CHAMBO NG’UNI, Kabwe
PEEPING through the window of his office, Stephen Simwaka marvels at the uniqueness of the towering fig tree.
Mr Simwaka has been seeing the historic tree near Town Centre Market in Kabwe’s central business district (CBD) since 1972.
The iconic tree has blossomed over the years, forming a green canopy measuring between 50 to 60 metres covering a section of Freedom Way.
“This is a national monument, we need to maintain it,” says Mr Simwaka as he looks at branches of the fig tree rubbing the walls and roof of his office building.
Kabwe residents and visitors to the Central Province capital get attracted to the fig tree because of its canopy, which provides a sun shade and a refreshing cool breeze.
This tree is called The Big Tree, declared a national monument in 1953 by the National Monuments Commission (NMC), the forerunner of the National Heritage Conservation Commission (NHCC).
The Big Tree and Bwacha House, which was a house of former UNIP secretary general Grey Zulu during Zambia’s struggle for independence, are the only national monuments in Kabwe.
However, NHCC is in the process of declaring Kopje number one at the closed Kabwe Mine, where the skull of Broken Hill man was discovered on June 17, 1921, a national monument.
The Big Tree is, however, more prominent largely because of its stature and background, having featured on the K50 banknotes since 2002.
Apart from that, the tree is a notable landmark in Kabwe town, no wonder the Kabwe Municipal Council (KMC) adopted its image as a symbol of its emblem.
When BoZ signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with KMC in 2006, they embarked on restoring the image of the Big Tree site, which was fast deteriorating due to negligence by the local authority.
After rehabilitations of the site, then BoZ Governor Caleb Fundanga handed over the new- look heritage site to KMC.
Later, BoZ, KMC and NHCC signed another MoU to provide a sustainable solution to the maintenance of The Big Tree National Monument site.
Thus in 2009, the central bank erected a steel fence around the site, asbestos chairs and tables.
The site was also electrically powered.
BoZ also put up two marble stones and a billboard with historic data on The Big Tree.
Before the removal of street vendors from the CBD, the site was a hive of activity such that it looked like a mini market.
The unregulated business activities, plus heaps of uncollected garbage around the national monument, compromised its image.
Last year, the BoZ funded another rehabilitation exercise of the site, this time at a cost of K370, 000.
The bank engaged SICA Contractors and Engineering to undertake the work, which involved the paving of the site, repairing of the steel fence, erecting of concrete seats and installation of solar lamp-posts to replace the electrical ones.
BoZ Governor Denny Kalyalya handed over the refurbished national monument to NHCC and KMC on November 28 last year.
Timothy Mwamba, who operates in Kabwe’s CBD, lauds BoZ for the facelift of the national monument.
“The place now looks good, it has really changed. For me, I think the Bank of Zambia has done a good job to rehabilitate this site,” Mr Mwamba said.
He said it was unfortunate that before BOZ took the initiative to maintain Kabwe’s iconic image, the historic site was neglected by the local authorities.
But some sections of society, while appreciating the gesture, argue that K370, 000 is a lot of money for such rehabilitation works.
Some of the critics find it unbelievable that the rehabilitation works could gobble such a ‘colossal’ sum of money.
BoZ head of communications Kanguya Mayondi, however, says money spent on the project should not overshadow the importance of the site.
Mr Mayondi wonders why BoZ was being criticised for rehabilitating The Big Tree National Monument site.
“Bank of Zambia is happy to contribute something. The place now looks clean, it looks reasonable and the residents of Kabwe have expressed happiness,” Mr Mayondi says.
He told journalists who were recently taken on a tour of the site that BoZ followed the required Zambia Public Procurement Authority guidelines when it advertised the project and contracted Sica Contractors and Engineering.
Before Zambia’s independence, the fig tree site was an assembly area for donkey and horse carrier caravans to the north and north-east at the time when Broken Hill (Kabwe) was a railhead for most of North-Western Rhodesia.
NHCC Northern, Luapula and Muchinga region director Kagosi Mwamulowe says over the years, the site was vandalised and as a result, its outlook deteriorated.
“In 2009, Bank of Zambia put up all these benches, the fence,” Mr Mwamulowe said.
“They put up the pavement and with time all these were vandalised. This whole site was an eyesore. There was a lot of vending also.”
When BoZ engaged NHCC on the need to rehabilitate the site, it agreed without hesitation.
Mr Mwamulowe says the site now has an image befitting its status of a national monument.
“This tree is not only important for history, but it is important as it is depicted on the K50 notes,” he said.
Kabwe Mayor Prince Chileshe says it is unfortunate that people are criticising the central bank and KMC without considering the scope of work at the national monument site.
“People are perceiving it [rehabilitation] to be a misplaced priority, [but] I appreciate the work done.
“For us, we do not regret engaging Bank of Zambia. They have been helping us in terms of rehabilitating the site because it was a sorry sight, but now it looks beautiful,” Mr Chileshe said.
The mayor admitted that the national monument site was vandalised and poorly maintained when it was under the custody of KMC.
Going forward, Mr Chileshe is promising that KMC will assign its police officers to watch over the site and also assign cleaners to keep it clean and green.
And this is precisely what Kabwe residents expect the local authority to do.
“This is a national monument and also a tourist attraction. We don’t expect the Bank of Zambia to come back and clean this place. The council should take care of it, the Bank of Zambia has already spent a lot on this place”
CHAMBO NG’UNI, Kabwe