Southern Africa: Reed Dance – A Cultural Event That Has Withstood Test of Time

One of the activities to be held on the sidelines of the 36th SADC Summit currently underway in Mbabane, the Kingdom of Swaziland is the annual Reed Dance.

An estimated 100,000 young girls have registered to take part in this cultural ceremony commonly known as Umhlanga, according to the acting assistant overseer of the event, Sijabulisa Ndzinisa.

Swaziland has a population of just over 1.1 million.

But what exactly is event, the Reed Dance, that has withstood the test of time and maintained its glamour and colour, attracting more participants and visitors each year?

In fact, the eight-day festival has defied the apparent decline of traditional culture in many parts of Africa and the world.

Commemorated in late August or early September each year, the Reed Dance involves the cutting of reeds by young girls, who then present them to the Queen Mother to repair her royal residence - and then dance in celebration.

This gesture by the young girls, who should be childless and unmarried, signifies the preservation of their chastity, a tribute of labour to the Queen Mother, and shows solidarity to working together.

On the first day of the festival, the girls from more than 200 chiefdoms of the Kingdom of Swaziland gather at the Queen Mother's royal village.

On the second day they are separated into two groups - one made up of girls aged between 14 and 22 years and another comprising those aged 8-13 years.

These groups are dispatched in the afternoon to go and fetch the reeds. The girls sleep in the forest.

Cutting of the reeds is done on the third day while in the afternoon of the fourth day, the girls return to the Queen Mother's royal village.

A free day is provided on the fifth day to allow the girls to rest as well as make final preparations on their attire. Presentations of the reeds, which is followed by dancing, is conducted on the sixth and seventh days.

On the eight and last day, King Mswati III orders the slaughter of cattle for the girls to eat.

Participation in the Reed Dance is optional and most young Swazi girls usually take pride in the event.

According to Swazi history, the Reed Dance developed out of a the old umewsho custom, where all young girls were placed in a female age-regiment, and if any of them fell pregnant outside of marriage, her family was made to pay a fine.

This tradition was aimed at discouraging sex before marriage - an important form of campaign, particularly now when the global community is battling with challenges on how to address the HIV and AIDS pandemic and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Occasionally, the King may use the opportunity to choose a new wife. However, it should be noted that proposal to the girl would have happened many months prior to the selection, hence the Reed Dance provides a platform to introduce the new queen to the public.

Despite the Reed Dance being one of the biggest and most spectacular cultural events in Africa, it has also received its fair share of criticism, especially from the western media which tends to portray the festival as serving little purpose other than a showcasing of young virgins from which the King can select a new wife.

The Kingdom of Swaziland has extended an invitation to delegates to the 36th SADC Summit to attend this year's Reeds Dance on 29 August and experience the rich Swazi culture.

"As His Majesty King Mswati III has already invited all SADC Member States to join us as we celebrate the purity of our young girls, kindly join us in this occasion that we are confident you will experience," Swazi Economic Planning and Development Minister, Prince Hlangusemphi said.

Little can indeed prepare any visitor for the sheer scale of the pageantry across the parade grounds of Ludzidzini, where the presentations will take place, or an overwhelming immersion in noise and colour, as the girls stamp, sing and sway in step, anklets rattling, and dazzling costumes blurring into a living, chanting kaleidoscope.

Swaziland has succeeded where many others have failed to create a nation that prides itself in its culture and

Source: Southern African News Features.