HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's famed colonial-era "Hanging Tree" crashed into the street after being struck by a workers' truck during highway repairs, city authorities said Thursday.
Mbuya Nehanda and other icons of the first uprising against white settlers were said to have been hanged from the tree in 1898.
Witnesses said the 200-year-old Msasa tree, declared a historic site and national monument, fell Wednesday and some workers fled, believing it a sacred omen of "bad things to come." Crowds gathered at the felled tree Thursday to take pieces of it and a n'anga, known in the West as a witchdoctor, performed rites over the trunk and branches.
The indigenous African tree, or brachystegia speciformis, was commemorated on a Zimbabwe postage stamp in 1996 and political rallies have often been held there.
Historians, however, have cast doubt it was ever used for hangings.
Mbuya Nehanda, or the ancestral grandmother of the nation, was a tribal spirit medium believed to have had immense powers. She is upheld by highly superstitious Zimbabweans as the country's greatest symbol of black resistance to colonial rule.
Since independence from British rule, Nehanda has been revered with statues erected in the parliament house and main government buildings, and streets have been named after her in all of Zimbabwe's cities and towns.
Colonial records show she was executed for the 1897 killing of administrator Henry Pollard, known for his brutality toward blacks.
Zimbabwe historian Rob Burrett told The Associated Press Thursday that records indicated she was actually hanged on gallows at a prison where the main Harare Central Police Station stands today. But a myth built up before independence and persisted that the colonial court presided over by "Hanging Judge" John Watermeyer sent Nehanda and those he condemned to death to the distinctive tree, Burrett said. At that time the tree was on the outskirts of the small colonial settlement that became Harare.
"It is a great urban myth that has grown over time. The Zimbabwean nationalist version has been superimposed on earlier white stories," he said.
Successive city authorities resisted calls for the tree — seen as a traffic hazard — to be removed from a central island in the boulevard leading past the colonial style Harare Sports Club and the State House used as offices by President Robert Mugabe.
Burrett said the tree was scarred at the base by traffic accidents and became diseased and rotten.
"But it is really sad it has now gone," he said.
Harare city council said in a statement Thursday the tree came down as workers were repaving the boulevard and a vehicle bumped into the base.
Bystanders on Thursday said the fall of the tree came on the day the ailing Mugabe, 87, planted a tree in a ceremony marking a national tree planting and reforestation campaign on Wednesday. It also coincided with Mugabe's party convention in the second city of Bulawayo, its last major gathering before crucial elections proposed next year to end the country's fragile coalition government.
"It's got to be a sign something big is going to happen," said street vendor Mathias Vinyu.