If there is one thing that Swaziland is known for around the world it is the magnificent traditional festivals that the country hosts- particularly the Umhlanga (Reed Dance) and Incwala ceremonies. Both are living cultural events that, bar the odd wristwatch and mobile phone, have hardly changed in two hundred years. Visitors are allowed to watch, but neither ceremony makes any concession to tourism; even the precise dates are not published in advance, being dependent on the vagaries of ancestral astrology. The main events happen at the royal parade grounds at Ludzidzini but the mood of celebration sweeps the nation, and visitros to the country around the time of the events will doubtless see wandering bands of warriors or maidens decked out in full regalia as they head to or from the festivities.
The modern event that has gained an international reputation in far fewer years is the Bushfire Festival – a performing arts festival held every May.
Swaziland’s 2013 calendar:
Marula festival (15th - 16th February)
The Marula season begins each year in mid-February and continues until early march, bringing with it a celebration of the harvest of the marula fruit.
The Swazis hold an annual Marula Festival celebrated at the Royal Residence of the King at Ebuhleni and Hlane Royal Residence in the Hhohho Region of Swaziland between February and March. Both the King and the Queen Mother are presented with marula beer from each household, in keeping with it being a 'fruit fit for kings.' Only afterwards can Swazis drink their home brew.
Swazi Expo (2nd - 3rd April)
The Swazi Expo is the collective name for a group of 10 different expositions and fairs. It includes shows for women entrepreneurs, on tourism, technology, agriculture, light engineering, food, fashion and others. It is held at the Mavuso Trade & Exhibition Centre.
King's Birthday (19th April)
Celebrating King Mswati III's Birthday.
National Flag Day (25th April)
Another Swazi holiday remembering this day in 1968, when the country's very own flag was hoisted, replacing the British flag after gaining independence.
Bushfire is an annual performing arts festival held over a long May weekend at House on Fire, Malandela’s. It is one of the biggest and best of its kind in southern Africa, with everything from live music and theatre to film, workshops and a global food fair – in short, everything you’d expect from Swaziland’s answer to Glastonbury. You can find out more about the MTN Bushfire Festival by clicking here.
Imvelo (8th June)
Imvelo is an annual mountain biking competition held every June at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary sponsored by Nedbank Swaziland and Big Game Parks. It comprises a series of races over different distances, the longest being 64km, and is followed by a party for all cyclists.
Sibebe Survivor (late July)
Sibebe Survivor is an annual charity event, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Mbabane/Mbuluzi, which challenges participants up and down Sibebe Rock, the world’s largest granite dome. Participants must register in advance.
Umhlanga/Reed Dance (last week of August / first week of September)
This is Swaziland’s best known cultural event, and has a more open feel than the Incwala. In this eight-day ceremony, young girls cut reeds, present them to the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi) – ostensibly to repair the windbreak around her royal residence – and then dance in celebration. Up to 40,000 girls take part, dressed up in brightly coloured attired - making it one of the biggest and most spectacular cultural events in Africa. Taking place over a week, it is largely private, however its final two days are open to the public. Dates for the event are announced relatively close to the time as the precise timing of the event is determined using ancestral astrology. Further details of the Umhlanga can be found here.
Swaziland International Trade Fair (30th August - 10th September)
This annual exhibition event is held over ten days at the Mavuso Trade and Exhibition Centre in Manzini and receives support from the king and government. It attracts over 35,000 exhibitors from different private and public sector institutions, as well as foreign companies and governments.
Somhlolo Day (6th September)
Independence Day (Somhlolo), a national holiday named after King Sobhuza I (Ngwane IV), who was king between 1805 and 1839, and often referred to as 'Somhlolo' (The Wonder).
King's Cup Golf Extravaganza (10th September)
This annual golf tournament is held at the Royal Swazi Golf Club, one of only two 18-hole courses in the country. A product of King Mswati’s 2004 Job Creation Summit, it attracts business people from South Africa and around the region, and tends to pack out the hotels in Ezulwini.
Simunye Country Fair (October)
This three-day weekend of family fun is held every year at Simunye Country Club and attracts thousands of visitors from around Swaziland and beyond. There are games, rides, children's entertainers, beer tents, goat races and circus acts. A line-up of bands take the stage, and manager Thea Litschka even gives a snake handling demonstration.
The LOGICO Swazi Frontier (12th - 15th October)
This is a pair’s stage race held over 3 days in the North West corner of Swaziland. The route is carefully designed to showcase some of Swaziland’s most spectacular and scenic mountains and valleys, from Malolotja to Pigg’s Peak.
Luhambo Jazz Concepts (late November/early December)
Luhambo Jazz Concepts is aimed at sharing jazz and soul music across the country. The idea was conceived by a team of young Swazis who have a strong passion for jazz and soul music. The aim of the festival is to raise the profile of up and coming Swazi jazz and soul artists in an environment that also promotes Swaziland’s unique areas of tourism. The festical expects to receive a crowd of at least 500 soul and jazz lovers, all supporting and enjoying the new and fresh jazz talent on show.
In 2011 it was estimated by the media that around 1,000 people attended. Six Swazi bands performed, including Soul Friends, Manteze and Mpho Tshabalala with workshops being held throughout the day as well. It is hoped that with further sponsorship, the festival will be a yearly event, promoting Swaziland's greatest jazz and soul talent.
Incwala (late December / early January)
This is Swaziland’s most important cultural event. A ceremony that has lasted for hundreds of years, it is one of the last remaining examples of what was previously common practice in many African countries. It has a spiritual power that is largely lost on outsiders, and indeed many of its inner workings remain shrouded in secrecy. Although often translated as ‘first fruits festival’, the tasting of the first of the season’s bounty is only one part of this long rite. Essentially this is about cleansing and renewal, and – above all – celebrating kingship. Although not a tourism event per se, visitors with an interest in Swaziland culture are always welcomed. Respect for total privacy is required on certain special days when the nation gathers for its own focus, without outside interference. Dates for the event are announced relatively close to the time as the precise timing of the event is determined using ancestral astrology. Further details of the Incwala can be found here.