a double-storey building, but he refused.
“I’m not greedy for money,” he says. “I value this property for what it is from a heritage aspect.”
He says having the building listed as a heritage site is a bonus.
Irshad now wants to reconstruct the building to its original state complete with its original colours – white walls with a green corrugated roof, plus the small black metal plate bearing the words ‘Tarry’s Corner’, which over-hangs the corridor and has become pretty much an insignia of the building.
“What we are trying to do here with the help of the National Heritage Conservation Commission is to make the building look the way it did in the 70s,” he says.
Irshad has images of the building taken in the 1950s and 1970s on his smartphone.
He shows me the images as he holds them like a stencil against the building being reconstructed.
When the barricades go down in November, he wants the iconic building to look exactly the way it used to decades ago.
“When the contractor told us that we could maintain some of the things, we were very happy because I’m very passionate about this property, which is of heritage value,” he says.
Leon Sauter of Swissco Construction Company reckons that about 70 percent of the original structure will be saved.
Much of the wall structure and columns have been left standing.
In fact, Leon thinks the columns were built to accommodate a second storey in future.
He says the size of the columns is abnormal for a single-storey building.
Leon is more impressed with the masonry of the old structure than the one built years later using blocks.
“They went cheaper on this side,” he says, pointing to the other building which now lies in a pile of rubble.
That part of the building will be built up completely, with the new structure matching the old one.
The reconstruction works are closely monitored by the NHC.
According to Mr Mwamulowe, the NHC has three options for conservation rehabilitation, reconstruction and interpretation.
“E.W. Tarry’s is significant to us because it tells the story about the development of Lusaka as a city from the agriculture point of view and from the commercial point of view,” he says.
He calls it sustainable development.
“We have allowed the renovations to take place while at the same time preserving the history of that place. The print of E.W. Tarry is going to be there for many years to come,” he says.
“I know some people will say it is not the original texture, but at least the visual impact will be there,” he says.
For Leon, it is a delicate task trying to reconstruct the building.
“It’s very delicate. I’m also quite passionate about such works. When we originally took the contract, the contract was to demolish the whole building because it was assumed that the entire building was structurally compromised, but then from the demolitions you can see we have taken care to preserve as much of it as we can,” he says.
Even some of the original wooden beams which formed the roof structure will be re-used.
Leon says the works are now two weeks behind schedule because of the care going into preserving the old structure.
But this is not just another construction job for the young Swiss.
He has a personal attachment to the building.
Leon’s grandparents came from Switzerland and settled in what was then Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s and they came to buy stuff from this building.
“There is pride in having to be involved in something which your grandparents have some connection to,” he says.
Irshad, too, has connection to the building.
“My grandfather, my great grandfather used to come here. In fact I got some of the old photos from my grandfather and his friends,” he says.
Irshad says a relative of Mr Tarry who lives in Canada recently contacted him wanting to find out about the building.
“But I was out of the country at the time,” he says.
E.W. Tarry building is not just a building; it is a depository of history.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka