The Umhlanga Reed Dance has deep roots; it has been celebrated in Swazi culture (The Kingdom of Eswatini was formerly known as Swaziland) for hundreds of years. The basic idea is that young unmarried and virginal Swazi maidens, tens of thousands of them, head into the bush to cut reeds that grow by riverbanks and that will eventually be presented to the Queen Mother and used to rebuild the reed fence that surrounds her residence. The gathering of the reeds generally takes place out of the public eye; the fun for spectators begins when the maidens, on the fifth day of the ceremony, present the reeds to the Queen Mother while dancing and singing joyous songs. An amazing show plays out for two days after that as the maidens perform for a crowd that includes Eswatini's ruler, His Majesty King Mswati III. This year heads of state from places like Lesotho and dignitaries from South Africa and other nations were in attendance as were thousands of elated spectators.
It is truly something magic when the Umhlanga Reed Dance comes to an exciting climax on the final two days. Taking place at the Royal Stadium in Lobamba near Eswatini's capital Mbabane, both nights offer a similar program. First the maidens enter the stadium at one end and walk to the other where they all muster; this takes a while since there are thousands and thousands of maidens. When all are on hand the show begins and the maidens, in large groups, come dancing across the field, close to the stands where spectators wait to be dazzled. It takes about two hours for all of the groups to parade by, singing and dancing, with some groups using whistles and drums to add to the rhythm that they stomp out with their feet. Each group of maidens is dressed in different styles of colorful traditional clothing and they are generally bare-breasted. Each group has a dance routine that has clearly been practiced, not only in the singing and footwork but also as they wave pangas (machetes) in unison, symbolizing the cutting of the reeds. For safety reasons, the pangas used are made of wood. When the final group parades by they offer something special and different from any of the others; by now the sun has set and the final group flashes lighted batons in a great choreography that also includes the waving of Eswatini flags.
The show put on by the maidens is stunning to the point of being jaw-dropping but there's lots more pageantry to see as well. Men in tradition dress (warriors) roam the festivities; some of these are old men and some are children and they all make for great photo opportunities. Many of the attendees are photo-worthy too; dressed in traditional wraps called "kangas" they add to the overall vibe of the festivities while showing their Swazi pride. It all adds up to a great time being had by all and smiles abound as folks leave the stadium.
There are lots of things to see and do in Eswatini, not the least among them going on a safari to see Africa's famed Big 5. And while those animals often get top billing, there's no doubt what the #1 thing to do is in Eswatini. The next Umhlanga Reed Dance Ceremony is scheduled to begin the first week of September, 2024. Details and other information to plan your visit to Eswatini can be found here.
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