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The King and I

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Why are thousands of womwn marching towards the palace?
When Abeja and I arrived at the King's palace at Ludzidzini for the Lutsango Reed Dance, it really seemed as if we had fallen into the pages of some medieval fairy tale. Thousands of women were marching towards the palace carrying bundles of long reeds on their shoulders and spoons, knives or other household items in their hands. They worebrightly colored tunics covered with patterns that signify what part of the country they were from, and were proudly singing songs from their villages to the rhythm of the rattles on their marching feet. Some of them appeared a bit drunk already on the sorghum beer that they had been preparing for the festival. This annual event, known as the Lutsango Reed Dance, is a traditional Swazi ceremony for married women to show their respect to the Queen Mother and then dance for the King.

The palace is actually more of an enclosure of very large and modern looking adobe huts surrounded by a tall reed fence. It sits up on a rolling and stony hillside, overlooking a long fertile valley outside the town of Lobamba, in central Swaziland. Maybe it is just the fence around it, but the palace had a mysterious and exclusive air, and we were a bit intimidated as we approached. When the women got to the closed gates of the palace they all lined up in rows, holding their reeds high in the air and swaying back and forth while singing softly and waiting for the King and the Queen Mother to arrive. Suddenly, the song was interrupted by excited murmuring, and as we turned around we saw the King's escort arriving up the winding driveway to the palace. After another couple of minutes of uneasy waiting, the gates opened and the women were allowed to march in to present their reeds, singing more enthusiastically than ever. One group was singing:

Luhle Lubombo bakangwane sebahlala khona
Luhle Lubombo nemambala sebahlala khona

which means:

Beautiful Lubombo the king's family is staying here
Beautiful Lubombo for certain they are here.
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No wonder Thomsini and Senzo liked my long hair!

Although Abeja and I were only permitted to go a little ways in, and were not able to see the actual presentation, we were delighted to just sit there and watch wave after wave of jubilant women marching past us. We took this time to talk with some of the other bystanders that were watching the celebration. Two boys dressed in the traditional loincloth and with feathers in their hair were standing nearby, so we posed for a photo with them and talked for a while. Their names were Thomsini and Senzo and they told us they were 13 and 14, but they seemed a bit younger than that. They didn't speak English too well, but they managed to tell us that they lived here in the palace and that they liked it very much. They also seemed to like my hair a lot, laughing and touching it. It must have seemed strange to them since it is so long and straight, and most people they know have short and curly hair.


Dark grass sways
on the veld expanse.
Swazi songs the wind,
giving rhythmic sway
to the mothers' bodies.
Bright flowers and birds
their festive clothes make
as the ladies dance
for the king.

A call or laugh
like birds in the veld
punctuate the trance-like rhythm.
Dark hand takes mine.
Sparking eyes lead me.
Bright smile, a dare.
Soon I, too, am a reed.
I sway, I laugh.
Smiles and calls encourage
in friendly play.
The lone white blade
in the ebony grass
falls into rhythm.
The wanderer planted
on royal veld.
I, too, now dance
for the king.


After the women had finished marching by us, we made our way down to the field where they would come dance for the King. By the time we arrived, many of the women had already presented their reeds to the Queen Mother, and were marching around the ceremonial field singing different songs that all seemed to fit together. All they had in their hands now was the spoon, torch, knife or other household item and they all were wearing black leather skirts to symbolize that they were married. The Queen Mother and four of the King's six wives led the procession, along with an entourage of princesses and other nobility. The nobility wore specially patterned tunics to show their status, and seemed to dance more gracefully than the others, as if making a special effort to please the King. Each time they marched around the field, more women would come out until it was a sea of colorful costumes and rattling feet.
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Oh, to be king for a day

Once everyone had arrived, they lined up opposite the bleachers and started singing together, waiting for the King to appear. When he finally entered the field, surrounded by princes, advisors and security, he walked right by where Abeja and I were sitting. Although Abeja had met King Hussein of Jordan a few years ago, this was the closest I had ever been to a real living King and I couldn't help but be in awe at his kingly stature. He was smiling and nodding to his subjects, and he walked as if his feet were floating a few inches above the ground. He stepped up to the royal bleachers and had a seat, and a security guard motioned that we could take pictures. I walked over about four feet in front of the King, feeling totally absurd, and took a photo. I said "Thank you," and the King nodded, but when I sat down to look at the picture on my digital camera, I realized that it had not turned out, and I had to go back. This time I just felt stupid, but the King didn't seem to mind too much, and people who have met him say he is very friendly. See Abeja's article It's Good to be King. Or is it?

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Once they start,they never stop dancing!
The women began dancing and singing again, very slowly and humbly swaying back and forth. Led by the Queen Mother, and the King's wives, one group would slowly march forward and present themselves to the King, and then march back to the line. Slowly the whole line moved forward until it was much closer to the bleachers. Then, individual women would come out and dance, while the rest sang and clapped for them. The ceremony took hours, and most of the other tourists we came with seemed to get bored and leave early. However, Abeja and I were completely mesmerized. Abeja was even invited to dance by the wife of a prince, and she was allowed to join the festival even though she is not Swazi and had not brought reeds for the Queen Mother. She came back after about fifteen minutes looking a little embarrassed. "They were all so nice," she said. "They wanted me to dance up front, so I had to leave".

Finally, all the women sat down in front of the King, and then he rose out of his throne and walked up to the palace, followed by his entourage and hundreds of women. After the dance, the festival continues until the next morning inside the palace. The King joins the women for a feast and some traditional beer. The next day the women dance one last time and the King gives a speech to dismiss them. Unfortunately, we were not permitted to continue on to the feast, but as the soft winter sun set behind the rocky African hills we were giddy and felt quite fulfilled. We had seen a real King and an authentic ceremony that was not just put on for the tourists. I think it was our best taste of traditional African culture yet.


Abeja - It's Good to be King! Or is it?
Kavitha - Bug Off! AIDS in Africa
Kavitha - Misconceptions about AIDS in Zimbabwe
Kevin - 202 Smiles at the End of a School Day
Monica "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
Making A Difference - Paint a Perfect Picture

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