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A Land Of Many Dances

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Crossing the Oshoek Border Post from South Africa to Swaziland, I was excited to be visiting the realm of Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Not realizing that it was the Easter weekend, I got caught standing alongside Swazis trying to re-enter their country for the holidays.

I also realized that I was entering a country with the highest incidence of HIV in Africa with a stabilized number reported at up to 30% of the population. While this is not the subject of this article, I must satisfy the curiosity of the reader nevertheless. Social scientists have determined that the itinerant workers with whom I was lining up were one of the major reasons for this scourge.

Swazi women perform a traditional dance. (Photo by Ramdas Iyer)

Being away from home and working in the mines and timber industries of South Africa, these men infect their many wives in a polygamous society, along with their girlfriends. In addition, traditions such as the inheritance of widows from a deceased brother, does not help HIV’s continuing spread.

The border crossing was smooth confirming my notion that the Swazis were a relaxed and nice people. Though lacking in size, this interesting country makes up for it with its rich culture. While the monarchy has its critics, the history of Swazi resistance to the British, Boers and the Zulus has fostered national pride. As a result, local culture is flourishing along with Christianity.

Many Swazis combine Christianity with indigenous beliefs, and religious freedoms are written into the country’s 2005 constitution. However in January, the education ministry instructed all head teachers to ensure that the syllabus would not mention any religion other than Christianity, including Islam and Judaism.

READ MORE: The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

Driving into Mbabane, the capital city, I found it to be an attractive and functional place perched in the cool highveld (4,000ft) of the Dlangeni Hills. Swaziland with its population of 1.5 million is a low middle income country where most citizens are ethnic Swazis. The official languages are both Swati and English.

Its ruler, King Mswati III, is one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, and a man who is not too keen on handing his throne over entirely to parliament. The Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization, reports that about half of Swazis live in poverty. Forty percent of Swazis are unemployed and 70% of the workforce is employed in sustenance farming. But it’s not all bad news. Roads are well-paved and far-reaching. The literacy rate is over 91%, which might be expected when 8.3% of the GDP is spent on education; which is why I saw the entire city swarming with nicely-uniformed schoolchildren in the afternoon.

A drummer provides the beat for the traditional dance. (Photo by Ramdas Iyer)

In order to find the old Swaziland, which has rapidly modernized itself, I went in search of old villages and cultural events. More than 70% of Swaziland’s population is of ethnic roots, which means that all the traditions and beliefs are upheld throughout the year and are evident in daily life through dress and other activities.

I soon arrived in Mantetenga Swazi Cultural Village, a living museum of old traditions and representing a classic Swazi lifestyle during the 1850s. The village is a large family homestead of 16 huts, each with its own specific purpose as well as kraals for cattle and goats, reed fences that serve as windbreaks and various other structures. The building material is strictly traditional: poles, grass, reeds, leather stripes, earth and dried cow dung. The adjacent 725-acre Mantenga Nature Reserve is made of a combination of middle and highveld habitat, and more than a third of the reserve is covered by eucalyptus (gum) forest. I explored the reserve by foot, with two walking trails leading up the mountain towards the summit of Sheba’s Breast, made famous by the book King Solomon’s Mines written by Sir Rider Haggard, a Victorian adventure writer in 1885. Birdlife in the reserve was good, with wildlife such as baboons, vervet monkeys, nyala, duiker and mongoose regularly seen.

READ MORE: A Paradise In Retreat

After visiting the village, I patiently waited for a large contingent of dancers to perform the Umhlanga followed by the Incwala dance. There are two main kinds of dances, each done by women and men respectively and done at most of the celebrations and gatherings throughout the year, but predominantly at the two most popular events: Umhlanga in August and Incwala in December. The spectacle I enjoyed seemed to be a hybrid version of both.

A man performs a traditional Swazi dance. (Photo by Ramdas Iyer)

Umhlanga attracts thousands or women from near and far and once the entire group has concluded dancing and singing, different villages take center stage and put on a display as a sign of respect for the Queen mother. The different villages are distinguishable by their beaded outfits and jewelry. Even the king’s daughters are involved and distinguishable by the bright red feathers they wear in their hair. The king will usually pick his new wife from the crowd of dancers.

