The annual Reed Dance took place earlier this month and there’s been a fair bit said about it. But what about the history or origin of the practice? Some websites report on the ceremony as a new tradition introduced by King Goodwill Zwelithini as a means of helping in the fight against HIV and AIDS, while others say that the ceremony is an old practice that was reintroduced by the King in 1991. According to a speech given by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at this year’s dance, Umkhosi woMhlanga made a reappearance on the cultural calendar in 1984, as a means of reaffirming the Zulu values of chastity before marriage, and as a way to discourage unprotected sex, which leads to the spread of the AIDS scourge. Supposedly, the ceremony fell away in the years that followed the Anglo-Zulu War, when every effort was made to destabilise and weaken the Zulu nation.
In his speech Buthelezi also talked about the ceremony having its origins in the days of King Shaka, making the reed dance a nearly 200-year-old tradition. According to Chief Buthelezi, Shaka used the ceremony as a way of demonstrating the Zulu nation’s respect for women, and its understanding of their central role in families, communities and society. The dance also encouraged self-discipline and highlighted the importance of making wise choices in life, reminding young women and men to respect their bodies and each other.
In addition to promoting discipline, Umkhosi woMhlanga is also a time of celebration, and one during which male suitors might propose to young maidens. In preparation for this moment, young girls are taught by older women to be proud of their virginity and their naked bodies. Maidens are told to expect respect from suitors who intend approaching them during the ceremony.
On the day of the ceremony the girls, adorned in traditional beaded isigege and izinculuba skirts, start walking towards the main hut of the King’s palace. In addition to the skirts the maidens also wear anklets, bracelets, necklaces, and colourful sashes, the colours of which denote whether or not the women are married. The chief princess leads the procession, wearing the inyongo, the gall bladder of the principal sacrificial animal, which symbolises purity.
As the King watches the procession he is praised by his poets or izimbongi. The men sing songs and engage in mock fighting while the maidens lay their reeds down. At the end of the festivities the King delivers a speech, after which the maidens ululate, singing the King’s praises.