Thursday, August 25, 2011

Umhlanga – the reed dance

Swaziland is a small kingdom enclosed between South Africa and Mozambique. That’s correct: a kingdom.  And we’re not talking about a constitutional monarchy here but a king who actually rules.  The odd part is that on the whole the local people seem pretty happy with the arrangement.  Unlike the middle-east, there has been no Swaziland “spring”.  Not that King Mswati III is exactly a paragon of virtue.  He enjoys luxury, owns some automobiles that he won’t let press reporters photograph because of their opulence, and has a small harem of wives.  But he has to share power with the Queen Mother, and can’t choose his heir.  The heir and the first two wives are chosen by a committee of councellors. Surprisingly, in the twenty-first century, it’s a system that seems to more or less work.

King Mswati III
Which brings us to this week’s big event – the Umhlanga. An impressive traditional rite of spring. (Swaziland does have a “spring” after all!) It’s a week-long affair and it has become a big tourist attraction. Perhaps Swaziland’s major tourist attraction. It involves all the unmarried girls in the kingdom who have not had children and this year the estimate is that sixty thousand will choose to take part.

The schedule is something like this:

The royal family appoints a commoner maiden to be "induna" (captain) of the girls and she announces over the radio the dates of the ceremony, which are determined by the phase of the moon. She will be an expert dancer and knowledgeable on royal protocol. One of the King's daughters will be her counterpart.

On the first day the girls gather at the Queen Mothers royal village in groups from the 200 or so chiefdoms.  The next day the girls divide into two groups, the older (about 14 to 22 years) and the younger (about 8 to 13). In the afternoon, they march in their local groups to the reed-beds. The girls reach the vicinity of the reeds in darkness, and sleep in government-provided tents. Formerly the local people would have accommodated them in their villages. On the third day the girls cut their reeds, usually about ten to twenty, using long knives. Each girl ties her reeds into one bundle. Nowadays they use strips of plastic bags for the tying, although in the old days they would plait grass into rope.  The following day the girls return to the Queen Mothers village, carrying their bundles of reeds. They arrive at night to indicate the long distance they have travelled to obtain the best reeds.

After a day to make their costumes and prepare their hair, the girls dance and sing all afternoon for the Queen Mother.  And on the next day they sing and dance again, this time with the King in attendance.  If the mood takes him, he may take the opportunity to choose a new wife.

It’s a formal affair.  Visitors are welcome, but must be appropriately attired.  Women are expected to wear dresses and – unlike the dancers – modest tops.  If you decide to attend, no photographs, please. The King has not been impressed with some of the internet displays around the event.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Given the divorce rate in the United States, the method of choosing a wife in Swaziland doesn't seem any more haphazard than what passes for thoughtful choice in this country.

    However...the age ranges in the groups of possible wives is a problem. I realize that different cultures have different ways of seeing thing but a 14 year-old and a 22 year-old don't have much in common. On the other hand, the second group seems to cross into the pedophilia on just about anyone's scale.

    What happens to all the girls who aren't chosen? Do they go back to their villages or do they become part of the king's household?

    The king, of course, gets to deal with every man's nightmare - his mother choosing his wife.

    I can understand why the king has some problems with the way his romances are displayed on the internet.

  2. It really is a festival more than a shopping display. All the girls go back to their villages except (possibly) one chosen by the King. One hopes he chooses an older one. I'm not too sure about that.
    Divorce doesn't seem to be an option, but there have been some embarrassing scandals in the past...


  3. Sounds like a festival worth seeing. Though being King of Swaziland sounds a very tiring gig; all that politicking, all those wives...

  4. Yesterday, I finished reading another KUBU adventure and, with your piece today, I thought I was reading an addendum. You have such a wonderful way of describing your fascinating continent.