This one is for Bragging Rights


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Africa » Swaziland » Ezulwini Valley
September 3rd 2010
Published: September 27th 2010
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Early on, I felt awkward taking photos of these women. But they insisted “Hello! Photo of me!” they would say. After a while with 15000 women singing and dancing passionately to traditional songs, my initial shyness would subside.

I was at one of Southern Africa’s great festivals and my right index finger was getting a workout. Snapping up some photos to confirm my bragging rights - I had just seen the Umhlanga (Reed) Festival… And it has nothing to do with the fact that most of the women were topless. I don’t care what you say.

The Umhlanga Festival is an ancient festival that generally gets coverage by western media for its obvious assets to get our attention. Half naked women roaming around is one. As well as that the King sometimes chooses a wife at this festival. He currently has 14. (His predecessor King Sobhuza II was rumoured to have had 100.) This is because in Swazi tradition the King needs to be a part of all Swazi clans so he can build a relationship with the whole country. But this is not what the festival is all about. It’s about having an opportunity for Swaziland's female virgins to pay tribute to the Queen Mother (Ndlovukazi.)

Umhlanga allows the country to hold onto its traditions and culture, despite being landlocked and bordering two former European colonies - to the west, north and south, South Africa and to the northeast, Mozambique.

This festival is not just an excuse for the king to look up and down for a potential suitor. (A touchy issue to talk about at times and doesn’t happen every year.) It is also a rare opportunity for Swaziland’s women to venture outside their area and mingle with her fellow countrywoman.

Apart from the roads that cut through the heart of the country from border to border, the country looks rural and poor. The capital Mbabane is busy with its shopping centre and bus station. Whilst Manzini the main transport hub has a slight resemblance to a UK High Street. In between these major cities (but more like towns) is the Ezulwini Valley.

Ezulwini Valley is a large valley bordered by two mountain ranges opposite each other. Western culture is slowly creeping in and Ezulwini seems to be the most active part of Swaziland’s development. At the east of the valley is the Ludzidzini Royal village (Royal Kraal) and the Queen Mothers residence.

As I walked towards the Royal Village through the local Lobamba Market I was followed by and than followed a group of women dressed in either red or marron dominated skirts that are decorated with beads. Most wore bare feet with rattling anklets and carried 4m long sticks with what appeared to be a broom tip. This is the reed that they have carried from their house to present to the Queen Mother at her house.

This process is the 6th Day of the festival. The 5 days prior are taken up by the women preparing themselves and going to various areas of the country to pick the reeds. For me the 6th day is the best day to come. Always on a Sunday the local women line up outside in orderly groups waiting for their turn to place the reed at the Queen Mothers residence. These reeds are then used to build windbreaks around the Queen Mother's residence, which has many huts and large wooden branches as a fence.

Unlike the 7th day, the 6th day is a chance to mingle with the Swazi women who are more than happy to talk to you and express themselves through dance and song. Held every year, everyone knows what the order of proceedings are and despite the long waiting time of over 2 hours, they come early, line up and make their own party whilst waiting. It is one thing that stands out throughout - the organisation of the whole festival. Even the food line at the end of the day is orderly.

Everyone involved is allowed free food as a gift of thanks by the king. This is done traditionally by slaughtering cattle and presenting them with a feast before everyone returns home. Incredibly this is done by a line up with no pushing just patience for what seemed to be a half kilometre line.

Once they have laid their reed down (actually up against a fence) they make their way to the main stadium. The stadium has one grandstand on the west side, which is perfectly positioned with the sun setting behind us towards the end of the day. The activities generally happen around 3-4pm. At that time they then start group songs and dances with a lot of shuffling and stomping. Similar to what was happening earlier that day. The last day sees individual group dances, which get some high velocity feet stomps. Both are performed in front of the king.

There were some glitches but nothing too major apart from the security X-ray not working on the last day (Monday). It was there because the festival had some big African dignitaries including the King (he attends “officially’ as a sign of respect to his mother) and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (there are dances from other countries, Zimbabwean dances were special guests).
One of the few western influences to the festival apart from sunglasses is the grandstand and the big screen TV where barrels of laughter would come over the crowd whenever Mugabe came on. We asked why are you laughing and we were answered. “We like his courage but that is why we don’t like him.” So it appears in Swaziland instead of booing someone you don’t like, you laugh uncontrollably in a sarcastic ridiculing way.

