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eSwatini Reed Dance 'Umhlanga'

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Umhlanga is a Swazi and Zulu ceremony that takes place once every year. The ceremony lasts eight days. Young girls, who have never been married or had children, cut reeds and then give them to the Queen Mother to repair the surrounding reed fence of the royal residence.

After they have brought the reeds, the girls then go into an arena, where they dance in celebration.

The girls usually wear very colorful clothes, making it an extravagant event. The aim of the event is to preserve girls' chastity, recognize the labor of the Queen Mother and to bring the ladies of the kingdom together as they work together. A maiden is usually chosen, and she announces the event on the radio. The chosen maiden is a veteran dancer and is well versed with the royal protocol. One of the King's daughters will be her assistant.

Picture by Shiraaz Mohamad

After presenting the reeds, the girls then rest for a day before they start organizing their traditional outfits which include, a sash, necklaces made from beads, a skirt and rattling anklets. Some of them carry the knives they used to cut the reeds as a symbol of their virginity. The girls then start dancing in front of the King.

The girls are usually divided into regiments, and every regiment dances before the King in turns. There is a special stand where guests sit to witness the event. The girls move in an orderly and respectful manner, and they flow past the stand in celebration of the girls' chastity. There is a lot of dancing, singing, swaying, stamping and ululations as the large number of girls advance. After all the reed cutting and sleeping out, the girls make a party and enjoy themselves. It is Swaziland's biggest holiday.

Picture by Siphephile Sibanyoni

The girls are usually escorted by men holding shields and wearing cow tails. The King's daughters also take part in the dance. They wear red feathers on their heads to differentiate them from the rest of the females. The King then comes down from the stand and walks through the groups as he pays respect to the people.

The King then orders for about 20 cows to be slaughtered for the girls, who later collect the pieces of meat and take them home after the dance. The culture is becoming more popular, and it offers tourists an amazing experience. Tourists are not allowed to take any photos of the event. The dates of the event are determined by the moon cycle and are not determined by the calendar. The ceremony usually takes place in the last week of August or the first week of September.

The reed dance started around the 1940s, and it came out of the 'umwacsho' custom where girls were put in age regiments in order to maintain chastity. Any girl who fell pregnant out of wedlock would be fined one cow, which her family was to pay to the local chief. Once they got to an age where they were ready for marriage, they would go work for the Queen Mother and then end it with dancing and feasting.

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