The Royal Reed Dance
Once a year, in the heart of South Africa's Kingdom of the Zulu, thousands of people make the long journey to one of His Majesty’s, the King of the Zulu nation's royal residence at KwaNyokeni Palace. Here, in Nongoma, early every September month, young Zulu maidens will take part in a colourful cultural festival, the Royal Reed Dance festival - or Umkhosi woMhlanga in the Zulu language.
For visitors to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's most popular tourist destination, the Reed Dance festival offers the unique opportunity to experience the natural beauty and majesty of the Kingdom of the Zulu, combined with the vibrant spectacle of Zulu cultural life. The road to the Reed Dance festival runs north from the city of Durban, and winds through the green lushness of the North Coast sugar-belt, skirting through the Kingdom's world-renowed wildlife reserves of Zululand and Maputaland.
Finally, it leads into the gently rolling hills and valleys of Zululand, a landscape rich with the silent memories of the heroic clashes of the Anglo-Zulu War, which took place more than 100 years ago.
Steeped in the history of the rise of the Zulu kingdom under the great King Shaka, the Reed Dance festival has been tirelessly celebrated by countless generations, and attracts thousands of visitors from throughout the country and from across the world. A dignified traditional ceremony, the Reed Dance festival is at same time a vibrant, festive occasion, which depicts the rich cultural heritage of the Kingdom of the Zulu and celebrates the proud origin of the Zulu people.
The Reed Dance is also a celebration of the Zulu nation and performs the essential role of unifying nation and the king, who presides over the ceremony.
The festival takes its name from the riverbed reeds, which are the central focus of this four-day event. The reed-sticks are carried in a procession by thousands of young maidens who are invited to the King's palace each year. More than 10 000 maidens, from various communities throughout the province of KwaZulu- Natal, take part in the Reed Dance ceremony, with the rest of the Zulu nation helping them to celebrate their preparation for womanhood.
It is a great honour for the young women to be invited to take part in the Reed Dance ceremony, and its also a source of great dignity and pride for their families and communities.
According to Zulu traditon, only virgins are permitted to take part in the festival to ensure that they are ritually 'pure'.
The Reed Dance festival is a solemn occasion for the young women, but also an opportunity to show off their singing, dancing and beadwork, the fruits of many months of excitement and preparation.
The women of KwaZulu-Natal make some of the finest beadwork in Africa, and the Reed Dance is an especially vibrant and colourful occasion on account of the rich beadwork on display. For visitors to the Reed Dance, this exquisite handiwork can provide a unique souvenir or gift to take home.
From each region in the Kingdom comes a distinctive craft tradition, and the colours, patterns and styles of the beadwork luxuriantly displayed by the young women, as both ornaments and clothing attest to the region of origin of the craftwork.
As the Reed Dance ceremony begins, the young women prepare to form a procession led by the chief princess. One of the daughters of the Zulu King is also the leader of the group of maidens as they go through this important rite of passage.
Each maiden carries a reed which has been cut by the riverbed and it symbolizes the power that is vested in nature. The reeds reflect a deep mythical connection with origin of the Zulu people where, tradition tells us, the original ancestor emerged from a reed bed.
In everyday use, these reeds are the building material for the typical domed or beehive hut, iqhugwane, which is found particularly in rural homesteads throughout KwaZulu-Natal.
Zulu mythology has it that if a young woman who is not a virgin takes part in the Reed Dance ceremony, her reed will break and embarrass her in full public view!
And still, today an expectant hush falls on the crowd as the chief princess is the first to choose a reed. Shouts of joy and celebration greet her as the reed remains intact and, with bated breath, each of the young women takes it in turn to choose a reed.
Accompanied by jubilant singing and dancing, the stately procession winds its way up the hill to the palace entrance where the king awaits, flanked by his royal regiment.
As leader of the group of young women, the chief Princess kneels down before the king and presents him with a reed to mark the occasion, before joining the young women in a joyful dance of tribute to the king.
In recent times, however, the King has fittingly used the Reed Dance festival as an opportunity to educate the Zulu nation, and particularly the youth, focusing on vital social issues such as practicing sexual morals and behaviours which prevent teenage pregnancy and lower the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The people of the Zulu nation are world famous for their impressive dancing and singing skills, and the dancing of the young women who perform for the King at the Reed Dance festival is both graceful and powerful.
By paying tribute to the king in this way, the Zulu nation, represented by the young women, bestows on the king the symbolic power to rule over the Zulu kingdom and its loyal subjects in the year to come.
To demonstrate his gratitude, the king responds with a sacrifice to the royal ancestors on behalf of all the young women and their communities throughout the Kingdom.
The chief princess, who wears the inyongo, the gall bladder of the principal sacrificial animal, which is a symbol of purity and an important symbol in any Zulu ritual, leads the procession from the palace.
Speeches and performers entertain the Zulu Royal family and their guests, the local Inkosi's and their subjects and other spectators. And , as the ceremony draws to a close, the King joins in the dancing and singing in celebration of the successful enactment of a traditional ceremony which has endured for centuries.
Each September, the Royal Reed Dance attracts guests From all over the world, and no visitor to KwaZulu- Natal should miss this unique opportunity to join in the festive celebration of the cultural roots and proud traditions of the Zulu nation.
However, a visit to the Kingdom of the Zulu any time of the year, will afford the visitor a glimpse of the rich cultural life of the Zulu people from exquisite craftwork to powerful dancing and singing, in traditional rural homesteads and in the vibrant urban township settlements.
Day 1: Assuming that your point of entry is through the city of Durban, depart from the city and travel along the scenic KZN North Coast into Zululand. Visit Dlinza Forest Aerial Boardwalk- it is built in the 250-hectare forest reserve – and it is the only indigenous forest completely surrounded by an urban setting.
The route takes one to the Zululand Historical Museum at Fort Nongqayi and the Vukani collection, the largest collection of Zulu Art and Craft in the world. Stop overs can be arranged for light lunch at Adams Outpost and proceed to the Martyr’s Cross, the site of the death of the first Zulu martyr with a spectacular view of approx. 80 kms of coastline. At the end of the first route dinner can be arranged aboard a 'float' at Lake St Lucia
Day 2: Depart for a Zulu Cultural Experience - traditional Zulu dancing and buffet lunch at Eshowe. Marvel at the display on the prowess of spear throwing and experience life in a Zulu homestead. Travel to St Lucia village for an overnight stay and enjoy a traditional Ostrich Potjie dinner at a local establishment.
Day 3: Depart for a launch cruise on Lake St Lucia. This area was identified by the World Wildlife Fund as a 'site of ecological importance'. Marvel at the sightings of hippos, crocodiles, mudskippers, mangrove crabs and listen to the magnificent cry of the fish eagle. Lake St. Lucia is home of the greatest number of hippos and the magnificent Nile crocodiles.