eSWatini uMhlanga Reed Dance in Swaziland

On my last LensTraveller adventure, I took a road trip to the Kingdom of Eswatini for the Umhlanga Reed Dance held at the Eswatini King’s Palace grounds in Mbabane. The Umhlanga Reed Dance is the biggest and best known cultural event in eSwatini (Swaziland). It’s an eight-day ceremony where maidens from around the country gather to cut reeds and then present them to the Queen Mother ( (Indlovukazi) as an act of respect and affection.

After a smooth six-hour drive from Durban, I finally arrived in Lobamba’s Police station and collected my media accreditation and met my guide. As a foreigner and female traveller, I needed to make sure I am safe and have access to behind the scenes without getting into trouble with the authorities.
Once all the paperwork was done, my guide showed me around and took me to the locations where the maidens where getting ready for the big event the next day.

As solo female world traveller and photojournalist, I have learned, always to get a “fixer” or guide that knows the language, culture, and laws, who have contacts and access to places I wouldn’t get on my own.

Watching the maiden rehearsing and getting ready before the big ceremony was a unique experience. It also gave me the chance to meet and photograph some of them before the hustle and bustle started.

The girls come from chiefdoms all around the kingdom in groups and are registered for security. Most of the maidens sleep in the huts of relatives in the village or in classrooms of nearby schools. Only unmarried and childless girls are allowed to take part in the ceremony and are not allowed to have sexual relations. They also must wear the traditional set of tassels, which are usually made of wool and worn around the neck. The different colors in the tassels represent the age of the girl. Girls aged 18 an under must wear blue-and-yellow; girls aged 19 or over must wear red-and-black tassels.

Members of the media with access to the Royal grandstand and the front-line to all the action need to dress up accordingly to show respect to the King and the Royal family. Women must wear a skirt, or a dress and are allowed to wear hats. Men are not permitted caps and must wear long pants. Together with my guide, I went shopping for the traditional emahiya, which is a unisex coloured sarong-type cloth that is draped over one shoulder like a toga or gown or it can also be wrapped around your waist like a skirt.

Two years ago I covered the Zulu Reed dance in Nongoma, although both events are very similar ceremonies and are based on the same tradition, nothing would’ve prepared me for the immense scale of display I witnessed. This year more than 90,000 maiden attended the event. There were 59 groups of maidens, each group representing each member of the parliament. The ceremony starts by each group dropping their reeds outside the Queen’s Mother’s quarters at the Royal Palace, and then they move to the main arena, where they dance and sing their songs in front of the King. Seeing column, upon column of girls approaching like centipedes, stamping their feet and ankles rattling is almost impossible to describe or even photograph it!

​As closing ceremony for the day, the King, escorted by dozens of bodyguards, runs around the arena where they maidens are awaiting and picks new wives. It’s a hectic 30-minute ritual where selected media members get to join the King around and try to take photographs and/or videos. Not knowing what exactly was going to happen, but guessing it was going to be a bit of running involved. I decided to grab my D850 with the14-24mm lens, the SB5000 Speedlight, and be ready for some paparazzi action. Getting a shoot of the action while being pull and drag in an out the King’s way by the bodyguards and media control officers was a real challenge and a sweaty workout. No many people are aware of this part of the Reed dance ritual, and only a few can join in. I felt honoured to be one of them and the only woman too!

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