August 28th, 2011
Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, is my replacement for the MN State Fair this year. It’s one of Swaziland’s major holidays. The explanation point at the end of winter. Five days of Fun. A Cultural experience.
Maidens, previously virgins (now you only have to be a maiden, meaning you are childless), from all over Swaziland come together to present reeds to the Queen and dance for the King. Maidens from each community go and cut Reeds and travel to Lobamba, the Royal Capital of Swaziland. I’m not sure what goes on the first 3 days but on the fourth day they assemble by community and present the reeds that they cut to the Queen at her residence.
Today was that day. We watched as each troop lined up for the presentation. They assemble by rows, each maiden carrying her reed bundle that is three times here height. They sing in unison and step dance to the beat of their song. They wear traditional Swazi attire. A beaded mini skirt that just barely covers the bum (sometimes not even) is worn on bottom, and a sash with huge tassels of yarn on top. The tatas are fully exposed and many maidens wear beautiful beaded necklaces. Bright colors are a must and some even have shiny beads for a little extra bling.
Their song and dance was rhythmic and hypnotic. All the reeds swayed together as the amount of troops escalated. After a few hours the line of troops stretched at least a mile. The air was alive with excitement. Some of these girls have come here year after year and for other this will be their first and only reed dance experience. I would never be caught dead so physically exposed, but you couldn’t help feel the draw of wanting to be involved. To be part of something, the friendship, the excitement, the culture; I got the feeling that this could be the Swazi equivalent to girls summer camp. As the tourist crowd also grew you could see how pride these girls had in showing off their culture. They began to showcase their dances, which features the high kick. The high kick requires one to take all the energy from every part of your body and thrust your leg up at far as it will go, and bring it down in a whip of rhythmic thrust, beating the ground. It is extremely impressive.
We didn’t get to see them progress into the royal residence to present the reeds as we had to leave to make it home before dark (really quite annoying when it get dark at 5:30pm). But we walked along the line of troops on the way out. Hoping that we had cameras many groups stopped us and asked us to take their picture. They of course wont get to keep the photo but taking it and looking at it was fun for them, and, whether they realize it or not, it is way of preserving their culture.
Quote of the Day:
A simple observation I made while at the reed dance
“There is something coming. It’s on a stick. I think it’s a head.”
It was a head. A bull’s head. Severed from its body, a stick strung through its mouth and out the neck, being carried to who knows where. We watched several parade by as we ate lunch.