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Unmasking the reed dance

Written by Jane Godia

It was a conversation that started with the King and the reed dance, and I was curious to understand from the Swazi people what actually takes place during this great event that captures world headlines.

While many people have come to understand the Reed Dance as the time for King Mswati III of Swaziland, Senator Thandi Shongwe took it upon herself to explain about this event.

“The Reed Dance is not as many people tend to think,” said Shongwe. She explained: “The Reed Dance is used to forestall pregnancy. It is about showing off your body as a girl, it is a show of girlhood.”

According to Shongwe these are cultural practices that enable girls who have not gotten pregnant out of wedlock to show off their girlhood. The boys who have not married also have their dance although this does not receive as much publicity as the girl’s dance.

“The boys who have not married or had children also cut a sacred shrub known as Luse Kwane that issued for building the kraal. They are accompanied to the bush by men who include King Mswati to cut this reed. However the men do not cut it as they are already married and have had children,” Shongwe explains.


All these dances are done for maintaining youth. The boys are encouraged to go for cutting of the sacred shrub as many times as possible but they also belief in doing it as many times as possible but with an odd number. “There is a traditional belief about the odd number. Many young men will go only the odd times. It is the same thing with the reed dance,” says the Senator.

Senator Shongwe was speaking during the African Women Leaders’ Network Forum that was held in Nairobi recently. Girls enjoy going for the dance because they must blossom, like flowers. They dance, knowing that once you have had a chance, things change.

According to Shongwe falling pregnant before wedlock among the Swazi is a shame. “Those girls who have fallen pregnant cannot go for the dance and it will be known that they have brought shame upon themselves and their families. In the communities it sensitive to the girl if she has brought shame to her family,” she says.

They say a girl must remain an Imbali (flower). The reed is used for making wind breakers for the royal household and the purpose of cutting the reed and coming out in public to keep the girls young and pure.

“For you to remain an Imbali you must keep your legs together,” explains Shongwe.

Among the Swazi the culture of the dance runs across generations. Even the married older women have their own reed dance and this also has failed to attract as much publicity. The reed is used to protect the homestead and when they cut it means that they are protecting their own home.

Segment leaders

Each segment has a leader including the older women. The old men also have a regiment. Among the Swazi you must belong somewhere among the age groups.

According to Shongwe there is a misconception that the King holds the Reed Dance to get wives for himself. “This is the best culture that we have. If it is a question of polygamy then we must understand that it runs among cultures and religions.

“I grew up in a naïve environment and never thought that one would find affairs in the church but they are there,” Shongwe says. “No one is perfect but that does not give them a ticket to go sleeping around.

Trusted pastors are there but we cannot judge them because they may be doing better.”

According to Shongwe culture reigns high in Swazi. There is the umcwasho(woollen tassel) that shows a girl is a virgin. This is special and comes in two colours. Red and black for one in a relationship.

Green and yellow for one not in a relationship. This call is made every two years by the queen mother who sanctions this to stop teenage pregnancies.

“It is time we look back and harness cultures that are positive to the problems we are having now including HIV and early pregnancies.

“The boys also go for their dance because they want to maintain their boyhood and do not want to be fathers. It is not easy to identify a boy who has had sex or impregnated a girl, but the boys still respect that dance that is for them,” says the Senator.

“The boys walk long distance and the king walks with them to the forest. After cutting the sacred shrub they walk back on their own even if it is at night,” says Shongwe.

She notes that there is nothing as bad as losing culture and that we should try our level best to maintain culture.

“We must use culture for helping young people to prevent teenage pregnancies. Over 80,000 girls attend the reed dance. They are also taken through life’s lessons,” says Shongwe.

On day one the girls register. Once they cut the reed. The second day they get into an educational programme once they get the reed.

Counseling Tents

“Tents are put for educational talks that include lessons on sexuality and counselling,” says Shongwe. Last year there was a mentorship programme arranged by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “They asked women leaders to write a letter to the girl child telling them that it is never too late and they can take care of themselves,” says Shongwe. “It was meant to inspire them that they can be mothers and leaders.”

The message being passed out to the girls is that all it takes is for one to take care of themselves. “Look after yourself, be firm and assertive and with this message the girls will come out and talk,” says Shongwe. She adds:“Our children are lacking role models. This mentoring programme is one way of keeping the girl child’s dream alive.


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