This is an excerpt from the book Celebrating Women by Paola Gianturco
Umhlanga, The Reed Dance – Lobamba, Swaziland
“Ndileka Mabusa attended college in Pretoria. Because she has been out of the country, she has never participated in a Reed Dance. As an Anglican, it is hard for her to imagine wearing such a skimpy skirt with neither top nor underwear, but she is longing to dance in the festival at least once. Ultimately, she decides she will feel comfortable if she bans her boyfriend from attending Umhlanga. The two of us go shopping for her costume.
Old women doing beadwork on the second floor of the Manzini Market direct us toward the stalls selling the requisite skirt, tassels, necklace, ankle bracelets, shields and knives. To my astonishment, Ndileka strips bare to try on the whole outfit. The women vendors jump up to help her dress and conduct an animated conversation in siSwati that she reports later: “They were talking about my body.” “That’s right,” they said, “be proud of it.”
The next day when Ndileka joins the throngs of maidens at Umhlanga, I lose track of her in the crowd of identically-dressed young women. Afterwards, she is still high on Swazi womanhood when I locate her surrounded by Reed Dancers who are pulling their cell phones from underneath their shields, preparing to reconnect with the real world.
“It was wonderful.” Ndileka bubbles. “I can’t wait for next year! You are not afraid of showing your bum because the other girls have also got their bums out, your breasts because everybody’s got their breasts out. You don’t have to worry about someone staring at you because everyone is dressed the same. Some girls are really big and I was proud of them for showing off their bodies like that; they were confident.”
“I met many people I knew and they had their friends so now I have even more friends. Plenty of boys were shouting at us, ‘Hey sweetie, come here, can I see you after the dance?’ But since we were many, we just ignored them or talked back, which was quite fun. Quite fun.”
Get a copy of Celebrating Women for your shelves here.
Interested in some world travel and enjoying some of these feminine custom in person?
Here’s a great Directory of Festivals around the world that celebrate women:
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