I have come to Swaziland because in a few days’ time the Umhlanga will start, one of the most important rituals in the country.
Girls, most of them 13 to 18 years old, will pack a few belongings, leave their homes all over Swaziland and make their way toward the Queen Mother’s royal compound at Ludzidzini. It stands near the royal capital of Lobamba in the fertile Ezulwini valley, between the rolling highveld hills and low African bushveld. Only after a long week of traditional ritual will they return back home. But it is certain that the life of at least one girl will change dramatically. She will be the one chosen as the next wife of King Mswati.
On the afternoon of this final day of the Umhlanga, the girls pass by the royal pavilion, where the King, the Queen Mother, the King’s wives, the council of elders, members of parliament and official guests are seated. Tourists, who are allowed to attend today only, can see that many girls have tried to be especially beautiful on this festival day. They have fussed with their hair, they wear pearl necklaces and earrings, and have sprinkled themselves with heady perfumes.
Sibusile says: “If I marry him I will never have to work again. All my worries will be over, and I can look after my parents, and my brother can go to college.” If Subusile is chosen, she will be his fiancée until she becomes pregnant and produces an heir, at which point they can marry. She will first be taken from her family and village and housed in a palace, where she will be guarded around the clock. In this palace she will have her formal education under the supervision of the Queen Mother and learn about the history of Swaziland, the etiquette of the court and, it is popularly believed, how to pleasure the king. It has happened in the past that a girl was sent home again after this process and, although no reasons were given, it was probably because she didn’t become pregnant.
Surrounded by his warriors, the King strolls around the girls, lined up in a semi-circle and singing and dancing. When the King approaches them and makes a symbolic dance to show them respect, they gleam with pride. As he moves around, a smile on his face, it is easy to see he is in his element. However, there is no way to tell whether he has noticed Sibusile. Or Khontile, for that matter. Khontile is the beautiful 18-year-old girlfriend of Meshack Zwane (22), who is in the audience, scanning the dancing girls to see her. For him this is not a happy day. Although the chance is small, there is a possibility that the King will see her and she will please him. They agreed that she will keep a low profile but, if she is asked to marry the king, their relationship is over. Meshack says: “To continue would be to play with my life. I would just have to start all over again with somebody else.”
With Umhlanga over for another year, one girl may be joining the ranks of the King’s wives, favored over the thousands of other hopefuls. Her identity remains unknown, however, and the girls stand in huddled groups gossiping – who among them is the chosen one? The dust clouds settle as the majority of the girls go home, leaving a few stragglers behind throwing longing looks at the palace in which they so wanted to live. Most of them have had their dream of a royal marriage shattered, while others such as Khontile (and her boyfriend Meshack) heave a sigh of relief; they can return to the anonymous safety of their homes and everyday life. Until next year.
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