Last week in Swaziland, young women paraded before the king in the annual Reed Dance, wondering if he would choose one of them to be his next wife. But many of the girls did not want to be there. The annual event has focused attention on political reform efforts in Swaziland. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough attended the ceremony at the royal residence in central Swaziland's Ezulwini Valley, and has this report.
Thirty teenage girls from one village are singing traditional songs on their way to Swaziland's annual Reed Dance at the Ludzidzini royal residence. They travel in a group, led by two stick-wielding men chosen by their village chief to watch over them.
The Reed Dance is one of the most spectacular and well-known of Swaziland's cultural traditions. Every year, thousands of young women dance bare-breasted before the royal family at the end of a week-long ritual. One of the women, Zihla Bembe likes participating in the dance because, as she sees it, it is part of being a Swazi girl. "Because it's our Swazi culture, and we are proud of it," she said.
Officially, the ceremony is in honor of the king's mother. The girls cut and deliver reeds to her royal residence in order to symbolically re-build part of it after a long winter.
But the Reed Dance has also become known for another, more recently-developed tradition. Like his father before him, Swaziland's absolute monarch, King Mswati, has taken to choosing a new wife or two from among the young women. Swazi kings can have as many wives as they want. So far, King Mswati has 12.
The event sparked a major controversy last year, when the mother of his 10th wife filed a lawsuit in hopes of getting her daughter back after the king picked her out at the Reed Dance. It did not work, and the mother reluctantly dropped the case.
Critics of the tradition say an increasing number of girls, especially from the cities, are refusing to take part in the Reed Dance because they do not want to run the risk of becoming a queen. And some of the girls who do take part are desperately hoping the king will not notice them.
Seventeen-year-old Nobahle Sihlongonyane enjoys the Reed Dance, she says, because it is a colorful ceremony and she likes the traditional woolen tassels and beads that the girls wear.
"I've got three sisters who have attended the ceremony. And unfortunately for them, they are nowhere to be found now! They cannot come back anymore because they have given birth. So I am the only one who is able to attend the ceremony," she said.
When asked whether she thinks the king will pick her as his next fiancee, Miss Sihlangonyane demurely says she doubts she has the qualities the king is looking for. "He's looking for a tall girl. She must be tall, slender, with that body! And of course you must be beautiful," she said. Would you be happy if you were chosen? She won't because, she adds, "I don't like polygamy. I hate polygamy."
Many of the other urban girls who took part in the Reed Dance have similar views. They must have given a huge sigh of relief when this year's dance was interrupted by a freak hailstorm. Just as the king was about to walk down the red carpet into the crowd of dancers to start examining them a little more closely, the heavens opened up and hailstones the size of almonds pelted the crowd. Ten-thousand girls made a break for it, stampeding through the stands, shoving aside diplomats and tourists. Within minutes, the field was empty.
It is not clear how much longer the king will retain his right to choose whoever he wants as a wife. Swaziland is in the midst of a slow process of democratization, under pressure from the international community. The king recently presented a draft of a proposed new constitution, which includes many new rights for women.
Women's rights activist Zakhe Hlanze of the Swazi branch of Women and Law in Southern Africa says the draft constitution would guarantee women the right to choose what cultural traditions to take part in, including whether or not to enter into a polygamous marriage.
"We feel that this is a progressive provision, and we feel that women will be able to choose whether to undergo certain customs or not," she explains. "And we feel that this provision in the constitution will actually help in changing the status of women."
But Ms. Hlanze says she remains concerned about the way the proposed constitution handles the delicate balancing act between law and tradition.
"I'm saying that it is encouraging, but I know that there are problems," she explains. "Because in the same constitution, you find that customs and traditions actually seem to be taking a superiority, they seem to be superior even to the constitution. So if it is like that, we may have problems when women try to actually access these rights that are in this particular draft."
Former Swazi Prime minister and current opposition leader Obed Dlamini believes change is inevitable because the people will demand it. He says the king will have to give up some of his absolute powers.
"All that we need as Swazis, without shedding at the expense of the nation our culture, is to ensure that democracy exists, and that culture should not supersede democracy," he said. "This is our demand. I cannot foresee Swaziland sustaining the status quo without making serious advances towards introducing a typical democratic dispensation. I just cannot see that."
Back at the Reed Dance, some of the participants were taking a more traditional attitude. Sixteen-year-old Lungile Shongwe says she would love to get the king's attention and possibly become the next Liphovela, or royal fiancee.
"Because I enjoy the life there, I think it would be nice, just sitting there relaxing, getting everything you want without working for it," she said. " And visiting overseas! Ooohh! With the airplane!"
Even though King Mswati did not have a chance to pick a new bride at the Reed Dance this year, the teenage Ms. Shongwe has a few more years to try to catch his eye. Constitutional changes are not likely to do away with the Reed Dance entirely, and unmarried young women with no children can take part in it every year until they are 21 or 22.
In the meantime, the Associated Press is reporting that the king has just taken his 12th wife - a runner-up in the Miss Swaziland beauty contest. At the time of the pageant, she told a local magazine that she does not believe in polygamy. But under Swazi law, if the king chooses her, she can not refuse.