Swaziland’s Reed Festival, Feminism, Monarchy and other Africanisms…

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P1090220.jpgSince I moved to Mozambique, I had heard that travel in neighboring countries was one of the best advantages of adopting Maputo as home. And since I’d started traveling outside of Maputo, I had heard that one of the most fascinating cultural experiences in the region was Swaziland’s Reed Festival. In layman’s terms, it is an annual festival where all the girls and women in the Kingdom of Swaziland dance and sing for the royal family, in the hopes of being chosen as the King’s next wife. Yes, I said “next.” The current King has 14 wives and each year that he is alive he is able to choose another.

My human rights and feminist mind said this would be a sad festival to witness. After all, Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy and “King Mswati III has ruled the small country with its one million inhabitants since 1986. In 1973, Mswati’s father Sobhuza II banned all political parties and declared a state of emergency, which is still in place today. The king governs the country’s 55 administrative divisions, known as Tikhundla, through its chiefs.” According to avert.org, Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, with 27% of their 15-49 age population infected with the deadly virus. “Heterosexual sex is the main mode of HIV transmission in Swaziland – accounting for 94% of all new HIV infections… In the context of the entire population, 31% of all women are living with HIV, compared to just 20% of men.”

So, what exactly did this festival promote? Traditionalists said it continued centuries old practices that insured clan linkages and promoted population growth to ensure ethnic survival. How could that be relevant in the context of contemporary realities? Democracy and political participation are non-starters, deadly STIs and STDs plague the country, polygamy remains prominent and partially explains the disproportional prevalence rate in women (42% of pregnant women are said to have the virus) , 63% of Swazis lives below the poverty line, and life expectancy is 48 years old.

I went in with an open mind. I knew that to most outsiders’ gaze this would be just a chance to see topless women or a condemnation of Swazi’s “backwardness” in the face of all the above, but for me this was an opportunity to see contemporary Africans performing and preserving what they considered to be an important cultural practice.

 

What I found was a mixed bag of emotion and observation, culminating in extreme gratitude. First, it’s important to know that the festival goes by multiple names, Umhlanga (officially), Reed Festival or Reed Dance. The festival is about 8 days long and it’s never the same dates each year. It’s typically at the end of August, but no one really knows until much closer to the date when the Royal Family announces the festival dates. The open space at Ludzidzini Field, the Queen Mother’s land, becomes the stage for scores of childless, unmarried, (I believe also virgin) girls and women dressed in traditional clothing, but bearing their breasts.

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Second, in the sequence of the dates of the festival, I visited on Day 6 and all photos here were taken from that small component of the entire event. We arrived at the field around 3pm to find that many of the dancing groups had already assembled and were making their way through the arena. The girls were jubilant and seemed to be having a really great time. As most people note that Swaziland is pretty boring most times of the year (except for Reed Dance and Bushfire), it came as no surprise that these young ladies were just enjoying the excitement of being together, dressing up and having something to do.

Since Swazis speak English it was a photographer’s dream! I asked them if I could take their picture before doing it and they all obliged. Some really enjoyed being the center of attention, posing in groups and staging themselves.

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Last, we left early to get back before dark. The drive from Swazi’s Ezulwini Valley to Maputo is about 3 hours, there are no street lights and Day 6 fell on a Sunday. Leaving after only an hour and a half felt like peeling myself away from something great that was just beginning to erupt. The press started to come and shoo us out of the way. More people started to arrive, including an aggressive group of Indian men who looked way too excited to be there for the festival’s intended purpose and seemed focused on a field full of breasts (…just the kind of creepy guys I expected might be drawn to such an event). More fashionable African women started to come too. Their breasts were covered, though they wore fashionable elements incorporating their traditional fabric (with the face of the King or the royal shield) with modern hipster jeans and sneakers.

As I left the festival with my 3 travel companions, we all walked away with different feelings. I was excited for having been able to take such interesting and intimate photos. My husband was sad realizing how young most of the girls were and constantly being reminded of the event’s purpose. One friend was excited to be back in Swaziland after having been gone since high school. He remembered places, recalled words and practiced recalling what he knew of Swazi. And his girlfriend observed, enjoyed and shared in the colors and styles of the fashion inspiration. So, we all left with our expectations shifted and perhaps a lot of food for thought, in all kinds of directions.

Turns out the festival is less about selecting a new wife for the King and more to “preserve the women’s chastity, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity among the women through working together.” For me, it was one of those rare opportunities to see African people living their culture without caveats. There were no explanations or excuses, just Swazis being Swazis as they saw fit. While they spend the rest of the year shuffering and smiling, surviving in the face of historical and actual challenges, this festival felt like one of the few times they got to live out some form of vanity and celebrate themselves… in all their glory.

I was thankful to be able to catch a glimpse.

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Photos are the author’s own. Please request permission to reproduce elsewhere.

 

 

#musicamondays #MusicMondays (23)

Welcome to the 23rd installation of #musicamondays #MusicMondays, which features music from around the globe. Each song is selected to start your week off on the good foot! One still in the bed and the other in another country…

This classic tune hails from South Africa’s own Mafikizolo. “Ndihamba Nawe” is the southern Africa’s electric slide on diagonal, low dipping, shameless party vibe. The video shows this is their pre-Naija remix phase. But the sounds should be a reminder, that this week is going to be a great week. The choice is yours.

#musicamondays #MUSICMONDAYS (11)

This classic samba album from Jorge Ben Jor is one to start of your week with pep. This is the root of all the current day Samba, Bossanova, and even the Funk(y)! we all love so much from Brazil.

