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The Umhlanga (Reed Dance) is a traditional dance where twenty to thirty thousand of
Swaziland's maidens congregate and dance for the public. This tradition has existed for a very long time. It usually takes place around August when the weather is less harsh and the reed has matured. Thousands of maidens from all parts of Swaziland attend the reed dance.
The initial reason for this tradition was to encourage young women to abstain from sexual activities and preserve their virginity until they were matured enough to get married, according to E MKHONTA at Dansa college [personal communication,12/03/06] . It also prepares the girls for marriage as during their stay at the camps before the actual dance they are given certain tasks to perform in groups. Since there is a lot of groupwork involved, good communication skills are developed that help in solving a lot of problems in marriagesFact|date=September 2008. There are also elder women at the camps that advise the girls on marriage related issues and how to handle themselves in a dignified manner.
The night after their arrival at the camps, after supper, the girls set off by foot to the destination where they are to pick the reed. It is a very long distance from the camps and the trip may take the whole night. This is not a problem because the girls chuckle and share their life experiences with one another, entertaining one another along the way Fact|date=September 2008. Each girl may pick about ten reeds.
On the next day, after breakfast, the girls put on their traditional attire, which consists of a beaded necklace with colours of the Swazi flag called ligcebesha, colourful beads with wooly tassels which are hung from the left shoulder to the right hip "umgaco", a low cut and short beaded skirt called indlamu and brown anklets with oval shaped attachments "emafahlawane" and tassels on the head called umcwasho that come in different colours: blue for children, yellow for teenagers and red for the more mature maidens. After dressing up, they take their reeds to the royal village which is quite a distance from the camps. There it is used to make wind breakers of the queen mother's house.
The whole celebration takes three days, of which on the last day there is the actual dance. On the morning of this day the girls are delivered by government vehicles to a stadium where the interested public is waiting to watch, including royalty. The girls show up in their traditional attires and looking their best to be presentable to the public. On this day the king Mswati III delivers a speech addressing his subjects on wide ranging issues like HIV/AIDS and so do other known personalities of the country depending on who is featured on the programme. This day attracts a lot of tourists to the country.
As the girls dance, the spectators may join the dance [kugiya] or throw money at their feet in appreciation of the good dance. The king is allowed to pick one of the maidens to be his bride. On
September 6, 2004, he chose a sixteen-year-old reed dance participant and finalist from Miss Teenage Swaziland as a fiancée, to join his eleven wives and one other fiancée.
The maidens do not gather specifically for the king and they are not forced to attend the ceremony. It is by choice that they attend the reed dance.Fact|date=September 2008
Goodwill Zwelethini kaBhekuzulu, whose Zulutraditions are not far removed from those of Swaziland, revived the Reed Dance tradition in neighbouring KwaZulu-Natal, held annually at his Enyokeni Palace at Nongoma. The girls must pass a virginitytest to attend. The King uses this occasion to address his subjects on wide-ranging issues, recently on AIDS. This dance has also been known to be performed occasionally in Indonesia, and a lesser version was indeed performed in GreeceFact|date=June 2008, several years ago.
Umhlanga is the
Zuluand Swaziname for the Common Reed, " Phragmitesaustralis". It is commonly used for walls and thatching of traditional houses in the Maputalandarea of South Africa.
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/2226617.stm BBC news 2002 photo gallery]
* [http://www.swazi.com/sibiya/umhlanga.html Swazi.com article]
* [http://eshowe.com/article/articlestatic/24/1/13/ Tourism site describing the Zulu ceremony]
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