The reed dance is a spectacular annual event attracting multitudes of
tourists to the Kingdom of Swaziland. Performing at the reed dance ceremony are
thousands of Swazi maidens in their traditional attire. These Swazi girls come
from various locations over the country and gather together for the ceremony
which lasts for about eight days. The Umhlanga Reed Dance occurs towards the end
of the month of August, when the seasons start changing and the reed is matured
and ready for harvest. This event presents the maidens with an opportunity to
pay honour to the Queen Mother. Only childless, unwed girls are permitted to
take part in the event.
The dates of the umhlanga reed dance are set according to the cycle of the moon and are never determined on the calendar. The precise dates of the event are made public via radio broadcast, by the maidens' captain , or indvuna yetintfombi, who is chosen by Royal appointment. She is nominated on the basis of being an expert dancer and knowing the ins and outs of the national royal protocol. She is expected to lead the girls with one of the princesses as her counterpart when they set off to cut the reed on the first day.
The main objectives of the ceremony are to firstly preserve girls' virginity. This tradition is focused on encouraging young Swazi women to abstain from intimate relations and keep their virginity intact until they are considered old enough to be married. The second main objective is to provide tribute labour for the Queen mother. The reeds cut by the girls are taken back to the main Royal residence, and are used as wind breakers for the Queen mothers hut. The final aim of the ceremony is to promote a sense of unity and solidarity among the girls by making them work together.
On the first day of the event, Swazi girls gather at their various chiefdoms where they are advised by the elders of the community. About four men are appointed by each chief to accompany the girls. These supervisors are given the task of protecting the girls throughout the event. In the event of any unexpected circumstances, the girls are to report to the supervisors who then report the matter to the responsible authorities. From their chiefdoms the girls all make their way in trucks to the main Royal household, called Ludzidzini where the Queen Mother lives. They arrive in groups of two hundred or more, and are registered for security reasons. They are accommodated in the huts of relatives who live in the royal villages, or in the classrooms of the four closely located schools.
On the second day the girls walk to Engabezweni from Ludzidzini, another palace where the girls are met by the King who blesses them for the long journey which they are about to undertake. They are then divided into two groups, of older maiden aged between about fourteen and twenty two, and the younger group aged between eight and thirteen years old; who then make their way along different routes to the selected destinations for cutting the reed. The older group goes to Mphisi farm which is very far away, and due to the long distances government trucks are issued to transport the girls. The younger group is sent to Masundvwini. In the afternoon, they march, in their local groups, to the location of the reed beds with their supervisors. Along the way there is much singing, chatting, and sharing of experiences, making the long walk seem much shorter and more bearable. The girls reach the vicinity of the reeds after nightfall, and upon arrival they are provided with government tents and marquees to sleep in.
The third day sees the Swazi girls cutting the reeds, and tying them together into bundles. It is said that each bundle must consist of an even number of reeds, because an odd number will bring misfortune upon the royal family. Having cut the reeds the girls given the entire day to rest before making their way back to Engabezweni the next day.
In the afternoon of the fourth day, the girls set off to return to the Queen Mother's household, transporting their bundles of reeds. Again they are taken to Engabezweni by trucks, where both groups meet then take another long walk to the royal kraal by night. This is done "to show they traveled a long way".
Day five set aside as a day of rest where the girls are given free time to go into town and socialize. Before the day draws to an end, they must completed final preparations to their hair and dancing costumes.
On the sixth day the girls are taken to the home of the Queen Mother where they place their reeds outside. They then move to the arena in a snake formation, dancing in their groups, with each group singing different songs simultaneously.
The main event of the ceremonies takes place on the seventh day, attracting thousands of spectators from across the globe. This is the day of dancing, when the girls appear in their traditional attire. They are led by the leader and the princesses to the grounds where they are presented before the King and the Queen mother. They dance all afternoon in their groups. It is tradition for the king to deliver a speech addressing his subjects on a wide variety of topics like morals and unity. A variety of other well known personalities of the country also make speeches, depending on who is featured on the programme.
On the eighth and final day of the ceremony the King gives instructions that some cattle be slaughtered for girls, after which they collect meat and can go home.
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