Umhlanga Part 3

At last, the Reed Dance itself.

There is a partly shaded stadium stand occupying the western flank of the parade ground at Ludzidzini. When we arrived just after 2pm, the shady areas were already crammed full of spectators. There were a few foreigners, but most of the audience was Swazi. I picked a good vantage point in the stands and sat down, in the baking sun.

It is considered the height of bad manners to enter a Swazi home wearing a hat, so I had not brought one. However, in front of me there was a Swazi lady with a broad straw hat, which she kept wearing throughout the ceremony. 

I had eaten a snack lunch of Burmese tealeaf salad, but I was still tempted by the Food Court, in a marquee just behind the dancing area. For a pound, I could have tucked into ematfumbu (mixed beef offal), or ikhunhu yasemakhaya (roadrunner). If I didn’t fancy that, I could always have a portion of goat, samp or blesbok (antelope).  You could also buy snacks, such as corn bread, roasted groundnuts with maize (possibly with added vitamins) and green vegetables, with some sour milk porridge to wash it all down.

After half an hour, troops of imbali started marching around the parade field to the assembly point. About an hour later, officials rolled out the red carpet and the King arrived. He took up his position in the Royal Box, with the King of Ghana, Osein Tutu II. The gossip is that the elderly Ghanaian is about to become engaged to one of King Mswati’s princess daughters.

The leader of the imbali, Princess Indvuna Nonduduzo Zubuko, sang the first number “Uyinkhosi  yohlanga sesibonga kuthula KaNgwane“. She has a reputation of interpreting tradition in a modern way. Instead of the dancing on tiptoes, she did a moonwalk worthy of the late Michael Jackson in his video “Billie Jean”. Surprisingly, she twirled her dancing stick (sizeze) like a drum majorette, did back flips and danced while kneeling. As a princess, she is allowed to stretch the boundaries of tradition. Very outré.

Those in-the-know recognised that she was not wearing the mini-skirt indlamu, but a longer wrap called a sidvwashi, indicating that she was pledged to another. Surely not the old Ghanaian monarch?

She had previously warned the girls to avoid songs with offensive lyrics. The regiments passed in front of us, dancing and singing traditional and new songs. I wouldn’t have known if they were being cheeky, because I hadn’t a clue what they were singing. A Swazi man sitting next to me gave me the gist of the ballads and assured me that the lyrics were all above board.

It took over an hour for the regiments to march onto the parade field. When they were all lines up, it resembled those re-creations of papier-mâché battlefields in museums, with blocks of colour representing regiments of cavalry, artillery, infantry and archers, spread out across the land.

A small group of dancers from Lesotho and a contingent of Zulus also performed in front of the King. The Lesotho ladies were no match for the Swazis, and one larger dancer had to wear a bra for obvious reasons.

The Zulus were scary-looking, hefty, balding men, with long feathers in their furry headbands. They were draped in animal skins. The higher the status, the more impressive the skin. Most of these looked like leopard skins. They wielded polished knobkerries (a walking stick topped with a bulbous club, used like a mace or a throwing stick in battle or hunting). Some carried full shields made from cowhide.

If I found it very disconcerting, imagine what redcoats Michael Caine and Stanley Baker felt at Rourke’s Drift when confronted with tens of thousands of Zulu warriors arranged in ibutfo regiments (not “impi” which just means a body of armed men).

The King left the Royal Box to meet the imbali. He was surrounded by his courtiers, all in traditional outfits, all overweight men, jogging like Zulus. Some of them would have benefited from wearing brassieres, like the last from Lesotho.

For some bizarre reason, people sitting on the left side of the King (mainly politicians) in the VIP zone were not allowed to join His Majesty on the “meet and greet”. They complained bitterly about it in the newspaper on the following day.

Tradition dictates that this is when the King chooses his next (sixteenth) bride, but I doubt it. I think that the girl has already been sourced and approved before the event, so she can be dressed up as a future bride at the Umhlanga, wearing the appropriate clobber.

We left before the ceremony was over, not just to beat the rush, but our driver was off duty at 5:30pm. I was sure that our Toyota Avanza would not suddenly turn into a pumpkin (although it drives like one), but I wanted to make sure the driver got home on time. There’s no overtime with MSF!

On the way back to the vehicle, there were groups of maidens who had left the ceremony and were posing for photographs in the car park. I walked over, smiled by winningest smile, and asked if I could join in. They were all delighted and poised like glamour models. Remember those slogans about purity?

Post Scriptum: I apologise for not posting any photographs with these three blogs. Our internet connection just can’t cope. It was miserable weather today, and I spent most of it trying and retrying to upload pictures using my mobile phone. This was the only way I could post any text. I have over 500 photographs backed up on my computer. I’ll try another solution, maybe using Flickr, to share these with anyone who’s interested.

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.

1 comment

  1. Do let us know about the photos. Your words tell a great story but I would love to see photos of the participants. Are there still girls as young as seven in the event? Do you have photos of young maidens wearing the MSF swag? And the princess doing a backflip. Roadrunner (like the bird native to our SW)?

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