Umhlanga Part 1

The Umhlanga or Reed Dance is a traditional ceremony in Southern Africa. “Unsullied” young maidens cut tall reeds which they bring to the Royal Residence and use them to weave a windbreak. Then they dance, and the King picks one of them to be his bride. Swaziland is famous for this, but there is also a Zulu version of the dance which takes place at eNyokeni Palace in KwaZulu Natal.

The maidens are known as imbali (flowers). Technically, they should be virgins aged between 7-21, but these criteria are rather lax. As long as they are not married or have children, they can join in.

There is a dress code. The girls are not allowed to wear wigs or hair extensions. Tights, sunglasses and brassieres are also banned.  Traditional dress is called indlamu. Emagwalagwala are feathers which are worn in the hair. A ligcebesha is a bead necklace, which some girls “pimp up” with a modern design. The umgagco is a sash, which can also be decorated with fancy beadwork. The mini-skirt is called an indlamu, often made of suede or velvet. On their ankles, the girls wear emacakala beads and anklets of dried seed pods called emafahlawane, which rattle when they stamp their feet. Around their waist, the girls wear a string of beads called emacandza. One can rent the whole outfit for about £20 (US $30) or buy it outright for seven times that amount.

MSF targeted the imbali from three villages near to our clinic at Matsapha. Our health educators and psychosocial counsellors had arranged for a meeting with community youth leaders, ten days before Umhlanga. Our aim was to educate the girls about sexual violence, why it was necessary to get to the clinic within 72 hours (prevention of pregnancy and HIV prophylaxis) and to publicise our revamped service. I was asked to show my face, demonstrate my support and answer any questions. Most of the audience were young men, which I thought would be quite intimidating for women who may wish to ask sensitive questions.

I think young Swazi men like to show off their knowledge (or ignorance) by asking challenging questions in meetings. For example, the men asked daft questions like:

“If we happen to see maidens, who are cutting reeds, strip naked to bathe in the river, isn’t this exhibitionism offensive for men? It is almost as though they are sexually assaulting us.”

“Can you get genital warts even though you have not raped a girl?”

“If a boy is sodomised, can he become pregnant?”

The girls asked questions about the consequences of rape, such as the effectiveness of traditional remedies for preventing pregnancy.

I must admit, I was hoping for more useful questions. Perhaps they had already heard the message and were so bored they were nitpicking.

A few days later, we delivered the lihiya – pale blue traditional wraps, bearing a health education message in siSwati and an MSF logo – to the imbali in the three villages. They would wear these during the Reed Dance ceremony and provide a reminder of our service in future.

There were more meetings to attend. All the stakeholders (how I hate that word!) who were planning some health promotion input to the Umhlanga congregated at the plush new Swazi Water HQ in Ezulwini. I went along to “show the flag” and represent MSF, accompanied by a health education worker and a psychosocial counsellor. As usual, the meeting started 40 minutes late. I was the only white, the only person not able to understand siSwati, so I stuck out like a sore thumb.

The first item on the agenda was the search for a new health promotion message for the Umhlanga, along the theme of promoting abstinence and prevention of HIV. The slogan we decided on would be used in material disseminated during the event and for radio campaigns.

I was thinking of something really memorable, something along the lines of “Naughty, but nice” but I was wrong. The seven slogans were:

Umbono wa 2022 usetandleni tami, ungangonisi
The vision of 2022 is in my hands, don’t mislead me

Umhlanga lisiko lami angifuni wonakale ngami
I take my culture seriously

Butfobhi bami ligcabho lami ngitabugcina
My purity is my pride

Ngiyimbali mbamba angisiyo imbali yasebusika
I’m a real maiden, not just for show

Ngiyimbali lehlakaniphile ngiyalufuna lwati ngeHIV
I’m a smart maiden who wants to know about HIV

Ngiyimbali angivumi kushushumbiswa
Let’s not allow human trafficking

Discipline to correct not to hospitalize

My personal favourite was the last one. In other words, when you need to change someone’s behaviour don’t beat the crap out of them. Chastising children is common and some Swazis regard it as being “traditional practice”, despite articles in the local press saying that it isn’t. 

The vision of 2022 refers to the King’s vision (it was revealed to him in a dream) that Swaziland will abolish AIDS by 2022 and become a First World Country.

The final slogan we came up with was a complex message incorporating “maidens retain your purity” –  “men, stop tempting young women” – and “achieve the vision of 2022”. Catchy.

This took the best part of an hour, so we had morning tea to reinvigorate ourselves. After tea, we spoke about our plans for the event. Diabetes Swaziland was keen to promote healthy lifestyles among the young girls to prevent them become obese and developing type 2 diabetes. Get them young, I suppose. Swaziland has the highest levels of obesity in continental Africa, mainly in women.

MSF said that our aim was to raise awareness about sexual and gender based violence and to  promote our service for survivors at Matsapha clinic. We had printed a health promotion message on 250 lihiyas, colourful traditional wraps, which the maidens would wear when marching (and at other events in the future). We also employed Sidleke, a drama group, who would get our message across to the maidens using theatre, dance and song.

To my surprise, our plans were criticised by others around the table. “Why are you just doing this for the communities around your clinic? To be fair, you should do it for the entire country,” said the representative of the King’s Office.

A national drama group said that their budget had been cut, so they would not be able to strut their stuff as they had wished. “All the money for drama groups should be pooled, so that we can perform to all the maidens.”

The correct protocol in this situation is to suck up the criticism and nod our heads. I think they understood that our plans were already underway and cancellation at this stage was not an option. It seemed to me that there was an element of jealousy that MSF had actually put their ideas into action, rather than just talking about what they would do if they had more money.

Just at this point, my mobile phone vibrated in my pocket. The clinic had an emergency and they had sent a vehicle to collect me. Phew, saved by the buzz.

By Dr Alfred Prunesquallor

Maverick doctor with 40 years experience, I reduced my NHS commitment in 2013. I am now enjoying being free lance, working where I am needed overseas. Now I am working in the UK helping with the current coronavirus pandemic.

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