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.
Every Swazi may take part in the public parts of the Incwala. Spectators are permitted but not actively encouraged – and you may not take photographs except by special permit. The best day to attend is Day four of the Big Incwala, when the feasting and dancing reach a climax, and you will see thousands of people – including warriors in full battle regalia – thronging the royal parade grounds. The songs, dances and ritual that take place inside the royal kraal remain a matter of utmost secrecy and may not be recorded or written down.
The event takes place around the last week of December / first week of January. The dates for the event are released relatively close to the time as they derive from ancestral astrology.
The full sequence of the Big Incwala is as follows:
Dispersing of regiments (Tingaja). Unmarried male youths set off from Engabezweni Royal residence and march 50km to cut branches of the sacred shrub (lusekwane) under the light of the full moon, accompanied by Emabutfo.
Dropping the Lusekwane: the boys place their luse4kwane branches in the national cattle byre. The elders weave these branches in between poles of the “inhlambelo”, the King’s private sanctuary.
Morning: Young boys cut branches of the black “Imbondvo”
Main Day: All the key players perform in a spectacular pageant inside the cattle byre; the King and the regiments appear in full war-dress and dance to a number of songs. Then he emerges to throw the sacred gourd (Luselwa), which is caught on a black shield by one of the Lusekwane boys.
Day of Abstinence: The King sits in seclusion in the “great hut”. The “bemanti” roam the royal capital in daylight hours, enforcing the rules of this day. No sexual contact, bathing, wearing decorations, sitting on chairs/mats, shaking hands, scratching, singing and dancing.
Day of the Log: The regiments march to a forest and return with firewood. The elders prepare a great fire in the centre of the cattle byre. On it, certain objects are burnt, signifying the end of the old year, while the key players dance and sing inside the cattle byre. The king remains in seclusion until the next full moon, when the “Lusekwane” branches are removed and burnt.
Do's and Don'ts of the Incwala
· Females should wear skirts or sarongs