The Cinderella myth

I have just returned from the Magic Kingdom. No, not Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The Magic Kingdom is a three-hour drive from Pretoria.

In that pleasant land, the universal myths of Cinderella and Peter Pan—the woman who marries up and the boy who does not want to grow up—are re-enacted collectively every year in one of Africa’s most beautiful and heartfelt pageants: Umhlanga, the Reed Dance, in Swaziland.

Is Umhlanga empowering or demeaning for women? Is it about girl power or male power? Does it prevent or promote the spread of HIV/Aids?

During the eight-day ritual, the Kingdom’s unmarried and childless girls cut reeds to rethatch the Queen Mother’s palace in Ludzidzini. Umhlanga ends with a parade of nearly 30 000 women dancing in traditional garb. You may ask: What is empowering about bare-breasted girls parading in the hope of landing a rich husband?

First, Swazi men do not get turned on by breasts. These are too functional, good for suckling babies.

Umhlanga is not about the King choosing a wife. Umhlanga is about reinforcing allegiance to Ndlovukazi, the Great She-Elephant, the Queen Mother, and celebrating the beauty and virtue of young women, the “flowers of the nation”.

For the girls, Umhlanga is fun, like summer camp, away from home, parents and chores. Tindvuna—chaperones—provide adult supervision. There is plenty of partying. Some casual sex happens, just as it does in summer camp. Anti-Aids activists are with the girls throughout. This is a perfect time for Aids prevention.

With two-thirds of Swazis living on less than one dollar a day, it is an incentive that the girls are fed through the week, feast on the last day on meat slaughtered from the royal cattle herd, and get a 2kg takeaway of meat.

Umhlanga is the day to forget that Swazi women do not enjoy equal rights with men (although a new Constitution is about to change that, in theory). Today they feel special, valued, part of the life of the nation.

This must boost their self-esteem, specially for the poorest and for the orphans, robbed of their parents by the world’s highest HIV-prevalence rate—40% of people aged 15 to 49. You could see them: the girls at the back, wearing a simple cloth and sash, unable to afford R500 for the set of woollen tassels and beaded micro-skirt, dancing happily nonetheless.

It is great to see all girls stride with a proud step, regardless of flab or size. I call that empowering.

The Cinderella complex kicks in because the lustful king Mswati III has, since 1999, announced a new wife weeks after Umhlanga, where she is said to have been spotted. Well, choosing a royal bride is more complex. Clan lineage, virginity and HIV status must be checked, lobola negotiated and rites performed. So Umhlanga is not like winning Miss World and being crowned right on the spot.

Last year, the king betrothed Miss Teen Swaziland. She danced at Umhlanga but surely he saw her on TV before she sashayed past him. This year’s Miss Swaziland said her dream was to meet the king. She did, just before the dance. Who knows? She might get lucky.

This is where Umhlanga does not smell so good anymore. King Mswati keeps marrying underage girls who must get pregnant before the wedding ceremony. This undermines Aids prevention: reducing teenage pregnancy and inter-generational sex, that is, sugardaddies.

In his speech the king admonished girls “to take care of themselves”, a euphemism for abstaining from sex.

He should lead by example. Instead, the king perpetuates the Cinderella myth. At 37, with 12 wives and two fiancées, he lives in a fantasy world. He is like Peter Pan, not wanting to grow up and face the fact that two-thirds of his people are destitute and four out of 10 are HIV-positive.

Admittedly, marriage as a woman’s passport to social mobility is a universal thing. There are lots of trophy wives in my neighborhood in Tshwane. Add to the mix a sprinkle of teenage dreams of becoming The Chosen One. Is there a woman anywhere who did not as a girl dream of Prince Charming? I did.

I thank the women’s movement for showing me that women have other options besides Cinderellas and Queen Mothers. Options like education, jobs and equal rights.

Umhlanga is like an onion: there is always another layer of meaning to peel, multiple readings of tassels and smiles.

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