The parade of the virgin army at the Umhlanga Reed Dance.
Tens of thousands of maidens and young girls are gathering in the town of Lobamba, as they prepare for a special occasion. The small Swazi municipality, located between the capital city of eSwatini, Mbabane, and the industrial hub of Manzini, is a ceremonial place, where the rule of king Mswati III is celebrated yearly by a unique ritual: the Umhlanga Reed Dance.
At the Reed Dance, thousands of baSwati girls from all over the country and across the border parade in traditional dresses to salute their king. Their ‘red carpet’ is the dusty Somhlolo stadium, where Mswati III himself is awaiting the army of virgins with foreign dignitaries from five continents.
The maidens have rehearsed this spectacular moment for a whole year. “We learn about our culture at school,” explains one of the participants. “We don’t just practice our dance moves, but also the heritage of our kingdom and the significance of the outfits we wear during the dance.”
“We are half naked during the dance, but we are not ashamed of our body,” says another reed dancer. “We celebrate being ladies and we pay homage to the kingdom.”
A tent city rose in less than a week in preparation for the big day. Buses converged in Lobamba from the four regions of eSwatini under the guidance of local chiefs and elderly women. The young ladies then prepared for the final dance in a climaxing week of activities and rituals. While the common people lodged in packed tents and marquees with old and new friends, the noble girls received special treatment and stayed in private huts.
As the virgin army marches towards the Somhlolo stadium, the maidens carry heavy reed lances that they will donate to the king. During the week before the dance, each maiden walked to a near lake to cut and prepare a symbolic spear for Mswati III. Despite the ceremonial meaning of the dance, the army is led by ladies employed in the army and correctional services, who set the pace and introduce every year more complex dance rituals and more sophisticated outfits. This way, tradition is mediated and re-invented annually.
The long march of the thousands young girls begins in the late afternoon and will only finish at night. Each of them moves at the same rhythm. Every regiment moves in military order, but each group parades different outfits and variations in the dance moves. Each village, town and professional body has its own peculiarities, symbolized by patterns in the girls’ garment and by dances sometimes characterized by improvisation, sometimes perfectly tuned by long hours of rehearsals. As the regiments march in front of Mswati’s stage, all the maidens turn to pay him tribute and move along.
Among the ranks of the virgin army, some maidens wear red feathers on their hair. They belong to the royal family in all provinces of eSwatini and they lead the regiments throughout the parade. “I go to school near Lobamba,” says one of the youngest princesses. “My father is a cousin of the king, but we live a normal life. I go to a private school and, even if we respect our traditions, we learn the same things we would study in any other country.”
In the past years, the Umhlanga Reed Dance has also become the symbol of eSwatini’s fight against HIV. While celebrating their virginity, the maidens are reminded of the consequences of unprotected intercourse and of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Stats describe eSwatini as ridden by the HIV/Aids plague: in 2016 the country had the highest prevalence of HIV among adults aged 15 to 49 in the world (27.2%). Today, officials ensure that the country is undertaking all possible measures to create awareness and prevent the widespread of the disease. However, diffuse poverty and marginalization constitute a severe challenge to health policies and require more than mere awareness campaigns to overcome the plague.
eSwatini’s quest to affirm its identity is tortuous and often thwarted by foreign interests. The country is one the few absolute monarchies remaining in the world, where one can witness a nation’s pride and public spirit with no equals worldwide. The flip of the coin is a limping public system, which cannot guarantee access to resources and services to citizens. Ceremonies such as the Umhlanga Reed Dance demonstrate on one hand the uniqueness of a country where reality is more fascinating than movies; on the other hand, they deceive the challenges of post-colonialism in a smothering reality of economic forums and globalized finance.
eSwatini has decided to invest in its heritage and culture as its pride and as a source of income: “We are witnessing all these girls coming from all over the country, and by the way they have not been forced to come here,” explains Minister of Tourism Moses Vilakati. “The mere fact that these ones have been here means that they will tell their daughters that this is part of the way in which we grow up. They come here two, three, four times, and for them it is always a pleasure to say ‘I was there’. That is how it is inculcated, so that future generations can know about it.”
The Minister then comments on the preservation and evolution of ancient rituals: “At some point, we will converge African countries here, not just the SADC countries – Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa. We can start bringing the North African countries so that they can also bring in their culture. In this way we can also address the issue of inter-Africa trade.”
“We are tracing our roots,” concludes Vilakati. “We want to know how we were doing things some hundreds of years back. With us it’s 400 years. I know that my kids, and my kids’ kids, probably, will also maintain what we see as a culture.”
As the sun goes down on the Somhlolo stadium, the king marches with his warriors to thank all the girls who attended the ceremony. He kneels in front of each regiment, to acknowledge the ladies who came from the four corners of eSwatini and from all over the world.
One last dance closes the spectacular parade. A princess executes her moves in front of an ecstatic crowd, while the air is vibrant with awe and admiration.
At last, all the girls leave the stadium. They change their clothes and remove the ceremonial feathers with the help of their fathers and brothers. Tomorrow, they will be back to their everyday life.