Tens of thousands of unmarried Swazi girls gathered at the royal residence on Sunday to lay down reeds as part of a week-long celebration of national pride that will culminate in King Mswati III selecting a new virgin bride.
The bare-breasted girls in brightly coloured traditional fabric and clutching clumps of reeds sang and stamped their feet as they edged along a snaking queue toward the thatched dwellings at Ludzidzini that is the home of Africa’s last absolute monarch.
”This is their pride and this ceremony is a way of preserving their livelihood as girls,” explained Nhlavu Hlophe, one of hundreds of mostly male marshals.
The 37-year-old king who already has 12 wives, but is expected to identify another ”fiancé” from among the estimated 50 000 girls registered to take part in the celebration this year, did not make an appearance.
Swazi royal police, military and palace officials were at hand to control the event that drew a stream of curious foreign tourists, photographers, journalists and onlookers.
The procession, part of the mountain kingdom’s age old annual ”reed dance”, coincided with the premature lifting of a five year ban on pre-marital sex, known as ”umcwasho”.
The ban applied to girls under the age of 18, who were required to wear brightly coloured tassels to denote their chastity.
The royal palace has given no explanation for dropping the custom that was revived after more than a decade amid rising HIV/Aids infections.
But is is widely accepted that many in the impoverisedh landlocked country of about one million people were not pleased with the fact that girls were being singled out in the bid to curb the sexually transmitted disease.
Shortly after imposing the ban in 2001, King Mswati III was fined one cow for selecting a teenager to be groomed as a future wife and this fuelled the negative sentiment.
The king’s teenage daughters, participating in the week’s events, have also come under fire over their apparent disregard for ”umcwasho”.
Pictures of a scantily clad Princess Sikhanyiso were splashed across the front page of The Sunday Times with details of a beating the 17-year-old received for partying on a day set aside for the ”maidens” to rest.
The princess, in an interview with the newspaper a day after girls from across the country engaged in preparation for Sunday’s procession — including cutting the four-metre long reeds — denied any wrongdoing.
”Once we have cut the reed, what should we do next, are we in mourning?” she was quoted as saying while denying allegations of drinking among the girls who were being accommodated in tents outside the grounds of the royal residence.
At Ludzidzini on Sunday meanwhile, ordinary Swazi girls, for the most part seemed excited at the prospect of paying their respects to the king and contributing to a significant Swazi cultural event.
One 15-year-old who described herself as hungry, appeared more than ready to exchange her traditional cloth with a western item of clothing when she encountered a woman in need of the obligatory skirt for those wanting to witness the event.
The balance of power in Swaziland lies between King Mswati, who took the throne at the age of 18 in 1986 and the Queen Mother, Queen Ntombi.
The father of more than 20 children rules by decree in the country where political parties are banned, unemployment is high and around 40% of the nation is infected with HIV/Aids.
His wives, known as ”inkhosikati” reside in a number of palaces or modern homes across the kingdom and appear to be the envy of most young Swazi girls for having been chosen by the king with a reputation for providing a lavish lifestyle. – Sapa-DPA