Welcome to the 11th installation of #musicamondays & #MUSICMONDAYS, which features music from around the world. Each song is selected to start your week off with a new energy and new country(ies) to explore! Go forth and do great things!

Enjoy the tunes…

The life and times… since my last post.

I have to apologize for having been away so long. Let me explain. My computer has been in a state of chronic disrepair and most weekends it decides to revolt whenever I even consider using it for longer than 30 minutes. I think it reads my mind like the kids in Village of the Damned, a horrible film that I watched on crappy cable television one day when my computer didn’t work. Anywho, there’s also this pesky recurring problem of work eating my real life, which makes late night blogging nearly impossible. At this point, my maid spends more hours in my house than I do and it’s sad. Last, I’ve been preparing to come back to the U.S. in full force. This means, I’ve etched out a travel itinerary and started telling friends to prepare for my imminent arrival. And, I’ve been working on my new pet project – clothing design – in full force. The hope is that when I come back to ‘Murica, I can shop it around, get some feedback, and be inspired for new wears. Aside from the former, I can say… all good things… but that’s no excuse not to write.

I had a friend and colleague in town from India for about 2 weeks. As the hubs and I say, “we fell in love in a hopeless place,” and she reminded us of every little detail. More so than anything else, she brought some much-needed familiarity and Indian cultural references back into our lives. So, we took her out to eat king prawns and she taught us how to make chole bhature at home – it took all of 30 minutes to make!  It went a little something like this:

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Shortly thereafter, I considered writing to you all about how awesome our Indo-African meal turned out, but then my computer revolted and I slipped into a food coma.

Over the weekend, I went to the Zouk festival in Maputo where I saw Kassav live and made it a point to dance like a fool to “zouk la se sel medikaman nou ni ,” because I didn’t know any of the other songs. Then I embarked on a series of South African travels, which landed me in Durban during the xenophobic riots (which I didn’t see at all) and Nelspruit just after the Mozambique – South Africa border re-opened. Let’s say, I was freaked out more by the reports than by anything else. I honestly didn’t see anything out of the ordinary in South Africa while I was there. Most of the violence took place in what seem to be townships and the protests against xenophobia seemed to be in the city center. I saw some of the latter, but it seemed peaceful and heavily policed. There certainly were lots of South Africans apologizing for the actions of the few. They kept asking if I was ok and saying things like “we’re not all like this” and “this gives South Africa a bad name.” I can imagine it’s how my fellow Black Americans feel now with the cop killings and the protests & riots thereafter. It’s a combo of ashamed and fed up, and not always at the people the media would make out to be ‘the bad guy.’ The parallels are abundant and the acts equally as senseless.

Back to South Africa – the people in Nelspruit depend on Mozambican clients to make their living, so they were all too happy to accommodate our needs. In fact, they wanted to show us that their town was safe and welcoming, so we could encourage more of our friends and family to return to the South African side (to spend some hard-earned Meticais). My primary need when traveling is food. So, this happened at Zest:

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I eventually came back to Maputo with work pressures at an all time high and nothing but thoughts of vacation on the brain. But, you know, it sucks to always consider that you’re not fully happy where you are. I felt that I’d been running away from Maputo every single weekend just to make it to vacation in the U.S. in July. That’s no way to live. So, when the hubs decided he’d have friends over for a lunch, I went all in. When a Mozambican says they’re inviting people for “lunch,” and those people are under the age of 40 years old, assume that those people will arrive at your house around American supper time. If they happen to arrive earlier, they will likely start drinking beer and liming, but they will not consume food. So, by midnight this is what my house looked like:

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Do  you see that? That’s what fun looks like! There was even a selfie extender stick involved, which spells success as far as I am concerned. Shortly after this picture was taken, I walked my exhausted self up the stairs to my bedroom and went to sleep. Yes, I left these lovely young people in my house to play their drinking games and fill the space with laughter and good cheer. Their vibes, followed by my disappearing act, took some of the edge off of the week ahead.

This very week was filled with plans for seeing my mom and my niece in ‘Murica, as well as the possibility to help out family friends – one who recently divorced and another who recently graduated from college. So many changes, so many opportunities. Oh, and while cleaning out my closet, I found these:

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If you don’t know what these are, you better ask somebody!

No, really, you should, because a simple google search won’t help very much. First, Frank T is a classic spanish rap artist. By classic, I mean horrendous. The title of this album was so bad that we had to buy it for fear that we’d miss out on this train wreck (“Los pajaros no pueden vivir en el agua porque no son peces” – seriously?!). My friend Kelly and I bought it in FNAC when we lived in Spain 15 years ago and every few years we send it back to one another to remind each other of our crazy times. I miss my girl from Oklahoma and as a sign of our never-ending friendship, she will get this crappy cd in the mail once again! Oh and to the left, what’s that? Again, I have no idea, but it was something free that I got at Guerlain 2 years ago when I bought a horribly overpriced lipstick that I’ve only worn once. Anyways, this golden flecked situation is called L’Or and I plan to use it sometime in the next month. I have no place classy to wear it and I don’t know how to use it properly. So, be prepared for a story as I make up my own excuse to wear expensive, probably useless, make-up that I haven’t used in 2 years. It’ll be fun!

Anyways, my work week ended with a networking lunch at Zambi’s that concluded with 3 spoons and this dessert:

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In case you’re wondering that’s raspberry swirl, amarula ice cream, chocolate biscotti and a dark chocolate cake. Yup… pretty much a foodgasm on a plate and you should be jealous.

I ended the week with a sunset at a Maputo mainstay that I had not yet visited: the Naval Club.

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Who knows what the next weeks will bring, aside from the Azgo festival and Bushfire in Swazi? Hope to write more soon and to have new adventures to share!