Reeds en-route to the Queen Mother's residence

Swaziland’s Umhlanga Festival Report

The 2015 Umhlanga / Reed Dance

This year’s event will sadly be remembered for the tragic road accident, the first of its kind in the festival’s history, on Friday the 29th of August where 11 maidens and 2 “Tindvuna” suffered fatal injuries. There were rumours from all parts of the Kingdom, that King Mswati III was so upset that he considered cancelling the event.


This accident revealed the fascinating dynamics that govern this tiny Kingdom. Primary of which is the way in which the numbers of fatalities were reported in South African media and even in the Dutch media, as discovered by our visiting Dutch TV crew. Over 30-odd fatalities were reported by these media houses, a number seemingly to have originated from a known Swazi detractor of a defunct trade union. This was taken on face value and repeated further afield.  Embarrassing reporting to such an extent so as to be mischievous. This dynamic has been plaguing the Swazi nation for a long time and shows no sign of abating.

The other more revealing dynamic that emerged from this tragedy is how the collective consciousness of the Swazi Nation revealed itself. For this is a great indicator of a country’s spirit. The passing of these unfortunate souls was likened, in some quarters, to losing soldiers in battle. Taking that analogy into account, the correct decision was made by the surviving comrades to dance and perform in honour of those who lost their lives. This analogy was borne out by the absolute fervour with which the festival was celebrated. It is very difficult to be expressive, sing joyously and indeed celebrate, spontaneously if you are not motivated. The spectacle that our Dutch TV crew recorded in high definition bore first hand testimony to the beating heart of a vibrant and healthy Kingdom.

African Quiver was contracted to be the fixers for this film crew and provide ground handling support to aid their documentary. We have many years of experience in Swaziland and therefore have a distinct knowledge of key customs and traditions. Our first task was to carefully manage the expectations of the crew because like many outside of Swaziland’s borders, much is misunderstood about Swaziland and the Umhlanga Festival is key among those misunderstandings. I knew the task was complete when the sound technician took umbrage to the reported headline in his own country’s respected media house’s claim that “King Mswati III chooses a new bride”. In fact the technician dusted off his twitter account to let the media know exactly what he thought about this lazy journalism.

The Dutch sought to cover the event as seen through the eyes of the maidens. To do this we had to identify a maiden who was able to explain the festival and who was participating in it. We naturally had to get permissions to do this as it is quite an invasion of custom. However, the prevailing sense of the festival is one of happiness and celebration. In fact it was very clear to see firsthand the following facts:

  1. The Festival is an opportunity for maidens to present the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi) with reeds to refurbish the wind breaks around the royal residence.
  2. It is entirely voluntary for maidens to anticipate
  3. 90 000 maidens were reported to have registered
  4. Only virgin maidens may present the reeds to the Queen Mother
  5. The festival strongly promotes chastity and reinforces moral ethics
  6. The Imbali Foundation uses this festival as an opportunity for peer counselling.
  7. The King attends and mingles with the maidens at the appropriate times
  8. Everyone involved is eligible for food parcels at the end of the event.

A major myth that the Dutch crew dispelled was that the King does not hold this event in order to choose a bride. If, in fact he has found a “bride to be” during the course of the year, he may choose to reveal her at this occasion much to the delight of the nation.

A very telling observation made by the Dutch producer was that he doubted if any of the expert event organisers in his country would willingly accept a task as massive as:

  • Collecting maidens from all parts of the Kingdom
  • Identifying where to cut the reeds
  • Organising the orderly procession of presenting the reeds to the Queen Mother
  • Providing accommodation for all involved
  • Orchestrating the intricate dance routines
  • Choreographing the movements
  • Arranging the songs
  • Arranging the dress codes
  • Safety and security for all
  • Media control / background checks and protocol requirements
  • Massive food distribution at the end of the event.

The Festival is indeed growing from strength to strength with increased reported numbers of registrations, delegations from as far afield as the Kingdom of the Ashanti in Ghana as well as Swaziland’s neighbour – the Zulus were well represented.

For visitors, the festival is becoming very accessible as well – accommodation close to the event, in the Ezulwini Valley is now under pressure. The preeminent hotels have created a super, professional and affordable food centre in an air conditioned marquee that gives respite to the long days.

But perhaps the most telling development is the emergence of Princess Sikhanyiso as a moral compass through her Imbali Foundation. At 28 she still embodies the virtues of chastity and has used her lofty position as the eldest daughter of the King to be a genuine role model. Through her and her brother, Prince Makhosonkhe – they have identified a major way of making a significant difference to the lives of the maidens. Peer education from the Princess who has an elite English University education is a powerful tool to communicate all the critical info available today as far as healthy living is concerned. That is the biggest success story – while World Vision, Medicin Sans Frontiers (Doctors without borders) and the like have brilliant causes – quite often their biggest challenges are to effectively communicate with their targets on the ground. The Imbali Foundation does just that. it is home grown well positioned and very relevant.

African Quiver has a tour set up for next year to provide excellent and comfortable access to the Umhlanga Festival and designed in such a way as to appreciate the relevance of the dances and general festivities. For more information on this tour – contact info@africanquiver.co.za

 

Article written by Mike Richardson

 

 

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