A tiny country with a big heart and warm, friendly people aptly describes Swaziland – a country that is the only absolute monarchy in Africa and embraces and upholds its own unique and ancient traditions. Both the monarchy and the people of Swaziland actively maintain and preserve a remarkable cultural heritage that is probably unmatched anywhere in Africa. Visitors can get a better idea of traditional African culture here than pretty much anywhere else in the region, and what is seen, including spectacular festivals, has not simply been resuscitated for the tourist dollar but is the real deal. The famous Umhlanga (Reed Dance) and Incwala are traditional ceremonies that involve tens of thousand of Swazis, and attract visitors from all over the world. But traditional attire, ceremonies and dancing are to be found throughout the country at all times of the year.
The Swazis are a proud and extremely friendly people. They welcome visitors with a beaming smile and take pleasure in showing off their beautiful country. As well as a number of community-run tourism initiatives, visitors are able to experience daily life in Swaziland by calling in at a local homestead, where they will be made very welcome. Alternatively, Mantenga Cultural Village is an excellent working reconstruction of a traditional homestead from around the 1850s, which gives an experience of all the complexities and nuances of traditional Swazi life; as well as a quite tremendous dancing display by a group that tours the world.
Music and dance are embedded in traditional Swazi culture. Women sing together in the fields; men sing or utter praise poetry as they pay tribute to their chiefs or kings. There are traditional songs for every occasion: weddings, royal rituals, coming-of-age ceremonies and national festivals. Sibhaca dance is the best known of various dance forms. The dance is highly strenuous: teams of dancers step forward in turn to perform a barefoot high-kicking and stomping, while their companions behind beat drums, chant and sing. All wear traditional dress, with colourful tassels and embellishments. A typical session can last two or three hours, with different songs and styles performed.
Swaziland has a rather quiet contemporary music scene by comparison with South Africa, partly because the industry is still in its infancy and there are few recording facilities or live venues. The exception to this rule is House on Fire, an extraordinary venue that has invigorated the local music scene since it opened less than 10 years ago. Its annual Bushfire Festival, held every May attracts top acts and artists from all over the region, and audiences of up to 20,000.