I started the weekend off with the Rolls Royce of Swazi mountain bike races – the Nkonyeni classic. Admittedly, I was feeling quite trepidatious given my last mountain biking disaster and my still-bruised coccyx from snowboarding, but things started looking up when I went to register and stumbled upon the table full of (free!) chocolate doughnuts, muffins, pastries and freshly brewed coffee. Naturally, I set about carbo-loading before lining up with the others for the 35km route.
Held on a golf course, the race started on the golf buggy paths before heading over the grassy greens, where we got to see how the rich half live and then ride all over it. Eventually the track made its way into a neighbouring reserve and onto an endless trail of slippery rubble and stopping patches of sand. More often than not, I’d try to climb a hill only to find my pedals and wheels turning, but the bike remaining stationary as the loose gravel was being whisked away underneath the tyres. I also kissed the ground a few times as my back tyre hit the side of a rock sending me careening sideways.
Fears of further damaging my coccyx came true when I came across a hill that I decided was too steep and slippery to ride down. Walking down didn’t prove to be any better as I immediately slipped and landed on my bum with the bike landing on top of me. Together we slid the 3m to the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, my poofy bike pants, which on most occasions I like to mock, cushioned my fall and I was able to continue onto 3rd place overall and 2nd in my age group (shaving almost 2hours off my last race). Taking full advantage of the surrounds, I finished the race off with a free massage and hot shower at the golf estate’s resort. Now that’s my sort of mountain bike race!
After the race, I immediately headed off for an overnight getaway with a group of friends to the “Rock Lodge”: a community-run self-catering log house architecturally nestled among boulders on the top of a big hill….and with a spectacular view from the loo.
- The Rock Lodge normally forms the start of a 3-day hike along the Ngwempisi river, but the hike started for us near the homestead where we were unable to get my little car over the 4WD track. Carrying all our food (bringing back memories of East Timor), and roping in local kids to carry our bedding, the short 1km walk to the lodge was worth it as we spent the evening sipping wine on the balcony and sitting around the campfire telling stories and covering snake holes.
The next morning we employed a hung-over local to guide us down to the river where it was too cold to swim, but still pleasant enough for rock-hopping and fish-spotting.
Sunday afternoon I joined some other relatively new volunteers for Umhlanga, Swaziland’s biggest festival and the reason for yet another public holiday. Otherwise known as the Reed Dance, Umhlanga is an opportunity for young virgin girls to gather together and celebrate their chastity while showing their loyalty to the Queen Mother (oh, and enjoying a massive week-long slumber party with 80,000 of their closest girl friends while they’re at it). The festival has adopted a new slogan with a slightly more modern aim: “Siyimbali, sichakazile, sitayincoba i-AIDS” (We are the flowers of Swaziland and we will defeat AIDS).
Living near the Palace and working in Malkerns, I was in the thick of the festivities right from the start. It began last Tuesday with the sound of thousands of maidens whizzing past, singing and dancing while being trucked like cows from all corners of the country to the Royal Palace at Ludzidzini. Riding past the palace on my way to work, it was hard not to get excited by the sudden carnival atmosphere, with hundreds of stalls popping up out of nowhere, music blaring from radios, and thousands of girls giggling, singing and dancing down the street.
They camped next to the Palace overnight before being split into two age groups (8-13 and 14-22) and being sent to different parts of the country by the King to collect reeds. Normally, the girls must walk the 10-30km, but with modern technology and soaring hot temperatures, they were luxuriously transported in the back of government-arranged trucks. They camp at their destination for two nights before making their way back to the palace on the Friday with their bundles of reeds. Each year their route passes by my work and, this year, the trucks carrying the young virgins of the royal family decided to stop off at Malandela’s for cans of coke. Naturally, my workplace saw this as a fantastic PR opportunity, so I found myself thrust into the role of “Semi-official Photographer of Royal Descendents”. I honestly thought the girls would be sick of being photographed, but they seemed to lap it up and some were even willing to engage in conversation.
After a rest day on the Saturday, the maidens dress up in their traditional gear and deliver their reeds to the Queen Mother’s quarters, who will later use them to repair her reed screens. Each regiment of girls then spends the next several hours singing and dancing their way into the stadium, as the King and his merry men look on, customarily running through the rows of imbali (flowers) and placing their shields on the ground to show appreciation of a particular few.
This continues on the Monday where spectators take advantage of the public holiday to witness the 80,000 bare-breasted virgins dancing. Besides the revealing nature of the traditional outfit (which doesn’t seem to phase anyone here), it is also customary to carry something in your right hand. Frighteningly, this means you see 3 year olds walking around swinging the odd kitchen chopping knife, but colourful feather dusters also proved popular this year.
The festivities ended with a dance by visiting Xhosa maidens from the Eastern Cape, a dance from the Induna (chosen captain of Umhlanga), and a dance from the King’s eldest daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, and second eldest, Demaswati. In true controversial form, we were entertained with a little recorded hip hop number from Sikhanyiso, complete with backward bends while calling out an invitation to test her virginity.
Controversy seems part and parcel of Umhlanga. Random virginity testing of participating girls received much criticism from the UN last year, and the King’s occasional selection of new wives from the event is prime fodder for the media. Interestingly, I have also read that the event was developed out of the umcwasho custom, where girls were forbidden from interacting with men until they had reached a suitable age and celebrated their eligibility for marriage by performing labour for the Queen. The King recently attempted to revive umcwasho, encouraging virgins to remain that way for five years in a bid to curb the sweeping AIDS pandemic. It all feel flat when he, himself, broke the umcwasho by taking a young, virgin wife. Despite all the debates, it’s hard to be negative about an event that seems to provide so much joy to girls whose lives are probably filled with so much difficulty: 80,000 giggling girls can’t possibly be wrong.