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 – Been There

Hidden by Swazi girls to photograph a secret ceremony

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Swaziland – Been There Hidden by Swazi girls to photograph a secret ceremony

Swaziland's Umhlanga (Reed Dance) 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, from the rest of which outsiders are banned, and I wanted to cover it from back to front.

Jochem Wijnands
Jochem Wijnands Founder / photographer

Umhlanga means “place of reeds” in SiSwati, and the larger part of the ceremony revolves around the reeds themselves. The young girls gather from all other the country. On the morning after their first night together, spent in huts nearby or the classrooms of local schools, the girls are addressed by the Induna, the young woman appointed by the King to take charge of proceedings. She asks them to go and cut reeds for the Queen Mother or Ndlovukati, the “Great She-Elephant”, to build a new windbreak for the royal kraal (enclosure). The under-13s go to reed beds in nearby Malkerns, while those aged up to 22 years old start the long walk to Ntondozi, about 30km away, or Mpisi Farm, an even further distance away.

I marched with tens of thousands of girls down to the river where the reeds are collected. Security is very tight, especially around the princesses but, since I was the only white person I saw, 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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On the morning of the Reed Dance itself, the girls spend hours at the river washing. For those from rural areas, this is an everyday habit but girls from town can find it more problematic. They might avoid the whole experience of living rough for a week and just turn up for the dance. Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Jochem Wijnands

Jochem Wijnands

Nikon F5

Aperture
ƒ/4.5
Exposure
1/500
ISO
50
Focal
130 mm

On the morning of the Reed Dance itself, the girls spend hours at the river washing. For those from rural areas, this is an everyday habit but girls from town can find it more problematic. They might avoid the whole experience of living rough for a week and just turn up for the dance.

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