HARARE, Zimbabwe — The felling of Zimbabwe's famed colonial-era "Hanging Tree" is reviving legends and superstitions and has many believing it signals a new era for this troubled southern African nation, whose hardline 87-year-old president is in the winter of his long rule.
Witnesses said the 200-year-old Msasa tree, declared a historic site and national monument, fell Wednesday after it was hit by a workers' truck and collapsed onto one of its strong branches in the middle of the street. Some of those workers then fled, believing it a sacred omen of "bad things to come."
Icons of the first uprising against white settlers, including the ancestral grandmother of the nation Mbuya Nehanda, were said to have been hanged from the tree in 1898.
A n'anga, known in the West as a witchdoctor, performed rites over the split trunk and gnarled branches on Thursday demanding homage be paid and forgiveness sought at Nehanda's grave site north of Harare for the destruction of the tree. Crowds gathered at the felled tree to take pieces of its billowing green leaves, splinters and bark.
The fall of the tree came on the same day that President Robert Mugabe, suffering from ill health, marked the country's national tree planting and reforestation campaign by planting a tree in the second city of Bulawayo.
It also coincided with the annual congress of Mugabe's party, its last major gathering before crucial elections next year. The vote is meant to end a fragile coalition government with the former opposition of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formed after disputed elections in 2008 that were plagued by violence and allegations of vote rigging.
"It's got to be a sign something big is going to happen," street vendor Mathias Vinyu told The Associated Press of the tree fall.
The Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association on Thursday said the tree represented "powerful forces" in the nation's social and political life. Its toppling over is believed to signal the dawn of a new era of truth on past injustices, including Nehanda's execution, the group said.
After a decade of political turmoil and economic meltdown, Zimbabwe's political leaders are gearing up for elections next year amid new allegations of violence and intimidation by Mugabe militants.
Mugabe has traveled to Asia eight times in the past year for medical treatment, reportedly for prostate cancer. His party has been split by calls for him to leave office and claims he is not fit enough to lead a rigorous election fight.
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.
Nehanda 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 in 1980, 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 known as Salisbury in the British territory of Rhodesia that later became Harare, Zimbabwe's sprawling capital of two million inhabitants.
"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 Mugabe.
The tree came down as workers were repaving the boulevard and a vehicle bumped into the base on Wednesday.
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.