It might seem odd to outsiders, but the best way to celebrate chastity for King Mswati III of Swaziland is to watch thousands of young women and girls – all of them virgins – dance topless.
Such is the Umhlanga Reed Dance, an annual rite that sees girls as young as five dance, chant and lay reeds at the feet of Mswati and the Queen Mother.
“I’m proud to be Swazi and to be a virgin. We are here to show unity with the king and with each other,” participant Gcebine Dlamini, 18, told Reuters.
This year’s Umhlanga held on Sunday and Monday (2nd and 3rd Sept) featured 80,000 “maidens,” the Swazi Observer said.
Among the special guests included Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson.
In the past, the king has used the reed dance to select a new bride.
The songs performed included “I am a virgin, please come and inspect whether I am still pure,” and “We do not want political parties in Swaziland,” the Observer said.
That last one might be in reference to Mswati’s controversial reign.
He’s considered Africa’s last “absolute monarch,” Reuters said.
Worth an estimated $200 million, the 44-year-old king has 14 wives and gets to appoint the tiny nation’s prime minister, the New York Times said.
He’s known to bestow his brides with cars as wedding gifts and shopping trips, including a recent excursion to Las Vegas, Reuters said.
FACTS ABOUT REED DANCE:
In an eight day ceremony, girls cut reeds and present them to the Queen Mother and then dance. The Dance normally takes place in late August or early September. Only childless, unmarried girls can take part.
The aims of the ceremony are to preserve girls’ chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother and encourage solidarity through working together.
Day 1: The girls gather at the Queen Mothers royal village. They come in groups from the 200 or so chiefdoms and are registered for security. They are supervised by men, usually four, appointed by each chief. They sleep in the huts of relatives in the royal villages or in the classrooms of the four nearby schools.
Day 2: The girls are separated into two groups, the older (about 14 to 22 years) and the younger (about 8 to 13). In the afternoon, they march, in their local groups, to the reed-beds, with their supervisors. The older girls often go to Ntondozi (about 30 kilometres) while the younger girls usually go to Bhamsakhe near Malkerns (about 10 kilometres).
If the older girls are sent to Mphisi Farm, the government will provide transport. The girls reach the vicinity of the reeds in darkness, and sleep in government-provided tents. Formerly, the local people would have accommodated them in their homesteads.
Day 3: The girls cut their reeds, usually about ten to twenty, using long knives. Each girl ties her reeds into one bundle. Nowadays, they use strips of plastic bags for the tying, but those mindful of tradition will still cut grass and plait it into rope.
Day 4: In the afternoon, the girls set off to return to the Queen Mother’s village, carrying their bundles of reeds. Again they return at night. This is done “to show they travelled a long way”.
Day 5: A day of rest where the girls make final preparations to their hair and dancing costumes.
Day 6: First day of dancing, from about 3PM to 5PM. The girls drop their reeds outside the Queen Mothers quarters. They move to the arena and dance, keeping in their groups and each group singing different songs at the same time.
Day 7: Second and last day of dancing. The king will be present. He can publicly court a fiancé if he so wishes.
Day 8: King commands that a number of cattle (perhaps 20-25) be slaughtered for girls. They collect their pieces of meat and can go home. (newzimbabwe)