This weekend, we had the great privilege of attending Umhlanga – The Reed Dance festival of Swaziland. Umhlanga is a 7 day long festival that culminates in thousands of girls and women dancing before the King in groups associated with their umphakatsi. The Reed Dance is largely misinterpreted by foreigners who see it as a half-naked dance before the King so that he may choose another wife. While that isn't entirely untrue (the girls typically wear garb that exposes their breasts and the King may choose a wife from amongst them) it misses the cultural significance of the ceremony. Let me do my best to explain the Reed Dance festival as we have learned and experienced it.
Day 1-5: Women and young girls from all over Swaziland form groups based on the umphakatsi that governs there village. Each umphakatsi assigns two men to escort the girls to large camps near Lobamba and the Queen Mother’s home at Ludziludzini where they stay for the week and practice their songs and dances. Every group has different color attire as well as different dances and songs to perfect before the 6th and 7th day where they will dance and sing for the royal family. The girls are ferried to the camps via trucks/lorries in a very long caravan of happy, singing girls. As a side note, this year’s Umhlanga has been overshadowed by a very terrible crash on the highway through Mahhala involving two trucks carrying girls. Due to governmental censorship it is hard to know how bad the accident was, but independent reports put the death toll at about 36 girls with many more critically wounded. It was a very sad tragedy for the country as a whole, and there is pressure to reform transportation laws and methods before next year's ceremony, but due to the lack of clarity and censorship it's hard to know what will happen. Back to the events though, during the week the girls also go in their groups to the local reed beds in Lobamba to cut reeds for the ceremony, the taller and straighter the better. Each girl bundles her reeds together and carries them back to the camp.
Day 6: The first day of dancing! We, as a Peace Corps group, attended this day of Umhlanga. Basically, day 6 kicks off the first day of dancing but more importantly, it is when the reeds are presented to the Queen Mother. We showed up to the Queen Mother’s royal residence around 12pm but we learned that the dancing on the parade grounds wouldn't start until 4pm, the same time we were scheduled to leave. Bummer, right? We walked around for a bit and watched some groups of girls go by as they headed to what was essentially the start line. There was a food court tent set up they we thoroughly enjoyed, but we were a little frustrated because we thought that may be the highlight of our experience. Babe Steve, our country director, came to the rescue though. He invited us all to come further into the Queen Mother’s homestead and witness the start of the ceremony from a VIP’s perspective! We knew we were VIP when we could see where the Queen Mother sat, and when the president of Ghana showed up with his entourage. Next came the official start of the dancing with the royal princesses presenting their reeds to the Queen Mother and dancing their way toward the stadium. Each girl brings forth her bundle of reeds and stacks it next to a small building opposite of the Queen Mother. Then the dancing begins!. The royal princesses, those with red feathers in their hair, present their reeds first and then begin the dancing, leading approximately 90,000 other girls and young women to do the same. Each umphakatsi, or village, of girls has a different song and dance, and the royal regiments of the Queen Mother join in too. All of the important groups are acknowledged by the military leaders of Swaziland who run up and bow, thanking the girls. Every group dances through the Queen Mother’s homestead and then marches to the stadium to regroup and prepare to go before the King. Unfortunately, we had to leave before we saw the girls dance for the King, but we were very privileged to have witnessed the true essence of the Reed Dance, the presentation of the reeds.
Day 7: The final and largest day of dancing! The 7th day is all about the King. Much like the night before, the groups of girls arrange themselves in order in a field just next to the parade grounds. Once again the princesses start and each group performs its very best for the King. This is also the day that most of the public comes to see, and it is capped by a solo dance by one of the royal princesses, this year it was the King’s oldest daughter, and apparently she did the moonwalk…the Swazis loved it.
That is Umhlanga in a nutshell for you! If you want to come see us around the end of August we’ll take you to next year’s dance! Despite what anyone says, the dancing is beautiful and the pride of the girls when they present their reeds to the Queen Mother and dance for her and the King is a phenomenal thing to witness. Hope to see you next year!