Umhlanga, or Reed Dance ceremony, is an annual Swazi and Zulu tradition held in August or September. Tens of thousands of unmarried and childless Swazi/Zulu girls and women travel from their villages to participate in the eight-day event.
In South Africa, the ceremony Umkhosi woMhlanga takes place every year in September, at the Enyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma. The girls come from all parts of Zululand, and in recent years there are also smaller groups from Swaziland, as well as more distant places such as Botswana and Pondoland. All girls are required to undergo a virginity test before they are allowed to participate in a royal dance, though in recent years the testing practice has been met with some opposition.
The girls wear traditional attire, including beadwork, and ‘izigege’ and ‘izinculuba’ that show their bottoms. They also wear anklets, bracelets, necklaces, and colourful sashes. Each sash has appendages of a different colour, which denote whether or not the girl is betrothed.
As part of the ceremony, the young women dance bare-breasted for their king, and each carries a long reed, which is then deposited as they approach the king. The girls take care to choose only the longest and strongest reeds, and then carry them towering above their heads in a slow procession, up the hill to the palace. The procession is led by the chief Zulu princess, who takes a prominent role throughout the festival. If the reed should break before the girl reaches that point, it is considered to signal that the girl has already been sexually active.
The ceremony was reintroduced by King Goodwill Zwelethini in 1991, as a means to encourage young Zulu girls to delay sexual activity until marriage, and thus limiting the possibility of HIV transmission. In 2007, about 30,000 girls took part to the event. The organisers of the ceremony have occasionally enforced strict rules on photographers, as some of them have been accused of publishing the pictures on pornographic websites.
In Swaziland the girls gather at the Queen Mother's royal village, which currently is Ludzidzini Royal Village. After arriving at the Queen Mother's royal residence, the women disperse the following night to surrounding areas and cut tall reeds. The following night they bundle them together and bring them back to the Queen Mother to be used in repairing holes in the reed windscreen surrounding the royal village. After a day of rest and washing the women prepare their traditional costumes consisting of a bead necklace, rattling anklets made from cocoons, a sash, and skirt. Many of them carry the bush knife they used to cut the reeds as a symbol of their virginity.
Today's Reed Dance ceremony developed in the 1940s and 50s from the Umcwasho custom where young girls were placed in age regiments to ensure their virginity. Once they reached the age of marriage they would perform labor for the Queen Mother followed by dancing and a feast. The official purpose of the annual ceremony is to preserve the women's chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity among the women through working together
The women sing and dance as they parade in front of the royal family as well as a crowd of spectators, tourists and foreign dignitaries. After the parade, groups from select villages take to the centre of the field and put on a special performance for the crowd. The King's many daughters also participate in the Umhlanga ceremony and are distinguished by the crown of red feathers in their hair.
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