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Swaziland Cultural Events as an outsider.
Reed Dance 50.000 maidens-all in a line
50 000 Maidens in Swaziland
Monday in Swaziland was an interesting experience for a visitor from another country to enjoy. I happened to be here teaching in the Counseling Department at a college in Matsapha, Swaziland. The course I am teaching is Social Psychology and so an important cultural event of this magnitude was of particular interest to me and my students.
The small country of Swaziland with a population of only about 1.4 million people embraces their cultural celebration with gusto. Swazi shields adorned the telephone poles in the area together with strings of ribbons in the colors of Swaziland. There are two important traditional festivals annually; the Umhlanga or Reed Dance for the females, and the Incwala or First Fruits ceremony for the males.
As spring arrives young girls/women from all over Swaziland, and some even from neighboring South Africa, make their way to the area near the Royal Residence in the Ezulwini Valley near the Mlilwane Wild Life Sanctuary. After a couple of days of preparation the young maidens are requested/given permission by the King to cut reeds in designated areas. These reeds are then deposited at the royal residence. This year, according to newspaper reports, over 55 000 young women and girls were given permission to do so, the number being up on last year. Some of the participants carry torches in the final event to signify that they cut their reeds at night.
While the events of week of preparation are somewhat cloaked in secrecy it seems that the participants sleep in local schools, receive food from government organizations and are transported by government vehicles to cut the reeds. Reeds have an important cultural meaning to the Swazi as in the past huts were constructed of them in a bee-hive shape. The females are divided into two groups, 8 to13 and 14 to about 20. Minders look after the maidens and education is imparted that, according to an article in the National Newspaper of Swaziland, (pg 19-4th Sept) emphasizes purity and sexual health issues “that are often considered taboo in families”.
It is indeed amazing to think that so many young females are allowed by their parents to participate in a ceremony like this in a time when in many countries it would be a recipe for disaster. The ceremony culminates in a singing and dancing procession in front of the Queen Mother and the King in the National Stadium as the maidens pass by in groups that seems to also be referred to as Imbali Regiments. Leading the dance and singing celebration are the Royal Princesses who may wear a red feather on their heads to designate their position.
In December/January it is the turn of the young men and boys to participate in the Incwala Ceremony. This is considered to be the most sacred of Swazi rituals. To begin with the “Bemanti” or people of the water travel to the Indian Ocean to fetch water and then on the New Moon youths from all over Swaziland travel to collect branches of the sacred “Lusekwane” shrub (a type of Acacia).
On the 3rd day of the ceremony a bull is ritually slaughtered and the ceremony reaches a climax on the 4th day as the King in full ceremonial dress joins his warriors in the traditional dance. At this time the King enters a special sanctuary and eats of the first fruits of the harvest. Once the King appears to the people they may then also eat these first fruits with the blessing of the ancestors. Some of the ritual of this ceremony is also secret and cannot be witnessed by outsiders.
As an outsider to this country I have been privileged to be here during the Reed Dance and my feeling is that this is a custom that has a deep significance to the Swazi people en large, and needs to be respected as such. There are obviously divided opinions on the Reed Dance and on the Incwala Ceremony when it is viewed from a Western perspective and even by some in Swaziland who are uncomfortable with some aspects of both events. At the same time as one writer in today’s Newspaper puts it under the heading, “Every day should be Umhlanga Day to Imbali, …Umhlanga and Incwali acts as kinds of prisms through which the broader scope of Swazi religion’s social function can be viewed.”
The value that the Swazi nation place on the Umhlanga event is graphically illustrated in that the Swazi 10 Emalangeni note displays a picture of the Princesses at the dance
The crowds of foreign visitors who attended the Reed Dance are testimony to the value of this ceremony as an earner of important revenue for this tiny country. It was however the local people, many who dressed up in their Swazi traditional dress, who spoke loudest by their presence. Many were obviously parents of the young girls who came to support their daughters. Perhaps they were saying in their applause and smiles “we are proud to be Swazi’s and God Bless our children as they prepare for the challenges of the future”.
Sources: Swaziland Discovery.
What's Happening in Swaziland
Times of Swaziland 04-09-2013