On both days the King in his brownish bone pants more like ¾ skirt every so often goes for a light jog with his guards, princes and elders whilst carrying a stick (more so a whacking weapon from back in the day) with a gold triangle tip in the air. His buddies have a smaller stick and no gold tip. He jogs for a good 10-15 minutes, as there are two rows of semi circle groups of women. This is usually done with much fan fair. But I think he does this so he doesn’t get deep vein thrombosis as most of the time he is sitting in the stand. This also could be used as a time for him to check out a potential suitor for next year. (Ooh, what sons do for their mothers ah!)

The Kings first daughter usually does the ending of the festival. She performs the Giya song and dance; this is usually supported by other princesses. The Queens (not all, some are reported to have left him) come and join briefly. Princesses of all ages are seen throughout the festival walking around and contributing. They are distinguished by having red feathers in their hair.

It’s hard to get the correct information on how many children the King has but it’s around 23 maybe more (King Sobhuza II fathered more than 600 - Did he have anytime to rule?) Than there are the other princesses and princes and their sons and daughters from King Sobhuza II. So there is quite a few red feathers around. I was quite proud of myself because I unknowingly chose a princess when I said “Gee she’s good looking!” When I found out she was a princess I eventually was only human and had a glance at you know what because… hey, it was there. Most of the time you don’t notice the nakedness and you get acclimatised to it but sometimes the peripheral can’t help itself.

I encouraged my travel buddy Christina to join in but my efforts were in vein. Instead the locals encouraged her by dressing her up (over her western clothes) with the traditional top and anklets with what appeared to be white dung shakers. These dung shakers collectively really make some noise.

We both received tongue and check wedding proposals, which after a while I said “Look I think we are going to have to be married for the next 2 days.” Even so, I think it was a good thing to come to a festival like this with a female. I don’t think the locals really care but it was a comforting feeling to know that I was not classed as a big western perve and as well, a paedophile because there are some young ones in that 15 000. But I was caught out in that first group I followed. Maybe because of the big arse zoom camera I had.

This girl with a 2 buzz cut hairstyle says, “Ah so you saw the photos on the Internet. That is why you are here? You are trying to find yourself a wife? You know, you don’t have to get a Swaziland passport if you marry one.” I asked about Christina? She said that she would “...have to become a Swaziland citizen.” That could happen as a Prince came up to her and asked for her number. (Haha - The difference between the male traveller and the female traveller. The female gets the Prince - the male would never get the princess. Just look at Denmark!)

The buzz cut is the favoured hairstyle of the Swazi female and the hairstyle together with the type of materials they wore distinguished what part of the country they are from. Traditionally they would wear one of
This is a princessThis is a princessThis is a princess

Indicated by the red feathers in her hair
four colours red, orange, purple and blue. But nowadays some women generally from the city have brightly coloured materials of greens, yellows and long hair. But all sing together in a hypnotic way.

Songs generally last from 3-15 minutes. Repeating it over and over again. It wasn’t until the festival finished and I picked up a booklet that I discovered what the meaning of the words were. Every time you ask a local “What are they saying?” They’d reply “… thanking the king” or “… wishing good health to the king.” But the lyrics to the songs range from patriotism, to glory to the king, to health issues, to women’s rights and the mistreatment of females in their own country.

Words like Tsine siyiMbali, siyiMbali, yemaSwati / Akuna mfane longasintsa tsine! (We are the flower, the flower, the flower of the Swazi! / There is no boy who can touch us!)
This song is to celebrate the women holding onto their virginity. Swaziland has taken over as the worlds highest rate of AIDS/HIV currently 40%. Life expectancy plummeted from 54 in 1990 to 35 in 2004, and over one in ten households are headed by children. So the
Princess on her mobilePrincess on her mobilePrincess on her mobile

I think the pom-pom looking things represent taht she is a virgin but I could be wrong on that?
Aids message is one of the strong messages of the festival. Although to participate I heard that you only have to be not pregnant.

