Umhlanga or Reed Dance is an annual Swazi and Zulu even which takes place every August 23. In Swaziland, tens of thousands of unmarried and childless girls and women travel to the Royal Village to participate in the eight-day event.
Umhlanga was created in the 1940s and is an adaptation of the much older Umcwasho ceremony. All girls are required to undergo a virginity test before they are allowed to participate in a royal dance.
Wearing little more than wide, beaded belts, brightly coloured sashes and a few feathers,
This sight of thousands of bare-breasted virgins dancing before their king and his warriors is one of Africa’s great traditional spectacles. But the Reed Dance is also a chance for the 37-year-old king to take a wife from more than 20,000 dancers, as he has done every year since 1999.
As absolute monarch of a country where women have few legal rights, he cannot be refused. In 2002 when the king chose a teenager for a wife, his emissaries abducted her from her school. The girl’s mother began a lawsuit alleging kidnap, but royal representatives argued successfully in court that the king by tradition has the right to select wives at his pleasure.
As part of the ceremony, the young women dance bare-breasted for their king, and each maiden carries a long reed, which is then deposited as they approach the king. If the reed should break before the girl reaches that point, it is considered a sign that the girl has already been sexually active.
The ceremony was reintroduced by King Goodwill Zwelethini in 1991, as a means to encourage young Zulu girls to delay sexual activity until marriage, and thus limit the possibility of HIV transmission. In 2007, about 30,000 girls took part to the event.
In past years, the event was attended by the President of Sourth Africa, Jacob Zuma (himself a Zulu.)
After a day of rest and washing, the women prepare their traditional costumes consisting of a bead necklace, rattling anklets made from cocoons, a sash, and skirt.
The women sing and dance as they parade in front of the royal family as well as a crowd of dignitaries, spectators, and tourists. After the parade, groups from select villages take to the centre of the field and put on a special performance for the crowd. The King’s many daughters and royal princesses also participate in the reed dance ceremony and are distinguished by the crown of red feathers they wear in their hair.
The official purpose of the annual ceremony is to preserve the women’s chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity among the women through working together.
Sporting a boyish grin, the king was loudly cheered by the assembled dancers. He presents an affable image and is generally popular. But trade unions and civic groups criticise him for entrenching his absolute power, barring political parties and splashing out on jets, cars and palaces while his subjects remain in poverty.
The mass event also highlights how Swaziland is struggling to cope with Aids. Nearly 40% of Swaziland’s adults are infected with HIV, according the United Nations. Most public education is carried out by non-governmental organisations, such as the Aids Information and Support Centre, whose counsellor, Jester Khumalo, was at the dance preaching a message of abstinence to the youngsters using a loudspeaker.
“I’ve been with the girls all week and I’ve been telling them to protect themselves until they get married, she says. “That way they can stay safe from Aids. The Reed Dance is a very good place to send that message because all the girls are here. Traditions like the Reed Dance can be used to fight Aids.”
The young, unmarried girls were placed in female age-regiments; girls who had fallen pregnant outside wedlock had their families fined a cow.
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