28.08.2010 - 29.08.2010 22 °C
Due to the technicalities of a business visa, i.e. I need to leave the country every 30 days, and in the interest of culture, I decided to head back to Swaziland for the weekend to observe the annual Umphalaga festival. This week long event is one of two national celebrations held each year and typically takes place at the end of August. Virgin maidens come from all around the kingdom to present reeds to the queen mother in hopes of being selected as a new wife to the king. The past 3 years the king has not selected a wife (he already has 13), but it still acts as a forum for Swazis to celebrate their culture and traditions. Since foreigners are only allowed to visit on Sunday and Monday, I planned a couple more activities with my roommate to fill out the weekend.
Swaziland is also famous for the beautiful candles that it produces, and we decided that the factory would be a good first stop on our journey. I talked at length with one of the artists, and he said that one candle typically takes the sculptor about ten minutes to create. They press patterned plates into the wax to create the unique decoration on the candles and shape the figure with their hands into various animals. We admired the art, played with some of it, and bought a few trinkets. We also had lunch at an amazing restaurant annexed to the factory. I wouldn't have thought that a chocolate chili brownie would have been good, but I was fighting my roommate for the last piece of it.
We then drove the car to the camp we were staying in and checked into our beehive hut. I'll rewrite that just so that you know it's not a typo - we stayed in a beehive hut. I'll admit that I was skeptical when my roommate booked the accomodation, but it was pretty cool. It was essentially a structure made entirely out of reeds and sticks, interwoven together into a massive dome. Despite the look, the inside was rather nice in that it had a cement floor and a modern bathroom connected. We then intrepidly drove our Kia Picanto, nicknamed the week before as the brave little toaster, around the dirt roads of the park to explore. Despite a few wrong turns and almost getting stuck, it was a fun little jaunt.
We woke up in the small hours the next day to go on a horseback ride through the game reserve. On safari, the most animal sightings are typically seen in the early morning and early evening as the animals like to sleep during the hot hours of the day. Our early rise allowed us to see a lot of cool animals, and rather up close, including yellow warblers, zebra, and blesbok. We also got a good view of execution rock, where the custom was to throw people off of the top of the rock if they had been found guilty of murder. They don't practice this form of justice anymore, but I could imagine that it was probably an effective deterrent as I glanced up at this impressive geological wonder. After the guide decided that we were rather good at following directions, he decided to let us trot the horses at the end. It was a bit hard at first but fun once I got the hang of it. As those of you who have seen me dance know, I am rhythmically challenged so I naturally thought that my mastery of the trot cadence was a great success.
It was the plan to have our guide met us to take us to the reed dance shortly after the horse ride, but upon arriving, he looked confused and informed us that it wouldn't start for another 4 hours. I chalked this piece of miscommunication between myself and the tour company as another point for the tourism in the developing world and decided that we would set out North to see some ancient bushman rock displays. The drive was absolutely beautiful as we weaved through Northern Swaziland. The rock paintings were also very cool with a scenic hike that overlooked the Komati River.
The last stop on the trip was the reed dance held in the Ezulwini valley of the Western part of the kingdom. The festival has been met with controversy in the last few years since Swaziland has an HIV prevalence of over 26%, one of the highest in the world, and the event is looked at as promoting patriarchal values that potentially lead to the further spread of HIV. I was familiar with this sentiment before going, but I wanted to hear from the perspectives of Swazis and observe the tradition for myself.
We watched regiments of these bachelorettes march by, singing and dancing with their reeds. After presenting their tribute to the queen mother, they descended upon the stadium to dance for the king and his dignitaries. Although the costumes were beautiful, it was rather tedious to watch group after group march into the stadium. There are typically over 10,000 maidens at this event, and after 2 hours of watching the parade, we decided that it was probably best to get back to the border to cross before it closed. We digitally captured the pomp and circumstance and then decided to take our leave.