The King of Swaziland recently sparked a controversy when he chose his 10th wife. The girl's mother sued two royal aides she said kidnapped her daughter. She eventually dropped her court case, but it sparked the question, what is life like for a Swazi queen? Challiss McDonough recently visited the Nkoyoyo royal palace to interview one of the king's senior wives.
When she was a little girl, Sibonelo Mngomezulu never imagined that one day she would grow up to be queen. She wanted to be a lawyer. But when she was 16, everything changed. Just like a fairytale, she met a prince. After he became King Mswati, she dropped out of school and married him and became Queen LaMbikiza. That was 17 years ago.
Today, the queen is a confident, articulate 33-year-old. "Growing up, I had my life mapped out. I knew what I wanted to do, and when I wanted to do it, and when I wanted to get married. I pretty much had it all," she said. "So when it was ended abruptly, or it took a turn, obviously there are times when I wonder how it would have been if it had not worked out this way."
Although she is officially considered to be King Mswati's third wife, she is the first one he chose for himself. The first two were ceremonial brides picked by the royal family. So Queen LaMbikiza considers herself the senior wife.
She says she accepts the fact that her husband has nine other wives, and will eventually have many more. His father, after all, had about 120 by the time he died. She says even at the age of 16, she knew what she was getting into when she married the prince.
Even so, she laughs when asked if she thinks of the other queens as her friends. "Um, gee, friends. I do not think so," she said. "We get along, but what is a friend? We get along. We are very diplomatic towards one another."
Her life may seem like a fairytale, but looks can sometimes be deceiving. One Western diplomat described Queen LaMbikiza as "a peacock in a gilded cage," beautiful, but trapped. The queen says sometimes it gets to her.
"You have your privileges, and then sometimes you realize that you have so many restrictions on your life that you can not really do whatever it is you want to do at any time," she said. "I am as happy as I can be under the circumstances."
Queen LaMbikiza spoke in the receiving room of her lavishly furnished personal palace, in the mountains overlooking the Swazi capital, Mbabane.
On the way into the building, a reporter spotted a late-model BMW luxury car in one of the garages. The other wives or, more accurately, their chauffeurs, drive the same kind of car. Each queen also has a shiny new Mercedes X-5 sport-utility vehicle at her disposal.
Members of the royal family lead lives of luxury, especially when compared to most of their one million subjects. As a result, Queen LaMbikiza says, she feels duty-bound to pour considerable energy into charity work.
"It bothers me, that is why I decided to do something about it. But I do not feel guilty, because I believe I work, I work very hard," she said. "I would feel guilty if I were a lazy person and I just lazed around and did absolutely nothing. Then I would feel guilty."
She runs two charities. One pays for medical procedures for seriously ill children. The other supports the families of terminally ill patients, usually people dying of AIDS.
Queen LaMbikiza is not the most traditional of King Mswati's 10 wives. In fact, she has broken many of the traditional rules associated with the role.
Deeply religious, she is the first Swazi queen to record a gospel album. She also is the first Swazi queen to continue her education after marrying the king. She finished a law degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa, and she is currently working on a master's degree. If things go well, she will graduate in April.
Although she is fully qualified to practice law in Swaziland, the queen is not doing so. Some influential members of the royal family object to the idea of a queen working like a commoner. Some experts also say it could create a legal dilemma if a wife of the absolute monarch were actually to argue a case in court. They fear judges might feel pressure to decide in her favor.
Queen LaMbikiza is determined to overcome those roadblocks and practice law, one way or another. "I have not started practicing. I intend to. I intend to put my knowledge to use, somehow, even if I do not have to go and stand up in court," she said, "but I have to put it to good use. Already, I am putting it to good use, I feel."
The queen acts as an informal advisor to the king on legal matters that she understands far better than he does. It may not be a paying job, but she believes it is an important one. And despite what her detractors might think, she said she never tells her husband what to do. "He needs to be enlightened on the law," she explained. "I just give the advice. Whatever he does with it afterwards is clearly up to him."
Queen LaMbikiza's non-traditional views have made a few enemies in the royal family. Some are traditionalists who think she is too modern, or too outspoken. Some are rivals who see her as a threat to their own aspirations for power.
Last year, palace intrigue almost cost her everything. The king got very sick, and Queen LaMbikiza's rivals accused her of poisoning him. She fled to London, where her father is Swaziland's ambassador.
After King Mswati recovered, he went to visit her, and she later returned to the kingdom. She believes the whole episode was a plot to get her "out of the picture."
"Because when people do not understand you, sometimes they choose to dislike you," she said. "But that is not a problem for me, because I always focus on my objectives. And whatever else is happening around me is of less importance than what it is that I am trying to achieve."
Insiders say one thing she is trying to achieve is the designation of her 13-year-old son as heir to the throne. As one of the king's most senior wives, she is in a good position to do so. And even though she has enemies in the royal family, Queen LaMbikiza is enormously popular among the Swazi people.