A life-sized bronze of Dr David Livingstone has stood overlooking Victoria Falls for more than half a century. But after years of neglect by its current owners, the Zimbabwean government, Zambia is calling for the statue to be handed over to them.
The figure of the Victorian explorer, leaning on his walking stick, has stood on the Zimbabwean side of the falls and been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Recently, however, as political turmoil in Zimbabwe has deepened, tourists have switched in increasing numbers to the Zambian side of the falls - while two years ago the statue, seen as a symbol of British colonialism, was defaced by thugs of Robert Mugabe's regime.
Now the authorities in Zambia want to cap their success by making the figure of Africa's most celebrated explorer the centrepiece of the town of Livingstone, where the tourist trade is booming.
"The Zambians have a great deal of affection for Livingstone's memory, unlike the Zimbabweans," said Siloka Mukuni, the chief of the Leya people, who live around Livingstone. "We have changed a great many of our colonial place names since independence, but we have kept the name of Livingstone out of a deep respect. For Zimbabwe the statue merely represents tourism and money. We would like the statue, but we would prefer not to fight over it."
It was from the Zambian side of the Zambezi river in 1855 that Dr Livingstone became the first European to sight the falls, then known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya - "The smoke that thunders".
Some older Leya people claim that the statue was originally erected on their side of the Zambezi - then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia - but was moved during the 1950s to its present site overlooking the Devil's Cataract, on what is now the Zimbabwean side.
"I have 80-year-old advisers who clearly remember the statue being on our side of the river," Chief Mukuni said. "It was there and then it was gone, reappearing in Zimbabwe."
Others say there may have been a second statue depicting the explorer shielding his eyes from the sun, on the Zambian side of the falls, which is now missing.
Either way, Zambia is keen to get its hands on the bronze, sculpted in the 1930s by Sir William Reid Dick, before next year's 100th anniversary of the town of Livingstone, when it will also be 150 years since the Victorian explorer first saw the falls. The Zimbabwean government has signalled, however, that it has no intention of handing the statue over.
Now Donald Chikumbi, a senior official at Zambia's National Heritage Conservation Commission, has asked the Foreign Office in London and the British High Commission in Lusaka to help get to the bottom of the mystery. "Ideally, we would like to have the Victoria Falls statue, but obviously we have a stronger case if we can show that it was originally in Zambia. What is clear is that Zimbabwe does not want us to have it," he said.
Once Africa's most popular tourist destinations, the town of Victoria Falls has fallen out of favour in recent years. Hotel occupancy has plunged from 70 per cent to below 30 per cent.
Victoria Falls' losses, however, have been Livingstone's gain. A string of new hotels has sprung up since 2000, when Mr Mugabe began his violent land-grab policy, and occupancy rates have risen sharply.
Tendai Shoku, Zimbabwe's High Commissioner to Zambia, said that the dispute would be resolved "bilaterally".
"Zimbabwe and Zambia are just brothers - we are actually one. Let not this issue separate us," he said. "The habit of bringing confusion is for the British who even in the times of Rhodesia called us Southern and Northern, as if we were different. We are not."
Source: Dr Livingstone's statue is ours, we presume, Zambia informs Mugabe (01/08/04)