At least 40,000 fewer young Swazi women are taking part in this year's annual Umhlanga or Reed Dance ceremony than in 2013 if newspaper reports in Swaziland are correct.
Newspapers reported on Thursday (28 August 2014) that 80,000 young women, known as 'Imbali', had registered to take part in a series of ceremonies that end on Monday when they dance bare-breasted in front of King Mswati III.
But, last year the same newspapers in Swaziland reported 120,000 had taken part. In 2009, the Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, put the number of women at 130,000.
The Reed Dance is considered by traditionalists to be the most important event on the Swazi calendar. Unmarried Swazi women, called 'maidens', make their way through the Ezulwini Valley during a week of ceremonial activities culminating with a mass dance in front of the King.
The newspapers in Swaziland have not told their readers about the apparent steep decline in support for the Reed Dance. King Mswati rules the kingdom as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch and most media are strictly controlled. Even, the independent Times of Swaziland newspapers do not criticise the King.