The fourth edition of the wonders of Africa Webinar had a lot of fun and exciting destinations spoken about by well seasoned travel professionals including team lead for Eswatini Larry Mhlanga who is also a renowned actor, choreographer, plays indigenous instruments, has directed a number of festivals and has led the Swazi contingent to the Carnival Calabar in Nigeria for the past four years.
The Reed Dance festival or Umhlanga as it is locally known was created in the 1940s in Eswatini under the rule of Sobhuza II, and is an adaptation of the much older Umcwasho ceremony. The festival is aimed at encouraging maidens to preserve their virginity until marriage and to also show unity among the girls.
This is Eswatini’s (Swaziland’s) best known cultural event, during the eight-day ceremony, young girls cut reeds, present them to the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi) – ostensibly to repair the windbreak around her royal residence – and then dance in celebration. Up to 40,000 girls take part, dressed up in brightly coloured attired – making it one of the biggest and most spectacular cultural events in Africa.
The proper festivities kick off on day six, when dancing gets under way in the afternoon. Each group drops their reeds outside the Queen Mother’s quarters then moves to the main arena, where they dance and sing their songs. The dancing continues on day seven, when the king is present.
This is the main day that most visitors attend. Each regiment dances before him in turn.
Little can prepare you for the sheer scale of the pageantry, with column upon column of girls advancing like vast ululating centipedes across the parade grounds of Ludzidzini, each dissolving in turn into the pulsating mass of bodies around the royal kraal. Up close, it’s an almost overwhelming immersion in noise and colour, as the girls stamp, sing and sway in step, anklets rattling, naked flesh and dazzling costume blurring into a living, chanting kaleidoscope.
The warrior escorts, adorned with cow tails and clutching knob-stick and shield, are sternly intent on their duties and seem contemptuous of tourists, but the girls are all smiles. It’s Eswatini’s biggest holiday and, after days of tramping the hillsides, cutting reeds and camping out, they’re determined to party.
Unlike other traditional cultural festivals in Africa, the Umhlanga Festival continues to grow in popularity and the people of this mountainous Kingdom remain patriotic about their culture and this festival.
The King sometimes makes use of the festival to publicly court a prospective fiancée or Liphovela.
He currently has 15 wives. His father had over 70.
Today the Umhlanga is as well attended as ever. Indeed cultural historians marvel at how its ever-increasing popularity in Eswatini defies the apparent decline of traditional culture elsewhere.
It offers the visitor a unique experience.
The event takes place around the last week of August / first week of September in the Lobamba area, next to the Ezulwini Valley.