The Swazi Reed Dance

Monday is a holiday in Swaziland in honour of the culmination of the week long event: the Umhlanga/Swazi Reed Dance.  The date is usually around the end of August, but is based on ancesteral astrology, so is not announced until quite late.  I have attended this spectacle as a spectator a few times and have always been impressed by the careful adherence to culture and the pride displayed by the attendees.  The atmosphere is electric, and the sheer number of people celebrating their culture with pride and pagaentry is a sight.  Although this ceremony only dates back to the 1940s it emcompasses a colourful celebration of Swaziland's beautiful, vibrant young women and genuinely a joyful and affirming event.

In our current politically correct world it is easy to deride the Reed Dance as an outdated, chauvinistic parade of vulnerable girls put on display so that the monarch can pick his next virgin bride.  There is no place for judgement here, the ceremony is very popular and more strongly supported than ever, it has a proud and positive role to play.

Young women and girls assemble on the first day at the Queen Mother's residence, Ludzindzinin Royal Village.  They come in groups from about 200 chiefdoms that form Swaziland.  You will see open truckloads of women travelling from every corner of Swaziland to this destination in the back of trucks, singing and chanting as they assemble.  The purpose of the gathering, is to cut tall reeds which grow in river beds which are used to repair holes in the reed wind breaks which surround the royal village.  This takes place over the next few days. The women will deliver their reeds to the Queen Mother's residence and their work is done.

The following day the women rest and prepare traditional dress which consists of beaded necklaces, anklets made from dried mopane cocoons, a sash and a skirt.  Up to 40,000 women will attend the ceremonial parade.  Many villages will have particular colours which distinguish them.  Many will carry bush knives which they had used for reed cutting which are symbols of their virginity.  Some girls carry bright feather dusters, shields, sticks and of course, cell phones.

The actual ceremony that is open to the public takes place in the open stadium in front of a crowd of dignatories, spectators and tourists.   Groups of women who are part of village regiments take to the field and begin a slow procession in a seemingly endless flow of more and more groups.  Each one slightly set apart in colourful beads and costume and singing a different song, stamping their feet in a hypnotic rythmn and swaying as they all move toward the same point.  They are patrolled by some surly looking police women. The King's many daughters also participate and they are easily identified by the crown of red lourie (purple crested turaco) feathers they wear in their hair.  Recently there has been a move to ban make-up, hair extensions and any other modern accessories that have crept in to the ceremonial dress. 

Once the parade of the nations' young women is complete the female regiments assemble and are approached by the royal male regiment, led by the King himself.  Warriors dressed in cow and leopard skins, run across the field leaping into the air, shouting carrying knobkieries and spears.  It is a formidable sight.  At this point the maidens are thanked and the public ceremony ends.  A feast will follow for the participatns and the party will continue for them.  

"The present form of the Reed Dance developed from the Umcwasho custom, where young girls were placed in age regiments to ensure their virginity.[13] Once they had reached marriageable age, they would perform labour for the Queen Mother followed by dancing and a feast. 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.[3] Wikipedia