Umhlanga (The reed dance)
In an eight day ceremony, girls cut reeds and present them to the queen mother and then dance. It is done in late August or early September. Only childless, unmarried girls can take part.
The aims of the ceremony are to:
- preserve girls’ chastity
- provide tribute labour for the Queen mother
- produce solidarity by working together.
The royal family appoints a commoner maiden to be “induna” (captain) of the girls and she announces over the radio the dates of the ceremony. She will be an expert dancer and knowledgeable on royal protocol. One of the King’s daughters will be her counterpart.
Day 1: The girls gather at the Queen Mothers palace (royal capital), at Ludzidzini, Lobamba. They come in groups from the 200 or so chiefdoms and are registered for security and logistics. They are supervised by men, usually four, appointed by each chief. They sleep in the huts of relatives in the royal villages, big marquees and tents.
Day 2: The girls are separated into two groups, the older (about 14 to 22 years) and the younger (about 8 to 13). In the afternoon, they march, in their local groups, to the reed-beds, with their supervisors. The older girls often go to Mphisi Farm (about 40 kilometres) while the younger girls usually go to Bhamsakhe near Malkerns (about 10 kilometres). The girls reach the vicinity of the reeds in darkness, and sleep in tents. Formerly the local people would have accommodated them in their homesteads.
Day 3: The girls cut the reeds, usually about to ten to twenty, using long knives. Each girl ties her reeds into one bundle, using ropes plaited from cut grass.
Day 4: In the afternoon the girls set off to return to the royal capital, carrying their bundles of reeds. Again they return at night. This is done “to show they travelled a long way”.
Day 5: A day of rest where the girls make final preparations to their hair and dancing costumes.
Day 6: First day of dancing, from about 3 to 5 in the afternoon. The girls deliver their reeds outside the Queen Mothers residence. They move to the arena and dance keeping in their groups and each group singing different songs at the same time.
Day 7: Second and last day of dancing. The king will be present.
Day 8: The maidens prepare for departure after collecting some take home packages.
The Reed Dance developed out of the old “umcwasho” custom. In “umcwasho”, all young girls were placed in a female age-regiment. If any girl fell pregnant outside of marriage, her family paid a fine of one cow to the local chief. After a number of years, when the girls had reached a marriageable age, they would perform labour service for the Queen Mother, ending with dancing and feasting.