It takes more than an hour for the thousands of maidens to file into the arena at the Ludzidzini Royal Residence in Lobamba, east of the country.
The ceremony is to pay homage to the Queen Mother Ntombi Tfwala.
The eSwatini Tourism Authority’s marketing officer Chunky Dlamini said the maiden’s dance is the culmination of months of preparations and seven days of activities.
These include the cutting of the reeds and ceremoniously carrying them into the royal residence to help refurbish the royal kraal.
“Last year we had 100000 maidens attending this year there are 130000 registered. That is because this year we had educational programmes and included in the curriculum at the schools, the importance of preserving their culture and heritage,” says Dlamini.
The maidens come from the various “chiefdoms” in the country but also include those from other cultures. This year Zulu and Pedi maidens were in attendance. “eSwati maidens also attend the Zulu and other reed dances. It is all about encouraging young women to remain chaste until marriage. It is their and their family’s pride.
“There are those who criticise - particularly the virginity testing - but it is an age-old practice which celebrates unmarried women and girls for keeping their virtue. It is a choice, as is participating in the reed dance,” Dlamini added.
After the maidens file into the arena, the queen mother arrives followed by the arrival of King Mswati III, surrounded by his regiment. After they take their seats, the maidens walk across the arena, singing and dancing, stopping before the king and queen mother to show off the choreography perfected with weeks, sometimes months of practice.
Their traditional attire makes for a kaleidoscope of colour, set against a mountainous backdrop. And it is in the caves in these Mdzimba Mountains where the royals are buried.
Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini, King Mswati’s first born daughter, leads the maidens. With her radiant smile and youthful elegance in her traditional dance moves, she seems to relish the honour.
Despite being educated in various Western countries, it appears that she still takes immense pride in her traditional role. Her hair is adorned with a crown of feathers from her country’s national bird, Ligwalagwala, the purple crested loerie. This is commonly worn by Nguni royals.
Like other royals, her father also wears these and carries a golden staff as he runs around the arena for an up-close view and interaction with the excited maidens. The end of the ceremony just after sunset marks the end of a bumper tourism weekend for the country, attracting visitors from all over the world.
During this time, accommodation establishments are fully booked, and the money spent on the country’s many attractions bring a much needed boost to the economy. This bodes well for King Mswati’s Vision 2022; to see his nation become a first world country in four years.
According to the World Bank, eSwatini’s economic growth has shown improvement since 2015. It went from 0.4% that year to 1.4% in 2016 and 1.9% in 2017. Projections are 1.3% and 2% in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
“The primary development challenge for the Kingdom of eSwatini is to address the high rate of poverty and inequality in the country. An estimated 63% of the population lives below the poverty line, and about 29% lives below the extreme poverty line. Inequality is very high with a Gini coefficient of 49.5,” according to the World Bank.
In a statement announcing Vision 2022, the king said its main objective was to address just that by “improving the standard of living for all our people through access to quality services, wealth creation, and employment opportunities”.
Although the vision was announced some years ago, the king reiterated his commitment to it at this year’s 50/50 celebration of half a century of independence from British rule, as well as the king’s 50th birthday.
At this occasion, the king also announced that the country would be reverting to its Swati name eSwatini.