Festivals in Swaziland

Fig: Festivals in Swaziland - Reed Dance (Umhalanga)

Reed Dance (Umhalanga)

Lobamba, Swaziland

he Umhlanga Reed Dance is a traditional dance and ceremony where up to 100 000 Swazi maidens gather and dance for the Queen Mother. This is a demonstration of tribute to the Royal Family that goes back centuries in time. Taking place over a week, normally the last in August, it is largely private, however its final two public days (normally a Sunday and Monday) are a spectacle that is unrivalled in Africa today. Thousands upon thousands of maidens dress up in brightly coloured attire and sing, dance together as they deliver the reed or umlanga to the Royal Residence. Their enjoyment of this ceremony is quite apparent as they use the opportunity of bonding with girls of similar ages from across the country.

As the maidens dance, warriors and other spectators often join the dance kugiya or throw money at their feet in appreciation of their skill. The King sometimes makes use of the occasion to publically court a prospective fiancee or Liphovela. This young woman will be given a dominant position amongst the dancing princesses. Unfortunately this particular feature often distorts media coverage of the event, which becomes obsessed with the polygamous nature of traditional Swazi society. However, a traveller lucky enough to witness this event will appreciate its special purpose in bonding the nation, enstalling good morals (virginity is essential for attendance) and allowing rural girls to travel outside of their home areas. It is a massive logistical mission for the Swazi government, with food, water, transport and security concerns growing with each year...but Swaziland without Umhlanga is just not Swaziland.

Incwala Ceremony

The iNcwala or First Fruits Ceremony is the most important ceremony of the Swazi people. It usually takes place in December and it, among other things, affirms the Swazi identity and its kinship with the King. It signals the end of the old and the beginning of a new year when the first fruits of the new harvest may be eaten. The whole nation is involved with groups of men (called "bemanti", people of the water) walking to the different rivers and also the sea in Mozambique to collect water that will be ritually used later. There are various preliminary rituals that are known as "iNcwala lencane" (Small iNcwala).

The "iNcwala lenkhulu" (Big iNcwala) starts off when groups of young men set out from the Royal capital of Lobamba to collect "lusekwane", a shrub that will be used later to repair the "inhlambelo", the sacred enclosure in the "sibaya", the cattle enclosure where most ceremonies will take place. The men and boys who bring back the lusekwane must be "pure", meaning not yet having had sexual relations; if they had, their lusekwane would wilt when they bring it back and they will be the butt of jokes. They march with the "emabutfo", warriors regiments to the Royal residence of Lozitha first. All the way they sing a specific iNcwala song that is strictly taboo any other time of the year. Entering Lozitha the warriors give the Royal salute, in which they emit a piercing whistle while raising their large cowhide shield ("lihawu") above their heads. They dance and surge forwards, towards the King and other members of Swaziland's Royalty.

Later the men set off from Lozitha in a long file, loudly singing the iNcwala song. Towards dusk they reach the areas where the lusekwane grows and groups of men and boys sit next to the shrubs they want to claim. Only in the middle of the night they can pick them and they return to Lobamba, where they arrive again just after sunrise, an impressive sight: it seems a whole forest is moving.

The men and boys who have collected the "lusekwane" shrub that night return to the Royal capital of Lobamba, singing a specific iNcwala song that may not be sung any other time of the year. They have a rest and, after a dance followed by a surging forward of the "emabutfo", the traditional regiments, the warriors leave their shields and also go for breakfast.

The young men and boys then march with their lusekwane shrubs towards the "sibaya", the cattle byre, that is the focal point of the ceremony. They loudly sing the iNcwala song and there is an element of show here, where young men try to impress by the size of the lusekwane they have carried all the way from where they cut it; there are almost whole trees among them. The girls especially watch them of course and notice if the lusekwane has wilted: a sign the boy carrying it may have had sexual relations, something he shouldn't have done. Some ribald joking may be made at his expense. They march into the "sibaya" and throw their lusekwane on a pile at one of the walls. Old men will later build an enclosure from these, where the King will undergo certain rituals at the main day of the ceremony.

The Swazi warrior regiments, men and boys, keep dancing afterwards, although some of the younger ones may have had enough and sit down to rest, after having had a long march and almost no sleep the night before.

The day after the bringing of the "lusekwane" shrub, leaves ("emacembe") are collected locally around Lobamba. This is an opportunity for the younger boys, for whom gathering of lusekwane is too strenuous, to participate in the ceremony. So it is mainly young boys who collect bundles of leaves that will also be used to make the ritual enclosure: these will fill the gaps in the lusekwane, so that the private ceremonies performed by the King will remain private.

The boys collect the leaves and walk with these towards the "sibaya", the cattle byre; they then enter the sibaya, throw their bundles of leaves down and run away, some emitting piercing whistles. The old men gather the leaves to use them later. Different groups bring those leaves, accompanied by groups of warriors with shields.

At the start of the iNcwala rituals, groups of men had set out for tthe different rivers in Swaziland and also for the coast in Mozambique to collect water that would be used in the rituals involving the King on the main day of the ceremony. These men, called "bemanti" (people of the water) could be seen walking back to Lobamba.

Early in the morning on the Main Day the King performs rituals in the enclosure and at its climax eats of the First Fruits. That day almost the whole nation comes to the Royal capital of Lobamba where in the huge "sibaya" or cattle enclosure the ceremonies are held. People will now be dressed in full iNcwala costume, which includes, for the men, a "sikhetja", a kind of cape made from horse hair. The "emabutfo" or traditional Swazi regiments march in, singing as they go. In Lobamba there are various enclosures of different regiments or age-grade groups, each with traditional grass beehive huts, where they can stay. The Regiment of His Majesty King Sobhuza II was the Balondolozi regiment, the most senior; the next in seniority (age grade) was the Emasotsha regiment. The men are getting ready, some donning headdresses of black feathers of the "sakabula" bird.

After a "reveille" blown on a trumpet or cornet (in the old days a conch shell) the regiments enter the "sibaya" and start their stately dances, accompanied by singing the ancient songs, the warriors dancing slowly, each holding a "sakila" or knobkerie fighting stick or "lizeze", battle axe and their "lihawu", large shield. The King's sons are only distinguished by the red feathers they are allowed to wear in their hair. The "batfwabenkosi", ("children of the King") or Princesses enter, the unmarried girls dressed in "indlamu", a short skirt decorated with beads and they dance in a line opposite the warriors. Then the King himselves arrives, accompanied by other members of the "Balondolozi" regiment and takes his place among the other regiments and joins in the dance.

Last Updated on Wednesday 3rd March 2010