Maidens form regiments in their localities and travel to the Royal Residences in Lobamba. As public transport is limited, the imbali use whatever means they can to make the journey. Most are crammed onto flat-bed trucks, with as many as fifty to a vehicle. Travelling with the imbali are indvuna, minders who should look after the girls, stop them from singing immodest songs and protect them from marauding males. Unfortunately, there has already been one reported rape of a 14 year old girl by an indvuna twice her age.
The trucks usually travel in convoy, escorted by swarm of smaller vehicles carrying soldiers and police, to guarantee the girls’ security.
This year, the registrars at the King’s (Ngabezweni) and Queen Mother’s (Ludzidzini) Royal Residences claimed that 100,000 have signed up. Schools have been shut for the winter holidays, so the maidens can bunk down in local classrooms.
The next day, the maidens use the flat-bed trucks to get to the riverbanks where the best reeds grow for making windbreaks. There are special areas for reedcutting, one for the youngsters and one for the older maidens. You can’t just cut any old reed. If your reed starts to wilt, it is regarded as a sign that you are not pure. The girls strip off and bathe in the river, sometimes watched by leering men.
This year there was a tragic accident when three trucks, which were bringing maidens and reeds back to the Ludzidzini Royal Residence, were involved in a pile-up on the main road between Manzini and Mbabane. In Swaziland, there were news reporting restrictions, presumably because the government wanted to control negative publicity about the country. The official version of events is that a pick-up truck (known locally as a “bakkie”) braked sharply as it was signalled to pull over by a passing police vehicle. The first truck carrying imbale crashed into the rear of the bakkie, setting off a pile up. This occurred just after 5pm on Friday evening.
Multiple vehicle shunts are not unusual on this main road, especially if the road surface is wet, and if vehicles are travelling at higher than normal speeds (at the beginning of a long holiday weekend, for example). The difference was that many of the unrestrained girls in the trucks were flung out onto the road, and were run over by vehicles speeding down the fast lane.
Although the police forbade the taking of photographs, within minutes people had posted images on Social Media (WhatsApp and Facebook are very popular in Swaziland). These showed horrific scenes of girls lying in the road or laid out on the back of a truck.
The following day, Saturday, was a rest day for the maidens, an ideal time for MSF to contact them with our health education messages about sexual violence. We had planned a quiz for the girls to win arm bands and wraps. Sidleke, a local dance and theatre group, was to perform some short plays illustrating our health education messages. Our team arrived at St Mary’s Primary School to discover that there had been a terrible accident. The whole atmosphere in the school was subdued. We refrained from playing loud dance music, which would have attracted a bigger audience.
The official from the King’s Office had joined our group and she advised that we needed to get a ruling from the executive council about whether we could go ahead or if we would have to cancel the event. After two hours, we got the news from the council that we should go ahead, but we had to lower the volume and be more restrained.
One of pharmacy assistants at the clinic is a well-known DJ. Instead of playing traditional tunes as requested at the stakeholders’ conference, his playlist included funky modern songs by Pitbull and Beyonce. It was a bit like the Radio 1 Roadshow, with the volume control set at 1, but the maidens started to crowd around. If you play it, they will come. When we had a critical mass, one of the elderly women leaders who had joined our group stood up and lectured the girls on morality. To their credit, no one jeered and only a few drifted off.
Sidleke, the drama group, burst on the scene and acted out a scenario about a girl who had been sexually violated. This was followed by a quiz session on the social aspects of sexual violence. Maidens who answered questions correctly (they all did) received wristbands or lihiyas. The DJ cranked up the volume to 2 and several girls showed off their dance moves.
After another skit about a girl being seduced by a rich sugar daddy, we had a medical question and answer session. Last year when we did this, several girls approached us to disclose that they had been raped. We were ready for this and had recruited additional counsellors to be on hand in tents. Nothing ever runs smoothly. Instead of tents, we had brought gazebos, with open sides. We cobbled together a solution by hanging lihiyas from the frame to form curtains, to provide a bit of privacy. Strangely, no one came forward this time. But we had been prepared.
