Cutting reeds at the Mpisi River. They wear emahiya cotton cloth in the style of unmarried Swazi women. It consist of two parts: the top called umhelwane which is tied with a knot at the shoulder and the bottom called lihiya which is wrapped around the waist. Married women wear a pleated cowhide skirt and a distinctive hairstyle.
Swaziland – Photo Tip

Photo Tip: Hide, if need be

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Swaziland – Photo Tip Photo Tip: Hide, if need be

The Umhlanga is wonderful event and many visitors come to witness the dance and bring home great photographs. But it is only the final day of a seven-day ceremony, and I wanted to cover it from back to front.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

I marched with tens of thousands of girls down to the river where the reed is collected. Security is very tight, especially around the princesses, but since I was the only white person I saw during those days, I quickly became a familiar face. I was able to capture the intimacy and the fun of it, and sometimes it felt like being on a school trip. The girls would shout “Shoot me! Shoot me!” whenever they saw me there with my cameras.

However, when we came near the river, the guards, many of whom I knew by name, sent me away several times, saying I didn’t have permission to witness the reed cutting itself. I was about to accept this when a number of girls came over and hid me inside their group. Giggling and singing, we moved into the reed forest and, once out of sight of all the guards, I started taking pictures.

On the way back a guard spotted me. He just smiled and put his thumb up.

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The sight of many thousands of half-naked young girls attracts both photographers and many men with interests in things other than tradition. The national and traditional police forces are ready with whips to dispense rough justice to any who stray over the line. The mass of girls can also dispense a witty tongue lashing. It makes the work of legitimate photographers much harder. Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Jochem Wijnands

Jochem Wijnands

Nikon F5

Aperture
ƒ/5.6
Exposure
1/500
ISO
50
Focal
200 mm

The sight of many thousands of half-naked young girls attracts both photographers and many men with interests in things other than tradition. The national and traditional police forces are ready with whips to dispense rough justice to any who stray over the line. The mass of girls can also dispense a witty tongue lashing. It makes the work of legitimate photographers much harder.

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