Tens of thousands of unmarried Swazi girls performed a final dance on Monday culminating a week-long celebration of chastity as Swazi authorities moved to defend the centuries-old ”reed dance” from international ridicule.
Every year, tens of thousands of girls from across the country gather at the royal palace to participate in the dance, which culminates in the selection by King Mswati III of a new virgin bride.
The reed dance has become popular with tourists, journalists and photographers from across the globe who converge on the Swazi capital to watch the bare-breasted girls offer reeds to Africa’s last absolute monarch.
This year, about 50 000 unmarried virgins aged between five and 25 were registered to take part in the celebrations, presented in the international media as an excuse for the polygamous 37-year-old king to choose yet another bride.
The girls were shown flocking to the royal residence at Ludzidzini in the hope of being plucked from obscurity and groomed for the life of a Swazi queen.
Meanwhile, Swazis from all walks of life are growing increasingly irritated with the manner in which this key cultural celebration and the Swazi monarchy are held up to ridicule.
”Downright offensive” is how some Swazis describe the international portrayal of the event by foreigners whom they accuse of having little knowledge of Swazi customs and culture. Others decline to engage in any discussion on the subject.
”The reed dance has nothing to do with the king wanting another wife. It is meant for girls who are proud of their virginity and their culture,” says Lufto Dlamini, Swazi Minister for Enterprise and Employment.
The king, who has 12 wives and a fiancée, is not obliged to select a bride from the mass of maidens, according to Dlamini.
”But culturally it is accepted and expected that he will have more than one wife,” says Dlamini, pointing to similar practices in the Arab world.
”Having all these young women showing their breasts is not for men to arouse their sexual appetite,” he explained in an interview.
Dlamini said similar misconceptions surround the recent lifting of a five-year ban on premarital sex, which prompted tens of thousands of girls to burn tassels denoting their chastity on the eve of the reed dance.
The ban, imposed in 2001 to combat the spread of HIV/Aids, marked a revival of an ancient umchwasho or custom, with young girls required to wear woollen tassels around their neck as a sign of their virginity.
A fine of one cow was imposed on the family of a boy or man who propositioned a teenage girl. The king himself was fined when he made a 17-year-old girl his ninth wife.
”The king never said he was declaring this for five years. He said, ‘I am launching this campaign to achieve this [reduced HIV/Aids transmission] and I will tell you when it is finished,”’ Dlamini said.
”Umchwasho was done before ever there was HIV/Aids to promote values and morality. We also have billboards and posters and other campaigns to fight the pandemic,” he noted.
Criticism that girls are being held accountable for the spread of HIV/Aids — which has infected an estimated 40% of Swazis — is also unfounded, he said.
Every year, boys of the same age practise the lusekwane ritual, he noted.
In early December, King Mswati accompanies tens of thousands of virgin boys into the bush to collect twigs from the lusekwane shrub, used to build an enclosure where he celebrates the Swazi New Year.
”The reed dance is small compared to the lusekwane that has also been practised for 400 or 500 years. But the foreign media do no reporting about this,” he said.
”The reed dance and the lusekwane are there to show that our purity is building our monarchy,” he said.
”Why is it when we go back to our culture to fight the pandemic we are being ridiculed?” he asked.
Dlamini dismissed a local newspaper editorial stating that photographs of piles of discarded umchwasho tassels were a ”striking and poignant” reminder of how Swaziland ”tried to fight HIV with tradition — and failed”.
”The government has not commissioned any survey to say whether this has been a success or failure,” he said.
King Mswati is the only Southern African leader to have declared Aids a national disaster while constantly encouraging his people to go for testing and counselling, he said.
”We respect and love our king, despite what people say,” Dlamini said. — Sapa-DPA