There is something about 15,000 topless African men, clothed in four types of animal skin, that gets a girl excited. Friday was the public holiday for Incwala– Swaziland’s most sacred festival. While the Umhlanga festival is for the girls, Incwala is for the men. Traditionally, it’s a first fruits ceremony, but the reality is that it’s probably more of a male kinship event.
Incwala festivities actually kick off in November, when bemanti (people of the water) are sent forth to collect water from the sea in Mozambique and from the rivers. When they return to the royal capital, the little Incwala takes places. Two weeks later, the big Incwala commences, starting on the full moon nearest the summer solstice.
The big Incwala is a six-day affair. On the first day, young unmarried men march off to Sidvokodvo, 50km away, to cut off the biggest branches of the sickelbush that they can find. They are meant to do this under moonlight, and should also be “relatively chaste” (in other words, for one day in the whole year, they shouldn’t sleep with married women or get virgins pregnant). The following day the boys return to the royal kraal (cattle byre) with their branches, where the elders weave them into upright poles to create a private sanctuary for the King.
On Day 3, the boys continue the fun by slaughtering a black bull with their bare hands, which is said to encourage solidarity, discipline, valour and loyalty to the nation. The bull’s remains are then made into ritual medicines for the King. The rumours (not necessarily facts!), then state that the King adorns the bull’s head while being all manly with wife and beast.
Finally, we get to day 4 – the public holiday – and it was on this day that I joined the public at the royal kraal (cattle byre). Even before we entered the kraal I was enamoured by the masses of warriors, with leopard skins wrapped around their loins, a string of ox tails hanging around their shoulders, baboon skin around their ankles and fighting sticks, a head full of ostrich feathers (sometimes dyed hot pink for that extra masculine look), and holding a 1m long shield made from cow skin. There’s nothing like wearing animal to make you feel like a man, huh? It seems that as taken as I was with these men, they were equally taken by my friends and me in our traditional Swazi dress. The wedding proposals were flowing and the cameras were working overtime.
The action didn’t seem to kick off until mid-afternoon, when a very British-sounding red-suited marching band entered the scene, contrasting against the animal-swathed warriors lined up in front of them. Soon after, we were able to enter the kraal – shoes off, all cameras and phones abandoned. I have only been in a kraal once before, and I had forgotten the amazing sensation of walking barefoot through a compacted, yet still slightly squishy, arena of cow dung.
We made our way to the ladies’ area, where we stood and listened to the monotonous bassy tones of the Incwala “songs” (made up of little more than three syllables forming words that no Swazi I asked actually knew the meaning of). This was accompanied by equally simplistic actions – think drawn-out fist-pump salute, pointing fighting sticks up then down, and a small swish of the oxtail. When I spoke to the women around me about the festivities, the word “boring” was mentioned a lot. Admittedly, Incwala doesn’t have the pizzazz of the other festivals, but it certainly has a very hypnotic, eerie, and vaguely spiritual aura.
Soon after, all Dlaminis and whities were ushered out of the kraal, leaving it virtually empty. As I was not privy to the next part of the ceremony, all I can do is share the stories that have been told to me. It seems Day 4 culminates with the King emerging from his leafy sanctuary to dance and throw the sacred gourd, luselwa, into the shield of one lucky / unlucky boy. The gourd has been filled with the year’s “dirt” from the royal family and their descendants, the Dlaminis, and since it would be unconscionable for a Dlamini to catch his own “dirt” (in modern terms, we call this taking responsibility), no Dlaminis should be in the kraal at that time. The boy who does catch the luselwa will, apparently, then become crazy for all eternity, unless he can outrun the King back into his leafy sanctuary. If he achieves this, he can ask the King to be cured. If he doesn’t, then the royals financially compensate the man’s family for life.
The final two days of Incwala are much more low key. Day 5 is a day of abstinence from all “merriment” including shaking hands, sitting on chairs or mats, even scratching. On the final day, regiments stack firewood and ritual objects from the previous year into a pyre in the middle of the kraal. It is then lit and left to burn, while the crowd sings and dances. It is considered a good omen if the rain falls and extinguishes the flames, but no such luck this year. So, Incwala draws to a close. The King continues to remain in his leafy seclusion until the next full moon, when the sickle branches are also burned, but the men in their animal skins are gone for now, and life carries on as usual.