27 September 2010

Swaziland: Why Girls Enjoy the Reed Dance


When I met the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Secretary General, Mr Sindiso Ngwenya, during the 15th African Union Summit in Kampala, little did I know that the hardly 4 minutes meeting was the genesis of a long journey to the land well known for its Umhlanga, a traditional reed dance-

I had never met Sindiso, but he had just come out of the giant marquee erected for the official opening of the AU summit. As he stepped out, I asked my friend Eng Mohammed Majyambere who the gentleman he was talking to was. That was it; the rapport was done!

The next thing I heard, was the warm phrase, Sawubona!, (Zulu word for good morning) from the South African Airways pilot. With flights from Johannesburg to Swaziland overbooked, sixteen delegates, including me, decided to travel by road, a three hour journey through the flat terrain.

The Swazi are a people so warm and welcoming; you may feel you have been there a lifetime. Although small, the land of the Swazi people has a varied natural landscape, from the rugged mountains of the highlands in the west to the rolling hills, sugar cane fields and open woodland savannah in the east.

Getting around Swaziland is by either car or minibus. , called kombis, are prevalent, but can be confusing. In Swaziland, these vans are often driven by young men, and most have assistants who estimate and collect fares. There is a vibrant nightlife in Swaziland ranging from traditional dances to western bars and nightclubs. The House on Fire is extremely popular: local art, local and national DJs, an open-air setting and live acts.

Swaziland is a small country and it is easy to go anywhere in the country in a day. If you're watching the pennies, head to Veki's Guesthouse or Grifter's Backpackers in Mbabane, which costs around 120R per night for a bunk.

The Kingdom of Swaziland (Umbuso weSwatini), sometimes called Ngwane, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, bordered in the east by Mozambique and elsewhere by South Africa.

One of the last absolute monarchies in the world, and smallest country in Africa, Swaziland has a well earned reputation for friendliness in the Southern hemisphere. The country's highest point is Emlembe at 1,862m and the lowest at the Usutu River at 21m.

Despite similar problems with poverty, Swaziland has one of the world's worst AIDS crises. As of November 2008 the total reported percentage of those with HIV was listed as 30%; this, of course, does not include those who have not yet been tested. The AIDS epidemic has broken up the traditional extended family unit, leaving many young children orphaned and fighting for survival.

Under a powerful monarchy, the Swazi people are still strongly attached to their traditions and culture. Two of the most prominent traditional cultural ceremonies are the Umhlanga reed dance and the Incwala First Fruits festival.

The Umhlanga ceremony usually takes place at the end of August or early September. The Incwala ceremony, which is religious and involves the direct participation of the king, begins at the last moon of December and culminates at the next full moon.

During the festivities, many Swazis dress in colourful costume, featuring a bright toga-like garment called the Mahiya. The women sport the traditional beehive hairstyles. In this year's famous and most attended reed dance ceremony held at the giant Swazi Stadium, close to 80,000 throngs of beautiful Swazi girls, locally known as Imbali stormed the arena.

Spotting powerful traditional regalia called indlamu, which consists of mini skirts that fall back towards the lower abdomen, rattles on their legs and bare bosoms that expose maroon standing and pointed breasts, the beautiful girls showed the over 2,000 guests how it is done in Swaziland.

Led by Princess Sikhanyiso, the ladies of the day entered the arena in style dancing to a recorded song, which states that she is still a virgin and challenges her mother to come and see for herself. "Mine ngilitshitshi phaca wota make utongihlola" translated " I am a true virgin come mother and check for yourself."

Indeed the Princess proved to the spectators that she is still a virgin when she put down her spear and shield then went down pretending to lie, so that she could be checked for her virginity. As people held their breath, strained their necks while others stood to get the glimpse of the powerful, the ladies swung, danced and marched to the rhythm of utongihlola.

When King Mswati III finally descended down from the podium, ululations rocked the stadium. Clad in the traditional Swazi regalia called Emahiya with three red bird feathers on the head, a bead necklace called Ligcebesha and leather sandals, King Mswati III, in the company of regiments took to the arena and did Kugiya, a traditional dance.

Initially, the reed dance was meant for the King to choose a wife. Things have changed. The King no longer chooses a wife during the festivity, but rather dances to the tune of Kugiya. Here, he dances with regiments, then stops abruptly and bows to a group of girls singing. The king danced for about 20minutes before retreating to the dais as Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi among others watched.

Speaking at the opening of the 14th Summit of COMESA Heads of State and Government in Mazini, Swaziland, President Mugabe said that Umhlanga- the Swazi reed dance was not about sex as people used to think. Swazi police reports indicated that the number of reed dancers had increased from the initial 60,000 to close to 80,000. The reed dance has become an international event attracting visitors from various parts of the world.

Swaziland is a country deeply rooted to its cultural beliefs. Reports indicate that about 80% of the Swazi population seeks advice from traditional healers called inyangas. They are seen as physicians, prophets, priests, herbalists and diviners and thus hold a senior place in society. The inyangas inherit their skills from their grandfathers and are mostly men.

Their main function is to foretell the future by throwing up the bones. After several throws, during which the bones fall into different positions, the inyanga studies them and relays the message in lyrical siSwati. The other prominent traditional healer is the sangoma. Mostly women, sangomas are called to heal physical and mental problems, attend a number of ceremonies and act as counsellors.

For divining, the sangoma relies on spirit possession. Both the inyanga and sangoma practise herbal medicine along with their other functions. Unlike Uganda's traditional leaders who have never studied medicine, the Inyangas of Swaziland are well trained traditional healers from the powerful school of Siteki.

Siteki is one of the must see features in Swaziland. Offering a cool respite in the Lebombo Mountains from the plains below, the town of Siteki, takes its name from a story from the days of Mbandzeni, great-grandfather of the present King, who gave his troops permission to marry here. But Siteki is not just about a marrying place.

It is renowned for its Inyanga and Sangoma School, a government school to train healers and diviners. It's a fascinating mix of botany, spiritualism and natural science.

Not far from Siteki is the Muti-Muti Nature Reserve, used by practitioners at the Inyanga and Sangoma School for collecting herbs used in their work. Then there is Ezulwini, called the Place of Heaven, is a showcase for Swaziland's amazing natural beauty. It's along story. But all good things, they say, come to an end. It was time to go. As i sat down on the plane, i looked out the window at my last view of Swaziland for who knows how long. as well as the centre of entertainment for the nation.

The lush valley is home to the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, hot mineral springs, and the Mantenga Falls.

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