Incwala, which means first fruits, is probably the most important and significant of the two. Dancing plays a prominent role here as men gather at the Royal Kraal at Ludzidzini and dance for a few days. Known to be the most honorable on the Swazi events calendar, the Incwala dates are determined by the phases of the moon and begins with a journey to the Indian Ocean to collect water. The third day sees the men slaughter a bull with the fourth day welcoming the arrival of the king who dons his traditional dress and joins in on dances with the other men before returning to his hut to enjoy the first fruit of the season.

However, these aren’t the only dances in Swaziland; other events boast their own dances such as the Sibhaca dance performed by groups of men throughout the country at any opportunity. One cannot but appreciate this gentle land with its handsome men and women and their penchant for dance.

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A Solution To Improve Madagascar’s Local Economies

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Madagascar is a priority country for conservation and preserving Earth’s biodiversity riches threatened by a rampant rate of habitat destruction. Ninety percent of the natural habitat of Madagascar has been destroyed and 91% of the lemur species are critically endangered, endangered or threatened.

Since the political turmoil of 2009, coupled with security issues and illegal extraction activities, the conservation situation has worsened. The presidential election that took place in January offers hope that this new regime will make preservation of the unique wildlife of Madagascar a priority.

President Andry Rajoelina ran on a platform of eliminating poverty for his people.

Ecotourism is good for the economy, but there are doubts if it is enough. Our conservation teams in the Ranomafana region are hoping that we have a solution for improving local economies.


Patricia Wright is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar. Picture: Supplied

Centre ValBio (CVB), a 30-year-old research center, is nestled overlooking the Ranomafana National Park rainforest near Fianarantsoa, and is an eight-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo.

CVB is a hub of modern science with laboratory equipment to study genetics, infectious diseases and mapping from satellites.

Substantial efforts by scientists have led to an improved understanding about taxonomy, species distributions, the evolution, behavior and population size of the flora and fauna, and the impact of habitat loss on Madagascan biodiversity.

READ MORE | Putting land To Good Use: Food Security In Our Backyards

This knowledge has been successfully used to guide conservation planning and action, as well as new discoveries in medical science. Scientists investigate the impact of anthropogenic influence, edge effects, climate change, and fragmentation on ecosystems and communities in these lush rainforests.

The CVB campus has five buildings and a staff of 130 local scientists, technicians and administrators who work year-round on research, training and conservation.

This station conducts studies of cyanide-eating lemurs, climate change, new leech species, lemurs that have genes that might be related to diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and genetics of an ecosystem.

All around, the parks, forests and the rare species within them are still disappearing. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the main threat to rainforests in Madagascar.

READ MORE | The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

Forests are sacrificed to plant rice, the staple food for humans.
CVB has launched an alternative against this destruction of natural resources. First, the village elders are engaged to ensure a buy-in by the communities.

If the villagers are enthusiastic, workshops and training begin in the fields.
Next, using years of botanical knowledge, the reforestation team (technicians and scientists) helps villagers plant endemic saplings of tree species eaten by lemurs. We don’t plant a monoculture, but rather use natural dispersion as a guide.

We know from our pilot experience that it takes about 15 years for the endemic trees to fruit and flower, and for birds, bats and lemurs to return to these ‘new forests’ where they could help ‘plant’ more forests by dispersing their seeds.

We are hoping that this strategy will help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion and river silting, and expand the habitats for wildlife.
But what value do these trees have for the Malagasy farmer?

Using these trees as structure vines of high value crops such as vanilla, wild pepper and cinnamon that need shade to grow well are transplanted onto these trees.

With assistance in processing and marketing, the local farmers can harvest these high-value crops and earn great economic gain.

The prices of Malagasy spices are high in the world market and spice venders project that the high prices will continue into the future with new markets in China and India.

There is hope that not only will this strategy increase biodiversity, but it will also bring affluence to the farmers and merchants of Madagascar.
Rajoelina’s promise of prosperity is possible and the unforeseen benefits could be transformative.

– The writer is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Stony Brook University in the US and Founder of Centre ValBio Research Station, in Ranomafana, Madagascar

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Arts

From Fishing Village To Gastronomic Heaven: Tables Turn For Wolfgat

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In a small fishing village on South Africa’s rugged west coast, restaurateur Kobus van der Merwe is struggling to process his meteoric rise to gastronomic stardom.

He recently got back from Paris, where four days ago his 20-cover Wolfgat was named Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, also winning the remote location prize.

