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.
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.