Hailstorm cuts short traditional dance

Saturday, September 6, 2003

LUDZIDZINI, Swaziland -- Wearing beads, wrap skirts and woolen tassels, thousands of girls danced for Swaziland's king on Friday, hoping to be chosen as his 12th queen. But hail and lightning broke up the ceremony.

Some said the weather was a good sign for this drought-stricken land, but others disagreed.

"It's a blessing, a blessing," said one man as the rain-soaked crowds rushed past him, jumping over metal barriers and pushing toward shelter.

However, one woman said word had spread that lightning struck the royal cattle pen just moments before King Mswati III made his way to the ceremony. Cattle are symbols of wealth and status in many southern African countries, including Swaziland.

The lightning, the woman said, signified discord in the royal house and should be seen as a possible warning that the ancestors -- who are revered in many African cultures -- have been angered. She spoke on condition she not be named.

Mswati, Africa's last absolute monarch, has balked at recent pressure from his subjects to introduce democratic reforms. He has also been criticized for breaking his own ban on sexual relations with underage girls, taking one as a recent wife.

Each girl at Friday's abbreviated ceremony -- called a "reed dance" -- wore a tasseled scarf, the symbolic chastity belt the king has ordered all his young female subjects to wear.

Frustrated by the high rate of HIV infection and describing teenage girls as "flowers that should be protected," the king in 2001 reinstated the traditional chastity rite of umchwasho -- banning sexual relations for unmarried girls under age 18.

Some 20,000 girls participated in Friday's ceremony.

To avoid the annual ceremony, some parents are known to take their daughters out of the country the week of the reed dance.

At the ceremony, girls present reeds to the queen mother to help in the symbolic rebuilding of the fence around her palace and then dance before the queen mother and the king.

The king, who turns 35 on Saturday, has ruled this southern African kingdom since 1986. He has 11 wives and can marry as often as he pleases.

Mswati's father, King Sobuza II, who died in 1982 after 60 years on the throne, had over 70 wives.

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