Hello Swaziland, where on a date predetermined by the phases of the moon, tens of thousands of the maidens of Swaziland gather every year for Umhlanga, the “Reed Dance” – the most colorful festival of this tiny African kingdom. Ostensibly a dance for the Queen Mother, most are there for another reason: to show themselves before the King in the hope of being his next wife.
Swaziland is a land, not of villages, but sprawling homesteads standing apart from each other, linked by family ties made complex by polygamy and allegiance to a chief chosen by local people. Its hills are dotted with these groups of huts made of red clay and straw roofs with earthed floors polished with cow manure. A smoldering cooking fire creates a smoky haze over each. Small rivers are used for drinking water, clothes-washing and bathing. Men work the land, keep a few pigs and drink home-brew with their friends, while the women look after the children and do all the household work, including the never-ending pounding of maize to make porridge that is the staple food.
Thobile is 13 and in her last year at school. After that she will, just like all her friends, help her mother until, most probably, she marries a boy from a neighboring family. They will build their own homestead near his parents and have many children. But Thobile has a dream, one she shares with many other girls in Swaziland. When she is older she wants to marry the King, because, as she explains, she wants to live in a palace. Nobody laughs at her.
Sobhuza II, the previous king of Swaziland, had 68 wives and more than 200 children by the time he died at the age of 83. King Mswati III came to the throne in 1986 at the age of 18 as one of the world’s last absolute monarchs and has shown every sign of following in his father’s footsteps, with 14 wives and 27 children already. Many of them have been ordinary girls like Thobile. With these odds, you can see why girls in Swaziland dream of a royal wedding, the same way others elsewhere might dream of becoming a model or actress.
In a few days’ time the Umhlanga will start, one of the most important rituals in the country. Girls like Thobile, 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