Swazi people hold an annual rite known as Umhlanga, or Reed Dance. Tens of thousands of Swazi women and girls from different chiefdoms in Eswatini flock to the Ludzidzini Royal Village
to take part in the eight-day festival.
This is the most well-known cultural occasion in Eswatini (Swaziland), and it feels more welcoming than the Incwala. Young girls cut reeds during this eight-day event, give them to the Queen Mother (Indlovukazi), who is supposed to use them to repair the windbreak around her royal home, and then dance in joy. One of the largest and most magnificent cultural gatherings in Africa, up to 40,000 girls participate while wearing brilliantly colored costumes.
This small but well formed nation is brought together by the Umhlanga Festival, a visual extravaganza. Despite the apparent loss of traditional cultures elsewhere in Africa, it continues to gain popularity. Being present for this festival is a truly exceptional experience. Visitors are welcome, but the participants outweigh them by a wide margin. This is a customary event that welcomes observers; it is not a spectator-centric event.
On the sixth day, dancing begins in the late afternoon, signaling the beginning of the official celebrations. Before moving to the main arena to dance and sing, each group places their reeds outside the Queen Mother’s rooms. On day seven, the big day, when the king is there, the dancing continues. Before him, each regiment performs a dance.
Little can adequately prepare you for the overwhelming size of the pageantry, with column after column of girls advancing across the Ludzidzini parade grounds like enormous ululating centipedes before each vanishing into the throbbing mass of bodies surrounding the royal kraal. As the girls stamp, sing, and sway in time, their anklets rattling, their bare skin and glittering costumes blending into a living, chanting kaleidoscope, it’s an almost overpowering immersion in noise and color up close. The cow-tailed warrior escorts, who are holding a knob-stick and a shield, are sternly focused on their tasks and appear to despise tourists, yet the females are beaming. Eswatini’s greatest holiday is approaching, and people are eager to party after spending days hiking hillsides, gathering reeds, and camping.
The Umhlanga continues to draw large crowds. Indeed, cultural historians are astounded by how its enduring popularity in Eswatini defies the widespread perception that traditional culture is deteriorating. It provides a singular experience for the guest. There are no particular visitor arrangements made; all you need to do is show up at Ludzidzini and follow the masses. The only special grandstand is for visiting dignitaries.
The people of this tiny kingdom in the mountains are incredibly proud of their rich culture, and taking part in the Festival is an honor and privilege for the entire family.
The reed-giving ritual, one of Africa’s biggest and most vibrant cultural spectacles, is the event’s focal point. To celebrate the union of the ladies of the Kingdom, the maidens congregate at Ludzidzini dressed in traditional clothing, including bright short beaded skirts and colorful sashes that display their bare breasts. His Majesty King Mswati ll takes part in the festivities to honor the maidens.
The protective Guma (reed fence) around the Queen Mother’s dwelling will be restored once the maidens give their freshly cut reeds to her.
The phenomenon occurs in the Lobamba region, close to the Ezulwini Valley, around the last week of August/first week of September.
On Days 6 and 7 (the main day), tourists attending the annual Reed Dance are permitted to take pictures of the maidens as they walk to carry the reeds to the Royal Residence and then as they dance in the big arena. Only accredited media are permitted to take pictures during other hours.