PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe joined Swazi King Mswati III in watching an annual parade of 100,000 bare breasted maidens on Monday – and later told reporters he wished African countries would “emulate” the famous Reed Dance.
The eight-day traditional ceremony where thousands of virgins from around the country gather and dance for the Queen Mother goes back centuries in time. The King attends only the final day, and can choose a new wife if he wishes.
Mugabe took advantage of this week’s COMESA summit hosted by Swaziland to attend his first Reed Dance – a colourful spectacle whose purpose, say Swazi traditionalists, is to bond the nation, instilling good morals (virginity is essential for attendance) and allowing rural girls to travel outside of their home areas.
“Hopefully the attendance of the event by people from different countries, including COMESA member states, will help disabuse many of the quaint notions that the Reed Dance is a sexual event bordering on exploitation,” Mugabe was quoted as saying in the state-run Chronicle newspaper.
“These notions have been proved false ... completely false. I don’t think there’s any country in Africa and in the world that has undertaken the task of moulding its young ones through a dance.
“The dances, as we were told, were part of the process of moulding the girls into future mothers. There’s no other country that does that. I wish many countries would emulate that.”
The Reed Dance is often overshadowed by media interest in the polygamous King Mswati who sometimes makes use of the occasion to publicly court a prospective fiancée.
Royal watchers said this week Mswati -- who already has 13 wives -- was unlikely to pick a 14th this year to save Africa’s last absolute monarchy from public ridicule following embarrassing revelations that his 12th wife Nothando Dube had been caught in bed with Justice Minister Ndumiso Mamba by security agents. Taking a 14th wife, the analysts say, will refocus media attention on the King’s private life.
Mugabe recently said he tolerated polygamy but could not stand homosexuality.
“Our constitution allows polygamy. We will not force people into monogamous marriages. It’s there even in the bible - Solomon was not only given wealth but many wives,” Mugabe said in July.
Pride ... Swazi maidens take part in the annual Reed Dance
FACTS ABOUT REED DANCE:
In an eight day ceremony, girls cut reeds and present them to the Queen Mother and then dance. The Dance normally takes place in late August or early September. Only childless, unmarried girls can take part.
The aims of the ceremony are to preserve girls' chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother and encourage solidarity through working together.
Day 1: The girls gather at the Queen Mothers royal village. They come in groups from the 200 or so chiefdoms and are registered for security. They are supervised by men, usually four, appointed by each chief. They sleep in the huts of relatives in the royal villages or in the classrooms of the four nearby schools.
Day 2: The girls are separated into two groups, the older (about 14 to 22 years) and the younger (about 8 to 13). In the afternoon, they march, in their local groups, to the reed-beds, with their supervisors. The older girls often go to Ntondozi (about 30 kilometres) while the younger girls usually go to Bhamsakhe near Malkerns (about 10 kilometres).
If the older girls are sent to Mphisi Farm, the government will provide transport. The girls reach the vicinity of the reeds in darkness, and sleep in government-provided tents. Formerly, the local people would have accommodated them in their homesteads.
Day 3: The girls cut their reeds, usually about ten to twenty, using long knives. Each girl ties her reeds into one bundle. Nowadays, they use strips of plastic bags for the tying, but those mindful of tradition will still cut grass and plait it into rope.
Day 4: In the afternoon, the girls set off to return to the Queen Mother’s village, carrying their bundles of reeds. Again they return at night. This is done "to show they travelled a long way".
Day 5: A day of rest where the girls make final preparations to their hair and dancing costumes.
Day 6: First day of dancing, from about 3PM to 5PM. The girls drop their reeds outside the Queen Mothers quarters. They move to the arena and dance, keeping in their groups and each group singing different songs at the same time.
Day 7: Second and last day of dancing. The king will be present. He can publicly court a fiancé if he so wishes.
Day 8: King commands that a number of cattle (perhaps 20-25) be slaughtered for girls. They collect their pieces of meat and can go home.