Umhlanga, or Reed Dance ceremony, is an annual Swazi and Zulu tradition held in August or September. Tens of thousands of unmarried and childless Swazi/Zulu girls and women travel from their villages to participate in the eight-day event. In Swaziland they gather at the Queen Mother’s royal village, which currently is Ludzidzini Royal Village, while Nongoma is the site of the royal reed dance in Zululand. After arriving at the Queen Mother’s royal residence, or Enyokeni Palace in Zululand, the women disperse the following night to surrounding areas and cut tall reeds. The following night they bundle them together and bring them back to the Queen Mother to be used in repairing holes in the reed windscreen surrounding the royal village. After a day of rest and washing the women prepare their traditional costumes consisting of a bead necklace, rattling anklets made from cocoons, a sash, and skirt. Many of them carry the bush knife they used to cut the reeds as a symbol of their virginity.
Today’s Reed Dance ceremony developed in the 1940s and 50s from the Umcwasho custom where young girls were placed in age regiments to ensure their virginity. Once they reached the age of marriage they would perform labor for the Queen Mother followed by dancing and a feast. The official purpose of the annual ceremony is to preserve the women’s chastity, provide tribute labor for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity among the women through working together.
The women sing and dance as they parade in front of the royal family as well as a crowd of spectators, tourists and foreign dignitaries. After the parade, groups from select villages take to the center of the field and put on a special performance for the crowd. The King’s many daughters also participate in the Umhlanga ceremony and are distinguished by the crown of red feathers in their hair.
One of the main objectives of the Reed Dance historically is for the king to choose another wife