July 14, 2009
have heard over and over again since arriving in Swaziland that it is such a shame that I won’t be here in August. “Ach, sisi, why are you leaving so soon? You’re going to miss the biggest event in Swaziland.” They mean, of course, Umhlanga, or the Reed Dance Festival at the King’s residence that takes place every year in August or September. This is the time when all of the young maidens (and we’re talking 12 year-old girls) come and pay homage to the King and Queen Mother. They collect reeds from designated areas of Swaziland and bring them to repair the Queen Mother’s home, and there is a long ceremony of dancing. Apparently, cameras are no longer allowed at this ceremony because the photos of the bare-breasted young girls have been “abused” in the past. This is also the ceremony when, traditionally, the King would choose his next wife from among the maidens present, but Mandla informs me that this is not the case anymore; now it’s just a ritual.
Last week, as Mandla drove me down the now-familiar stretch of highway between Mbabane and Eden Guest House, we sat waiting at the turnabout for a chance to head north on the highway. We sat there for a long time as rush-hour traffic whizzed by us, hurtling around the bend in the highway without notice and continuing up the road to disappear out of sight at the next twist in the road. There were tiny cars zipping past us in the right lane, and on the right were the big trucks that literally inched their way up the hill, crawling along with agonizing sluggishness and looking like someone who has just gotten up off the couch after about 10 years of not moving and is trying to mountain climb. And then, from around the bend came a big truck. “Ach,” said Mandla, “these are government trucks. That is where all of our money goes, towards nonsense like this.” I looked closer and suddenly realized that the trucks were full of women – older women who were packed into the open-air beds of the vehicles that were being driven by men in government uniforms. There must have been about 40 – 50 women in each truck that passed by us in a flash of colorful headscarves and white smiles; some of them were sitting, while others were standing and grasping the side of the truck bed. They were laughing and talking as the wind whipped their skirts and scarves around them, and we watched at least 6 trucks full of them climb up the hill before we were able to turn. “They are going to Lobamba to the King’s residence,” said Mandla. “They will be camping there for some days now and cutting the reeds for the dance this weekend.”
“There’s a reed dance this weekend??” I asked. “Yebo, it’s on Saturday afternoon – it’s not the big one with the maidens, though. This one is for old women only, so it’s not as popular,” he said. “But you see – this is the problem here. Why should we pay money for these women to stay away from home for these days, and use official government trucks and petrol to transport them there and back when we have bigger problems that need to be solved?” I watched thoughtfully as the last of the trucks, and the women, turned and disappeared from our view.
On Saturday, Ashook returned from work in the early afternoon and we decided to go together to watch the Reed Dance, as neither of us had seen anything like it yet. Ashook has even been living here part-time for almost 3 years and had never gone to see it. We drove in the direction of eZulwini, past a large handicraft market, past the Gables (a high-end mini-mall) and turned into the Royal Residence, where there were some police cars parked to direct traffic (of which there was scant little). Ashook parked the car in a big grassy lot and we started walking up a gently sloping hill to the residence itself. Despite the cold in the morning, the afternoon sun was suddenly penetratingly hot, and I was glad that I had worn a skirt (which was mandatory for entry as a woman, anyway). We arrived at a big clearing and were suddenly part of a huge swarm of women dressed in black skirts and sporting clothes in brilliant reds of all hues. Some of them were already dancing and singing together in small groups, but most were lining up for the first part of the dance. There were hundreds of women there standing in a group, and they held large reeds that shot up past their heads and climbed into the sky, waving slightly in the breeze en masse, the sunlight turning them a crisp golden. I took out my camera to get a shot of the pre-dance scene, and was immediately called over to a police tent and informed that it was illegal to take pictures unless I had a permit with me. “Oh,” I said. “I see – how can I get a permit?” “No, it’s too late – you were supposed to apply many months ago with the government. Now it’s an offense if you take any photos,” he said with a reprimanding look.
