Swazi Reed Dance

Posted on: Monday, June 10, 2013
Blog Category: Festivals & Events

Once Seen, Never Forgotten by Jenny Bowen (Sense Africa)

“Where is your sarong?” asked the driver of the combi. I sat smugly in the back of the taxi van knowing that I was suitably and respectfully dressed for this traditional occasion. The lady tourist, to whom the driver was addressing, mumbled that she didn’t know she had to wear a sarong and whether she would be allowed into the Reed Dance or not. The answer to that was an emphatic “No,” along with the murmuring of disapproval from the other local travellers in the minivan. She was wearing shorts.

All over Swaziland, whether it be a small traditional homestead to one of the Kingdoms largest traditional ceremonies, ladies are not allowed to wear shorts where tradition is concerned. By far the most acceptable attire is a traditional sarong with either the Swaziland flag on it or King Mswati III. Even if this is wrapped round your shorts it is acceptable. I’m not sure where this tradition stems from because at the Reed Dance, maidens wear large tasselled belts around their midriff (and not much else) and also bare their breasts to the world. So I could understand the confusion of the tourist who had got into the combi, her knees were probably the least offensive part of her body showing from her perspective!

I leaned forward towards the driver, “But there are sarongs on sale just outside the gates of the palace aren’t there?” I queried, “surely she could buy one there?” There was a murmur of discussion throughout the combi and the group consensus was that this would probably be the case.
“It should cost about E50”, I told the lady. She smiled gratefully. I remembered what it was like being a stranger to these events.
We drove along a dirt road, avoiding goats, cattle, feral dogs and a host of people making their way towards Ludzidzini, the Royal Homestead in Lobamba. Swaziland had suddenly become a hive of colourful activity – it was the end of the annual 8-day Umhlanga Reed Dance festival.
Over the first 4 days of the festival, maidens gathered in groups to cut and collect tall reeds, from all over Swaziland and sometimes even into Mozambique, bind them and return to Ludzidzini, the royal palace. During these days I had seen hundreds of maidens standing in the back of cattle and army lorries, singing and dancing as they went to cut the reeds for the Queen Mother, Ndlovokazi. The atmosphere was one of unity and jubilation and quite often traffic was halted as these maidens had priority over absolutely everything. A few days ago I had seen a whole market stop trading to watch and cheer on the maidens as they walked by, proudly carrying their reeds aloft in the sunshine. After four days of work, the fifth day is a day of rest and preparation for one of Africa’s largest and most colourful cultural spectacles. Maidens wash in the rivers, plait their hair and sing in the streets, there is a fabulous party feel with an air of expectation of something special on the horizon.
On the second Monday of the celebrations, tens of thousands of maidens gather at Ludzidzini Royal Homestead on the final day of celebration of the ancient Umhlanga custom. Girls have travelled from villages all over the tiny nation to congregate and perform in front of, and pay homage to the Swazi Queen Mother. The girls were going to present their cut reeds in bundles to the Queen Mother, and the protective Guma (reed fence) around her homestead would be rebuilt using them.
I climbed out of the combi, directed the lady tourist towards a very delighted sarong seller, and joined the throng of people flowing through the gates of Ludzidzini and followed the visitors up the hill towards the main part of the palace. There were quite a few police there, checking that all visitors were adhering to the rules of attire and behaving in an orderly manner. It was a beautifully serene experience.
I don’t know what I was expecting but I couldn’t believe how many girls there were there. Thousands of maidens, dressed in traditional Swazi attire of vibrantly coloured sashes, skirts and jewellery, barefooted, bare breasted and smiling, had formed an orderly queue. All of them holding their own bundle of reeds. It was an extraordinary spectacle.
Female police officers were keeping order and directing groups of about 50 similarly dressed girls, dancing in unison and singing their hearts out, to enter into the Queen’s kraal in order to lay their reeds. This was a private part of the ceremony and visitors were not allowed to watch the actual laying of the reeds, only the entering and leaving. The police women really were the fashion police. They were checking each girl to make sure she was wearing the right traditional clothing and in the correct way. Woe betide any girl who was not showing her breasts properly or her skirt was too long!
After laying their reeds the girls snaked out of the Queens area and into a massive stadium where everyone could see them in their fully glory. I made my way to the stadium and found a seat near to the VIP area, it was an incredible view and something I will never forget. More and more maidens poured into the arena increasing the numbers to around 60,000. Well that was my guess, however many there were it was mind-boggling. The papers the following day said that there were 70,000 girls, who knows, there were a lot of maidens!
An enormous procession of girls in a most organised and respectful manner flowed past the grandstand, rocking in a vocal celebration of maiden’s chastity and purity. Different groups had a slightly different take on the same dance and sang a slightly different song, all holding their machetes and shields and dancing in wonderful synchronisation. This was directed by a leader blowing a whistle to keep them all in rhythm.
There didn’t seem to be that many people watching the event, probably only about a thousand, in comparison to the number performing we were a very small part of the event. It was quite weird thinking that there were more performing than actually watching.
In front of me was a family obviously waiting to see their daughter go past. They had a got a massive picnic of pap (the local staple food which looks like semolina), roast chicken and tomatoes and were digging into it whilst having a hilarious conversation about something or other. I didn’t know what they were talking about as it was in siSwati, the local language, but it still made me smile as they all fell about laughing in an animated way. Watching them laugh became infectious and I found myself smiling with them and before long I was laughing with them too.
And then they saw their daughter. Mum stood up, waved exuberantly and shouted at her daughter.
“Nomsa, up here……”, or something to that effect, it did last longer and the surrounding crowd all laughed with her.
Most teenagers back in the UK would have been highly embarrassed with this outward display of recognition and affection. Instead of trying to ignore her mother and pretend that it was some mad woman, Nomsa stopped dancing in her cohort, turned around to the crowd, spotted Mum who was still waving a chicken leg and squealed in delight, waving back with double enthusiasm and with pride all over her face.
The whole family then got up and waved, along with the crowd around the family, so I thought I might as well join them and waved to Nomsa as well. The grin we all received was blinding. What a privilege to be part of this extraordinary spectacle, to be accepted by all the people around me and to be waved at by a complete stranger who was in the middle of a public performance.
And it didn’t stop with Nomsa, other girls got similar receptions from family members and the immediate crowd. Obviously I joined in when ever I could!
The delightful thing about this event is that it is not publicised, it is done by the maidens for the Queen Mother, for their families and for themselves. And the timings of the event is never released until a month or so before the event so planning to see it can take a bit of luck as well! The dates are set around the full moon and the event is held towards the end of August or beginning of September. So it is probably no wonder that it has not become commercialised!
The Reed Dance is a visual celebration of the girl’s camaraderie, solidarity and chastity.
Once seen, never forgotten.
Jenny Bowen is from Sense Africa, the UK's only Swaziland specialist tour operator


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