It’s a girl thing. This dance is ours

2010-09-05 13:18

Few Swazi maidens who took part in this week’s Reed Dance were under the illusion they would be the next inkhosikati (wife) of King Mswati III.

Their motives are many; some as basic as a desire for two government-sponsored meals a day.

Others come for the glamour of performing before thousands of spectators in the most colourful and revealing costumes this side of Las Vegas.

Others do it because they are Swazi girls and, as they point out, this is one rite that Swazi girls have to perform on their path to ­maturity.

The world is used to seeing tens of thousands of these maidens – this year’s official count is about 60?000 – as they parade ­into an outdoor arena at the Eludzidzini royal village, 20km east of Mbabane.

The pubescent girls, generally aged from 12 to 20, stir the dust with seed-rattle anklets, immodestly topless and with beaded belts scarcely covering their frontal maidenhood and not at all their backsides.

Police are constantly poking at photographers who try to sneak low-angle shots.

Again on Monday under sunlight filtered by the churned red dust and smoke from seasonal veld fires, the girls blew on customary whistles, which are as prevalent and tuneless as ­vuvuzelas. They raised their voices in praise of the national leadership, their pride at being Swazi girls and – new this year – an ode to the value of male circumcision in the age of Aids.

Since the 1990s, world media have depicted the reed dance as a locale where the polygamous king chooses his brides.

Never mind that royal brides are chosen according to clan (the first is always from the Matsebula family) in a pre-determined ­order, or that Eludzidzini is the home of the Queen Mother, while her son the king is merely a guest who looks on and greets the maidens who have come to pay tribute to her.

“We are dancing for the Queen Mother and for ourselves as Swazi girls, not so we can be seen by anyone,” said Ntombi Kunene, not mentioning the names of any personages but displaying a precocious grasp of the event’s ­intention for a 12-year-old.

She looks beautiful in her ­indlamu costume with green, yellow and red woolen tassels ­descending from one shoulder, and she smiles with the joy of an impoverished child resplendent in the Swazi equivalent of haute couture. The indlamu is a custom-made piece costing on average R1?200 and thus unaffordable to a majority of the girls in a country where 80% of inhabitants live on less than US$1 a day. Ntombi’s outfit was a gift.

The Swaziland National Arts and Culture Council mounted a campaign this year to have the ­indlamu made and distributed in quantities.

Missing from Monday’s Umhlanga, the siSwati word for the eponymous reeds carried by the maidens, were the reeds themselves. These were dropped off at the weekend.

The maidens left central Swaziland last week to travel by truck and foot to rivers where the reeds grow.

It was here, north of the hamlet of Mafutseni and far from the glamour of the dance arena, that the heart of the journey and its appeal to the girls was on display.

They were mainly poor girls, mostly villagers, many shoeless, some in ragged clothes and them all dusty and mud-caked from the journey to the river and the cutting of the 2m-tall reeds.

“I want meat!” said Veli Dlamini (18) when asked what she was looking forward to that day. The catered meals seemed like feasts to these girls, for whom at home meat is only an occasional treat.

“I learn from my sisters how to be a real Swazi girl,” explained Joy Malaza (16), who was successful at locating and cutting reeds, using a kitchen knife brought from home.

But Esther Lukhele (16), from Mbabane, is a townie who wears a new pair of takkies and says the attraction of the Umhlanga is time away from home and parents. “I can be with my friends day and night,” she says, taking a moment from texting absent friends on her cellphone. The ­entire route from Engabezweni royal village and back to the queen mother’s place is covered by cellular footprints.

“So many of these girls have nothing, yet they have phones,” said Esther, who adds that for the first time in the Umhlanga’s 500-year history, Swazi parents can keep in touch with their daughters and not depend on the girls’ overextended chaperones – ­police matrons and loinskin-clad members of the traditional warrior regiments.

The reeds are a symbolic tribute payment to the Queen Mother. They are used to make windscreens for grass huts.

Some girls carry with them their family’s dream that their daughter will be plucked from the multitude and enthroned in a palace, thus ending the misery of their poverty.

But they all seem to be making the journey for one common reason. “It’s a girl thing. This is ours. Some girls are naughty and meet up with boyfriends along the way. If we find the boys, we beat them with sticks,” said Khosi (17).

Then they blew their whistles, laughed and walked away, sashaying their naked backsides for all the world to see.

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