Our travel writer Ramdas Iyer went in search of old villages, cultural events and festive dancing in Swaziland where rural meets royalty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.