Tuesday, September 05, 2006

50 000 Virgins Dancing in the Sun

That title is sure to attract some attention. It certainly is a sight that you don’t see everyday. The event is the annual Reed Dance in Swaziland and we all jumped at the opportunity to see such a glorious display of Swazi culture. The history of this event dates back hundreds of years and is rich with ceremonial traditions that pay respect to the Swazi Royal Family and the endurance of the Swazi people. I will likely never see a cultural event of this nature and magnitude ever again.

The Reed Dance brings together Swazi girls from every part of the country to the Ezulwini Valley (The valley of the heavens) for a week long ceremony of singing, dancing and feasting. The girls can be anywhere from 5 to 20 years old and will present the Queen Mother with freshly cut reeds from the surrounding areas to rethatch her house after the winter months. Traditionally, the girls that participated had to be virgins as the ceremony was to honour their commitment to abstinence until marriage. Now the only requirement is that the girls cannot be married or have any children.

The girls wear brightly coloured traditional outfits and anklets that shake to the rhythm of their dance steps. They are also nearly all topless, displaying nearly every shape and size of breasts imaginable. This year the number of participants was estimated to be just over 50 000, creating a breathtaking spectacle of colour and song. What impressed me was that, despite the copious amounts of young flesh in front of our eyes, the event was very asexual. The girls are very comfortable with their bodies and their bare breasts seemed to be a natural part of their costumes. Still, despite the genuine beauty of the event, I definitely encountered a fine line between photography and perversion that inevitably comes when one is surrounded by so many half naked teenage girls.

What was so interesting to me was the contrast between the rich and poor participants. Some girls, obviously from wealthier families in the urban centers, had beautifully elaborate costumes, jewelry and meticulously prepared makeup and hairstyles while many of the poorer girls from the rural areas arrived in just simple capalanas (the ubiquitous African wrap dress). The Reed Dance also attracts a large number of Swazi guys dressed up in traditional warrior regalia. Periodically, these guys would run out, perform a dance and bow at the feet of one of their favourite girls. I was also impressed with how Swazi princesses would dance right alongside the rest of the colourfully adorned participants. Members of the Royal Family could be identified from the rest of the girls from the red feathers in their hair and their entourage of female security guards.

The popular rumour regarding the Reed Dance is that it is an event where the king gets to choose his next wife from the horde of maidens dancing in front of him. While the king certainly has picked a wife at the Reed Dance in years past, this is not the explicit purpose of the festival. Still controversy surrounds the event that seemingly promotes polygamy and sexual liberty in a country that is suffering from a horrible 42% HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. It will be interesting to see how long the country will continue such a traditional event against mounting criticism from within Swaziland as well as international observers. It is heartbreaking to look at this mass of girls and consider that over one third of them will have their lives cut short by HIV/AIDS, many of them already born with the disease.

Swaziland is such an incredibly traditional society and the Swazi people are immensely proud of their cultural heritage. They are one of only a handful of true nation-states in the entire world and vigorously defend their traditional way of life. The fact that each year more and more girls turn up to the Reed Dance illustrates that interest in such cultural celebrations is increasing rather than waning. Aside from the sunglasses and cellphones used by some of the girls, the nature and appearance of the event has not changed in over 200 years. We were all so grateful that we got a chance to be a part of this remarkable event but to answer the obvious question: no, none of us returned to Maputo with a Swazi princess on our arm.


Anonymous Angelo said...

Great post, very interesting, thanks for sharing...great pics of all those virgins :)

11:30 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow this is like a National Geographic article. It is interesting to see that in this rapidly modernizing world such tradional events can still survive. You are lucky to have been a part of this unique event. Africa certainly has a way of getting under your skin doesn't it?

9:38 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a sick pervert Jared

5:24 a.m.  
Blogger jpmozambique said...

Hey anon #2 that's kind of harsh. I guess we just don't see the Reed Dance in the same way. I think you would have appreciated it too though if you were there.



11:12 a.m.  

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