“In our category, which was for the off-map destination… there are restaurants that we literally hero-worship and we were like, this is insane,” the food-journalist-turned-chef told Reuters TV on Friday in his first interview with foreign media since returning home.

Others on that shortlist included Japanese wild dining sensation Tokuyamazushi.

Of both prizes, he added: “We never dreamed of making the shortlist, let alone winning.”

Situated in Paternoster, about 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Cape Town, Wolfgat’s speciality is seafood.

Van der Merwe’s seven-course tasting menu pays homage to the region’s long-gone indigenous inhabitants, and his signature dishes are flavored and supplemented with ingredients foraged locally, such as seaweed and succulent plants.

They include Rooibos tea-smoked yellowtail with dune spinach and buttermilk rusk, and freshly baked bread served with bokkom (salted dry fish) butter and infused herbs.

Guests at the 130-year-old whitewashed restaurant, nestled above Wolfgat cave within hearing distance of crashing waves, pay 850 rand ($60), or 1400 rand including drinks.

Van der Merwe, who took the plunge into full-time cooking before completing his culinary studies, said he had no wish to expand or replicate Wolfgat in an urban setting.

“We certainly don’t aspire to be in the city because the west coast is our muse and I can’t see Wolfgat existing anywhere else,” he said.

His clientele is split evenly between foreign tourists visiting the village and well-heeled South Africans.

But those who make the two-hour drive from Cape Town had better be sure of their reservations before they set out – because he’s fully booked for the next three months. -Reuters

– Wendell Roelf

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Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur And DJ – Oskido Tells Us Why Brazil Is His Favourite Place

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This South African DJ and entrepreneur is never home-sick when in Brazil. He says its food and music fill his soul.


After traveling the world and the concomitant culinary outings that come with it, kwaito (South African music genre) pioneer, DJ and businessman Oscar Bonginkosi Mdlongwa, popularly known as Oskido, counts Brazil his most favorite overseas destination.

In enjoying the fruits of his success, Oskido has come far.

He was born in Brits, a large town irrigated by the waters of the Hartbeespoort Dam in the North West Province of South Africa.

His childhood was in Bulawayo, a city in the southwest of Zimbabwe, before returning to South Africa to pursue a career in music in 1988.

His influences may be primarily South African and Zimbabwean, but the South American country is what he regales about when we meet him in late November last year.  

“What amazed me the most was the food. I have traveled all over the world but the way they cook their food and the way they love their food stunned me,” says Oskido.

The memories are still fresh.

In September last year, Mdlongwa had traveled to the centrally-located capital of Brazil, Brasilia, on a cultural exchange program between Brazil and South Africa.

During our interview, he also compliments the city’s culture and the friendliness of its people.

“When I come back to my country [South Africa] after traveling, I just want our food. When I start going to Europe, I think of home, missing the food, but when I went to Brazil, it was like I’m home.”

He goes on to elucidate that they have their own traditional way of cooking, which includes beans that he enjoys the most.

Oskido especially appreciates Brazil’s restaurants because of the different meat cuts they serve customers.

“They will bring you a paper and describe the part that you are eating. Also, their way of cooking is healthy,” he says.

“We normally just eat and say ‘rump’; you don’t even know where it’s coming from. Therefore, they come in and you keep eating different cuts until you find the one you like and they will keep feeding you until you are full.

“What amazed me the most is when you get to our [local] food courts, you will find all these chain stores. It’s the same thing [there], but there isn’t anything that is like a buffet. Their food courts are designed that way, there isn’t any of the junk food,” says Oskido.

He speaks about connecting to the people despite the language barrier. He remembers going to a shopping center to buy things and having to explain.

He would speak on the phone with a translator and communication would be delayed.

But he found his own comfort zone.

Whenever he talked about music, he says there would be an instant connection with the people.

Oskido was invited by the South African Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa as a delegate for the exchange program.

“The minister and his office went to a school of kids aged between four and five years old. The kids were told to look for a song on YouTube that resembled Africa. Coincidently, they found Tsa Mandebele as the song of choice. I found that these kids could sing along to my song and dance to the moves because of the music video,” he says, joyfully.

“It was good to see a Limpopo language [song] sung in Brazil. That was the moment when I was really touched, and felt that there was something about Brazil.

“After the festive season, I want to go back, take my family and go relax.”

These are the notes from the South African DJ who has gone from Brits to Brazil.

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