Whilst that song warns the guys to “back off!” This other song is quite disturbing. Called the Wangiphatsa kwaze kwasa yemlamu wani it says:
(Lead singers) You touch me in most sensitive parts my in-law
(Chorus) How do you touch me?
(Lead Singers) You touch me up till morning hours my in-law
(Chorus) How do you touch me?
(Lead singers) You touch me until the woman of the house cries
(Chorus) How do you touch me?
And than repeats.

Man I wish I never read that booklet. What awful things to realise that such a soothing hypnotic sound can be so serious. Reading it helped me understand why the singing is so passionately sung. It’s a chance for the females of the country to voice their opinion collectively even if the males are maybe preoccupied visually to listen.

There are other positive and patriotic songs, which tell the story of how South Africa controls land that is Swaziland’s. Singing that it should be given back to the King of the Swazis. Another that indicates that the country and the festival have changed but women should stand up and face the challenges of today.

The King has got some challenges of his own. Swaziland is the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa. Mswati III became king when he turned 18, four years after the death of his father. The youngest of King Sobhuza II's three hundred or so children (you may notice I previously said 600 children - reports vary.) He has shown a liking for certain Swazi traditions despite his English education.
His actions at this festival over the years has been rediculed from the outside world.
Things like:
In 2002 when he chose his wife. The girl’s mother filed a lawsuit against the king, charging him with abducting her daughter. Mswati told the court they were forbidden from issuing rulings that limited the king’s power because his choice was within tradition. But according to tradition the criteria for a future Inkhosikati (wife), the girl must not be disabled, or a twin… She had a twin brother. In May 2004 the wedding went ahead. Her mother eventually agreed to indefinitely postpone the case, saying she’ll continue persuing depending on the way the King treats her daughter.

There are some other classic king moments in conjunction with this festival.
In 2004 he chose a sixteen-year-old Miss Teen Swaziland.
In 2001 in response to the escalating AIDS crises the king prohibited men from having sex with teenage girls for 5 years. Females would have to wear tassels to indicate they were virgins. If the males couldn’t hold out, they would be fined either one cow or $152. Two months later the king fined himself a cow for breaking the ban by taking a 17-year old girl as his ninth wife. The ban was then prematurely lifted in 2005 just weeks before he chose another 17-year-old girl as his 13th wife.

The Kings spending spree has got western media attention too. In 2002 Parliament rejected the proposal of a $US50 million luxury jet for the king. He has a $500 000 Chrysler which is banned to take photos of. This was afforded by the Kings personal funds according to the office of the king. It was pimped out with a 21-speaker surround system. He also asked for public funds to pay for numerous palaces plus one each for his wives. Eventually 5 were given the okay at the cost of $4 million. A year later instead of palaces he bought a BMW for each of his wives.

Things like that could be why towards the end of the festival the general public started to leave during the Giya dances. Apparently the King is bound by tradition and shares power with the Queen Mother, and is therefore not an "absolute" monarch. But I only got that information from one source.

I left this festival saddened that I was leaving Africa briefly to go home. Until here I didn’t feel like I had captured Africa yet. It had those cliché sights and sounds that you expect to see in Africa. Most foreigners in Swaziland are volunteers and the lack of tourists at this festival really added to the feeling of seeing something special.

I fear that this festival changes every year (not that long ago there was no grandstand) and me typing this doesn’t help either. The various nipples on show can be intriguing at times but gosh I hope that this festival doesn’t get ruined by dirty western perverts forcing the festival to cover up its assets (I hope my photos will be classed as tasteful).

The western world have had to make up a special day for women - International women’s day. Swaziland has had it in place for years. Tradition has set it ahead of its time so don’t let the western world change it too much. We should look towards the positives of this African festival. There are so many different clans and they all come here in peace to celebrate the unity of their proud country. They have been doing it for years, even when the rest of Africa’s clans have been in civil wars and going through genocide. Let them collect the reeds, sing and dance as they have been. This is one of the most satisfying festivals in the world. Bragging rights is with me!



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Local putting what appeared to be a dung shaker - can't remember whatit was called and consisted of.


28th September 2010

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We were at a Maisi festival in Tansania and it was pretty awesome. This one looks so cool. You can feel it in your chest when they are singing and dancing. Swaziland is on the list of places to visit for sure!

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