Joining friends and relatives of thousands of young girls attired in traditional Zulu dress to watch them sing, dance and celebrate their culture, is a powerful and moving experience.
This annual ceremony, known as the Mkhosi woMhlanga or the Zulu Reed Dance, is a centuries-old tradition. It takes place in September, right at the start of spring, at the eNyokeni Palace in Nongoma, Zululand.
Girls from all over the country arrive in the area for the traditional Zulu festivities. These are spread over several days and represent an important rite of passage for the young women.
As well as joining in traditional singing and dancing, the Reed Dance is an opportunity to school the girls in their culture. Older Zulu women teach the young girls, who have to be virgins in order to participate, about how they should act as grown women. As part of this, they promote celibacy until marriage and teach the girls respect for their bodies.
While the lessons and ceremonies are steeped in Zulu tradition and culture, this mass gathering of young people is also an opportunity to discuss contemporary social issues that affect them, such as HIV and teen pregnancies.
For visitors, the highlight of the event is the reed-giving ceremony. Led by Zulu princesses, the young women make a sea of colour in intricately beaded outfits as they each collect a cut reed and present it to the king. Zulu men also participate in this part of the ceremony, singing and mock fighting.
According to Zulu tradition, the original ancestor emerged from a reed bed, so the laying of the reeds at the king’s feet symbolises respect for the Zulu culture. The reeds are also used to build traditional Zulu huts and to craft the mats and baskets for which the Zulu people are famous.