The women first lined up according to the region of the country they were from, and we watched as they paraded by us, swaying in unison and stamping their feet to the beat of their own unique melody. Each song blended momentarily into the next and then faded away as the next group danced past, overtaking our ears with their own melody. Each group of women wore a different (the name for the traditional outfits) with many brilliant colors of cloth wrapped around their shoulders. The are made up of a large piece of cloth – about 2 meters – wrapped under one arm and tied at the shoulder of the other, which is worn over a straight black plaited skirt, called a sidvwashi. Each woman wears a black hairnet on her head with a white band that holds it in place behind her ears. A beaded necklace (ligcebesha) featuring the shield of Swaziland is worn close to the neck, and a string of acorn-like nuts from a tree found in the Lowveld (the eastern region of Swaziland) is worn around each ankle. The nuts are deseeded and then filled with stones so that when the women stamp their feet and dance, they are accompanied by a round of muted percussion. One woman in each group appared to be the designated “whistle-blower” – in a purely literal sense, that is. While the others around her sang in a chorus, she waved her reed and blew piercing shrieks on her whistle that only halfway corresponded with the beat. I can’t quite describe the beauty of the music and do it justice, but suffice to say that listening to the women passing by us was a little like sitting on the beach, letting each wave of song wash over us completely, overpowered by the music, and watching it recede again until another hit us with new energy.
As the women marched by the Queen Mother’s home, they stacked their reeds vertically along a big fence-like structure where men in traditional dress were waiting to arrange them, and as more and more reeds accumulated, a sort of tunnel was formed. The Swazi traditional dress for men, by the way, is not very much different from the women’s; they wear a cloth draped over their chests and tied over their shoulder with what is essentially a skirt – a brown patterned piece of cloth – tied around their waist. Ashook and I stood together near the tunnel of reeds, and I noticed a Swazi man standing a little behind us and saw that he was glancing at us fairly often. Finally, he came over and said, “Madame, I’m sorry, but the ladies are requested to stand further down; this is the men’s section here.”Oh. I looked at Ashook and then moved down the line of people about 20 feet, and the man gave me a thumbs up to let me know I was now positioned correctly according to my gender. I squinted into the sun and watched as the last of the women trickled through the crowd, placed their reeds, and marched on to the stadium, where the next phase of the ceremony was to take place.
Ashook and I walked over to the stadium, and on the way over, he looked around and remarked, “I think I am the only Indian person here!” We went through security at the stadium, and for a moment my heart stopped in my throat as they requested to see my camera (I thought they might look at all the pictures I had been taking and confiscate it), but the man just looked at it briefly without touching it and apparently determined that it was not a safety threat to the proceedings and let me go through. We sat down in the stadium and a second later, a little boy of about 12 slid down into the seat next to me and said, “Hello, Madame,” before looking away, abashed. In the row behind him were his brothers, sisters, and cousins, who snickered and giggled at him, whispering to each other as he spoke to me. The little boy’s name was Ayanda, and he remained next to me for the rest of the time we were there. He wanted to practice his English (he told me that was his favorite subject in school), and he became our cultural interpreter for the ceremony as well. Ashook and I asked him questions about the proceedings, and he explained some of what we were seeing. The women marched into the stadium and lined up again to dance, their costumes glowing in the golden light of the late afternoon sun, and Ayada told us they would now have another parade and then sing together. “There’s your Queen Mother,” Ayanda said, pointing at a woman dressed in a regal-looking fur robe and carrying a large walking stick. She was dancing slowly and rhythmically towards a small tent on the stadium field, where she finally settled herself to watch the women, although we did see her come out with great ceremony a few more times to take part in the ritual. “And here comes your King!” he added, as a large entourage of men sporting traditional dress walked onto the field, and one with feathers arranged in his hair made his way to the stadium on the red carpet that had been laid out and sat in the center of a special platform in the stadium with the rest of the crowd. The remainder of the ceremony consisted mainly of the women dancing around the field again for the King, each group first singing its own individual song as they had earlier and then joining each other in a haunting and echoing chorus of music that repeated itself over and over again, pulsing through the stadium. Hundreds of bodies swayed with slow, calculated rhythm back and forth, the beat of their makeshift ankle drums in perfect unison as they inched back and forth across the field, following the voice on the loudspeaker with their own.
As Ashook and I walked back to the car, he said, “I never would have come to this if you hadn’t told me about it, you know. Three years I’ve been here and I’ve never seen any of this traditional stuff.” I am just grateful that part of this ceremony happened while I was in the country. And apparently, all of Swaziland got to witness our first cultural exposure to the Reed Dance as well. The next day, when I saw Nokuthula in town, she said, “Oh by the way, Siphiwe, how was the Reed Dance yesterday? I saw you on the Swazi news channel!” I thought back to the day and vaguely remembered seeing a video camera panning the faces of the people lined up to watch the reeds being placed. “Was my face all scrunched up from squinting in the sun?” I asked. “Yes, kind of,” she replied, grinning. So I can say that I have been in the newspaper and on TV in Swaziland. All I need now is a radio spot and I’ll have all of the major media outlets covered!