Swazi girls end ancient chastity rite
At dawn on Monday, thousands of Swazi girls removed tasselled scarves symbolising their chastity, abandoning an ancient rite revived to combat the modern scourge of Aids.
King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, in 2001 reinstated for five years the umchwasho rite, banning sexual relations for girls younger than 18. But the move was ridiculed as old-fashioned and unfairly focused on girls—and the king himself was accused of ignoring it.
With criticism mounting, Mswati decided to end the ban a year early.
The girls arrived at the queen mother’s residence at Ludzidzini singing: “Saphose safa ngumchwasho [We were sick and tired of umchwasho].”
They dropped their woollen tassels in a heap, which state radio said would be burned at a public celebration on Tuesday marking the official end of the chastity right. They then bathed in a river in a ritual intended to purge the bad omens associated with wearing the tassels, the radio station reported.
Mswati and his mother, Ntombi Thwala, are expected to attend the festivities on Tuesday, which will be marked by dancing and the slaughtering of cows in honour of the girls, some of whom kept their chastity vow for four years.
The abandonment of the rite comes days before the annual reed-dance ceremony at which Mswati traditionally picks a new bride from thousands of young girls who dance before him dressed in little more than beads and traditional skirts.
Nkonto Dlamini, head of a traditional regiment made of unmarried girls, said Mswati is expected to send them to gather the reeds used to build wind breakers for the queen mother’s compound on Wednesday.
When they return, there will be dancing on Sunday and Monday, which has been declared a public holiday in Swaziland.
More than 20 000 Swazi girls have registered to take part in the reed dance, with more expected to come from the Zulu kingdom in neighbouring South Africa.
At 36, Mswati already has 12 wives, one bride-to-be and 27 children. His late father, King Sobhuza II, who led the country to independence from Britain in 1968, had more than 70 wives when he died.
Aids has hit Swaziland harder than almost any country in the world, with roughly 480 000 people in this nation of more than a million estimated to be infected by HIV.
During the five-year ban, Swazi girls were instructed to wear a tasselled scarf as a symbolic badge of virginity. If an umchwasho girl was approached for sex by a man, she was expected to throw her tassels at his homestead, obliging his family to pay a cow.
When Mswati chose a 17-year-old as his ninth wife in 2001, about 300 young women marched to a royal residence, laying down their tassels in protest.
His aides argued the ban was designed to discourage casual relationships, not marriage. But Mswati surrendered the cow, which was roasted and eaten by the young women.—Sapa-AP