A lady spoke to the girls about her own story of early sexual experience and pregnancy. She said that she had expected her own mother would look after her baby, but this didn’t happen. This grabbed theattention of the imbali. After another Sidleke dancing session, the music started up again and more girls danced.
Finally it was my turn to do my rape rap. I couldn’t persuade anyone to accompany me, boombox blowing on a microphone, so I had to do it acapella. One politically incorrect wag said my rap dance looked like someone with cerebral palsy. Here are the lyrics:
“When a sugar daddy gets you under his powers
And rapes you, you’ve got 72 hours
To get some treatment at the MSF Clinic,
Matsapha on 9th Street, by AfriCem, innit.
The care we give is confidential and free,
We can prevent a babe and hep’titis B.
We can stop the drop with our medication
And you can take our report to your local police station.
The pain of rape can scar your brain,
But our psych’social counsellors can get you better again.”
I had to rap slowly because my English is not easily understood, so the performance was less Eminem and more 10 cents. But I tried.
We still had health promotion wrist bands and gave them away to a horde of girls, who surrounded the vehicle and were desperate to get their hands on a freebie. A bit like junior doctors pouncing on sandwiches at a drug rep’s lunch.
By this time it was after 2pm and our volunteer staff were ravenous. We had ordered food – rice, beetroot and either meat or chicken – in polystyrene containers. The staff climbed into the LandCruisers and devoured the food.
The day could have ended in disaster. The event could have been cancelled out of respect for the dead imbali. All of our hard work planning and organising could have been wasted. But the show must go on, I suppose. I do regret that we didn’t have a minute’s silence at the start of proceedings. Perhaps the commentators mentioned it in their talks to the girls, but not knowing much siSwati, I can’t confirm or refute this.
The King issued a statement mourning the death of the girls and assured the families of the dead and injured that they would get support. He assured the nation that no further similar accidents will happen in future. This was tempting fate. Another truck flipped over on the return journey at the end of the Umhlanga, injuring forty girls. The newspapers have been very quiet about this, and it is possible that a news blackout has been imposed.
I spoke to several Swazis about the response to the accident. Some were quite fatalistic and callous, voicing the view that the girls were dead, it was sad, but the show must go on. Another said that with 100,000 people attending the ceremony, someone was bound to die.
One man said that someone always died at the time of Umhlanga, and it was related to witchcraft. Last year, a motorcyclist was killed at a Biker Rally, for example. Blood needed to be spilled to ensure the success of the ceremony and future good fortune. And if it had been cancelled, this would mean bad luck, drought, poor harvests, etc, for the country.
Political opponents of the King criticised his decision to continue the ceremony and attacked the whole concept of the Reed Dance as an outdated, voyeuristic spectacle which should be stopped.
Writing in the Swaziland Observer, a government spokesman said, “Sentiments that because of the accidents the ceremony should have been postponed are unfortunate and lack wisdom. As Swazis we know that not even death can stop a ceremony whose hour has come. Without undermining the significance of the accidents, we know very well that death does not come into the way of such events, not unless the entire family or nation is annihilated. Such sentiments were aimed at dramatising the accident to unsuspecting audiences and definitely not guided by reason or wisdom.”
“In His Majesty King Mswati III’s 29th reign, this is one accident involving libutfo (women’s regiments). There is no better evidence than that which shows how much safe these cultural events have been.”
No one seems to have paid too much attention to the obvious physical causes of the accident. It is unsafe to transport fifty girls on the back of a truck, regardless of the state of its roadworthiness (tyres and brakes). Indeed, the goverment spokesman in the Observer goes on to say, “Further, the mode of transportation cannot be faulted, but it gives us an opportunity to continuously consider better options.”
How about using the idle school buses instead of flat-bed trucks? They used government buses to transport family members to the funerals of the dead girls, which took place yesterday.