I was lucky enough to visit Swaziland (for the second time) during the annual Umhlanga (reed) festival. And knowing from my first visit how much the girls enjoy posing for photos, I wasn’t shy about getting some beautiful portraits this time around (and would have had many more had the constant requests to be photographed not killed my battery so quickly)!
I was also smart enough to stay for two days; I wasn’t there for the Sunday during my previous visit, when young maidens from all over the country walk to the royal home to offer four to five metre long reeds to the queen mother, which are traditionally used to repair around her traditional homes. I’m not sure what they could have done with so much quantity: there were 60,000 participants for the 2010 celebration, including girls from neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa!
Swaziland is the last absolute monarchy in Africa, and this festival is sometimes criticized when presented as a means for the King to choose yet another wife (he currently has fourteen, and traditionally over his reign chooses one from every clan, to promote togetherness within the country).
But you only need to spend a few minutes at the festival to see that it’s less about the hugely popular King, and more a celebration of chastity and youthful innocence (participants must be unmarried and childless), bringing together girls from every corner of the country, extremely proud to preserve their traditions! Even the royal princesses participate (distinguished with red feathers in their hair), performing special songs and dances for everybody to sing along to.
The semi-nudity may seem like too much for non-African eyes, but realistically, this is the way that people here lived for a very long time (and many in other countries still preserve their traditional dress today). It may not be entirely practical in an urban setting, but I think it looks a lot better than the Western t-shirts and jeans found everywhere these days.
One of my personal highlights of this experience was on the first day (before all the ministers from around Africa were present on the second day), when the King went down to greet the maidens who were dancing for him, pacing and showing his respect to all of them by doing a full round past all 60,000. As he started the fifteen minute journey, I saw a few photographers trying to follow him, so I ran out on the field like a paparazzi and did the same. The warrior guards surrounding him pushed us around, telling us to move out the way, and though their uniforms may be traditional, the beating they could give could easily be finished off with the guns in their traditionally decorated holsters. I managed a couple decent photos of the King, and he really enjoyed the interaction with both maidens and his audience.
All that’s left to say is enjoy the photos in the slideshow below, and if you ever have the opportunity to visit Swaziland during this festival, don’t think twice!