I was sitting at home this week watching the kombies and open-backed lorries go past, cram-full of excited singing girls on their way to umhlanga, and thinking, ‘Yes, it’s that time again.’
Tomorrow the public and plenty of tourists will be watching these girls, along with thousands of others, dance and dance and dance until the excitement is in everybody’s heads and streaming from the skins of perspiration into the air. There will be noise and glamour and all the thrill of a big day long-awaited. But that will not be the main event. The main event is today, when the reeds are delivered to the Queen mother’s kraal.
One of the earliest cosmological narratives collected from this part of the world is that of God creating people from reeds. In this story, the world was already formed but without people and so God went down to the river’s edge and created humans from the tall reeds that were growing there. It is Southern Africa’s parallel to the Genesis account of people being made from clay.
The story is remembered in the clan praise-title, Wena Weluhlanga, ‘You (people) of the reed’, and this is the true significance of Umhlanga, the Reed Dance. The week’s events are in fact a celebration of our common beginning and continued existence, a modern echo of an ancient story. When the tribes began to settle down in this region and build more or less permanent homesteads and collect cattle, the defining technology was in the creative use of reeds and grass for building and thatching. That is still a defining technology in the rural areas because cattle and their kraals are still central to Swaziland’s homesteads and culture (think, for example, of the old Tinkhundla elections, when candidates sat in front of kraals and voters went inside those kraals to be counted). Reeds therefore are one of our central focusing images.
The dancing, then, is not what the event is really all about, although it is the flashing breasts and plumping buttocks—framed in the vibrancy of blue and overwhelming red—that attract the eyes and the cameras of visitors.
Yet the dancing is not without significance, for dancing is a sign of vibrant life: if you look at a bed of reeds moving in the wind you can imagine them dancing, and that’s an apt image for life itself. The reeds are animated, alive because they have movement. Death, after all, is supremely a stillness. Life can be seen therefore as a kind of dance: sometimes a noisy, crazy, careering one, but still a dance.
There are, I know, many critics of this annual national event, who either believe the Dance belongs too firmly in the past to make sense in the present or else squirm uneasily to see so much young flesh shaking and quivering in public view. But the Dance—precisely because it has links to the creation myth—is one of the bedrocks of what it means to be Swazi and southern African. In an era when so many trumpet the call of being unique and presenting an authentic voice within our global village, it is only Umhlanga and iNcwala (and really not so much else) that provide the links and foundations for national and individual identity. It is when the nation’s origins and persuasions are on display. Today and tomorrow then, it is not only the girls but also the whole nation that will be dancing. By watching the swaying, jostling, singing girls at Umhlanga and imagining them as that amazing thing, a bed of living reeds, we can deepen our understanding, and perhaps regain something of the wonder of life itself.
© Kenneth Rowley 2014 (originally published Saturday, September 02, 2006)