LUDZIDZINI ROYAL VILLAGE, Swaziland — Fifty thousand bare-breasted virgins danced for the king of Swaziland yesterday, vying to become his 13th wife.
King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa, arrived dressed in a leopard-skin loincloth to watch the ceremony called the Reed Dance, which he has used since 1999 to pluck brides from the ranks of girls dressed in little more than beaded miniskirts.
Wielding machetes and singing tributes to the king and queen mother, called “the Great She-Elephant,” the girls danced around the royal stadium in the hope of catching the eye of the 37-year-old monarch. “I want to live a nice life, have money, be rich, have a BMW and cell phone,” said one of them, 16-year-old Zodwa Mamba, who wore a traditional brightly colored tasseled scarf and not a lot else.
King Mswati, who has courted criticism for his lavish lifestyle, is accused of setting a bad example by encouraging polygamy and teenage sex in a country of abject poverty where 40 percent of adults live with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. The Reed Dance, traditionally celebrating virginity and womanliness, has become a showcase for the king’s bridal candidates.
The ceremony yesterday was the culmination of a week of preparations, which included the lifting of a royal ban on sexual relations with virgins, decreed in 2001 to rein in the spread of the HIV virus.
Days after reviving the ancient ban, King Mswati in 2001 married a virgin and fined himself one cow. Last week, he lifted the five-year ban a year early, ordering thousands of maidens to throw off chastity scarves worn to discourage the attention of scamps and libertines.
“The Reed Dance has been abused for one man’s personal satisfaction,” says Mario Masuku, leader of the banned opposition party. “The king has a passion for young women and opulence.”
But other Swazis say the young monarch has a right to do as he pleases, defending his penchant for young brides as Swazi tradition and arguing that ceremonies like the Reed Dance, which this year drew a record 50,000 maidens, cement national identity.
“The king takes a wife whenever he wants, and that’s the way it is. This is our culture, and we will never change,” says Tsandzile Ndluva, 21, another dancer.
Many maidens, who come from villages across the country, dream of joining the king’s wives, who each get a palace and a BMW sedan. But others are wary of catching the royal eye that could curtail their freedom and force them into polygamous marriages.
“Marriage is about love, not money,” says Patience Dlamini, a police cadet, who accessorized her traditional outfit with a fake diamond necklace. “This thing of many wives is not good. How does he satisfy them all?”
The king has drawn censure from human rights groups abroad for entrenching a ban on political parties in the nation of 1 million persons, nestled between South Africa and Mozambique.
“What the king did by taking another wife was not good, because he was meant to keep virginity,” said 20-year-old Zanele Dlamini, a health worker who chose not to join in the dance. “He is not a good leader because multiple wives can spread HIV.”
But despite such sentiment, and criticism of King Mswati abroad, the outlawed People’s United Democratic Movement has failed to muster much support at home. Many ordinary Swazis back the king and ceremonies like the Reed Dance are popular as symbols of national identity.