Feet on the Ground

By Jheri St. James

Life is not about weathering the storm,
but learning to dance in the rain …

    (Malolotja View - Photographer: Niall Enright)

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a small, landlocked country in Southern Africa (one of the smallest on the continent), embedded between South Africa in the west, north and south, and Mozambique in the east. The country is named after the Swazi, a Bantu tribe. Prehistoric human remains and artifacts have been found in Swaziland. Evidence of agriculture and iron use dates from about the 4th century. Swaziland has a wide variety of landscapes, from the mountains along the Mozambican border to savannas in the east and rainforest in the northwest. Several rivers flow through the country

The country was granted independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on September 6, 1968. Since then, Swaziland has been struggling between pro-democracy activists and the monarchy, headed by King Mswati III, son of the late King Sobhuza II. By tradition, the heir to the throne is chosen according to his mother’s status, and a Queen Mother is selected, based on her high rank, by the Royal Council, following the King’s death. The king-to-be must be her only son, and is expected to choose wives from various clans to ensure national unity. The king (the lion) reigns as administrative head of state along with his mother (the she-elephant), the spiritual and national head of state. Swaziland is one of the wealthiest nations in Africa, but one of the poorest in the world. The king has often been strongly criticized for living so lavishly in such a poor nation. Recently this country surpassed Botswana as the country with the world’s highest known rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

We dance for laughter, we dance for tears,
We dance for madness, we dance for fears,
We dance for hopes, we dance for screams,
We are the dancers, we create the dreams…


* * *

The collector in Swaziland was Nanette Gruber, another one of our friends at American Embassies around the world who have become so pivotal in the Common Ground 191 project. Her collection came from the Allister Miller House, Sibebe Rock, and Sandlane Rock Art location in Mbabane, Swaziland.

Nsangwini Bird Men Cave Art, Photographer: Bob Forrester

The most publicized paintings at Nsangwini (which have appeared on Swaziland stamps) are two winged figures, these are part human and part bird or insect. The right-facing figure is floating as if airborne, while the other may be hovering, so light is the painter's touch.

Dancers are among the most passionate and dedicated of artists,
And rarely take their work for granted.

Dancing with the feet is one thing,
But dancing with the heart is another.

The people who do not dance are the dead.
(Jerry Rose of Dance Caravan)

In Swaziland’s Umhlanga Reed Dance above, up to 20,000 childless, unmarried maidens from all over the kingdom take part. Today’s eight-day reed dance ceremony is not an ancient ceremony, but developed out of the old “umcwasho” custom, in which all young girls were placed in this female age-regiment. If any girl fell pregnant outside of marriage, her family paid a fine of one cow to the local chief. After a number of years, when the girls reached a marriageable age, they performed labor service for the Queen Mother, ending with dancing and feasting. Royal princesses wear red feathers in their hair and lead the procession.

Dance is your pulse, your heartbeat, your breathing.
It’s the rhythm of your life. It’s the expression in time and movement,
In happiness, joy, sadness and envy.
Jaques D’Ambroise


Swazi Cultural Notes

  • Dancing and singing, including praise-singing, are prominent in Swazi culture. Pottery and carving are minor arts.
  • Soon after birth, plants and types of animal fur specific to the child's clan are collected, burnt, and the child is made to inhale the smoke, to promote its well-being.
  • Marriage dowry/lobola: Man's family give cattle (usually 15) to bride's family. Sometimes paid in installments. Traditional wedding/umtsimba: Usually on a weekend in dry season (June - August). Bride and her relatives go to groom's homestead on Friday evening. Saturday morning - bridal party sit by nearby river, eat beast (goat/cow) offered by groom's family; afternoon - dance in the groom's homestead. Sunday morning - bride, with her female relatives, stabs ground with a spear in man's cattle kraal, later she is smeared with red ochre. The smearing is the high point of marriage - no woman can be smeared twice. Bride presents gifts to husband and his relatives.
  • Commoners are buried next to homestead, kings and royals in mountain caves. Funerals are important as means of the extended family meeting from time to time. A month after the funeral they meet again to wash away the contamination of death.
  • A supreme God/creator is recognized, but more important are the spirits of ancestors. Beasts are slaughtered and beer brewed to please the spirits, and ask for help.
  • Traditional healers are still widespread: 1) Inyanga (doctor) heals with home-made medicines; 2) Sangoma (diviner) usually female, communicates with spirits to reveal solutions to problems; 3) Uumtsakatsi (witch/wizard) harms or kills people through magic.
  • Swazis excel in praise-poetry I praise-singing. Praise-singers compose praises for every king, chief and prominent person. Even bus-conductors shout the praises of their bus.
  • Using a person's surname shows more respect than using their given names. Every surname has an extension or set of praise-names which may be used to greet, thank or bid a person farewell. e.g. Nkhosi (Lord/Lady or Sir/Madam), Dlamini (surname), wena wekunene (you of the right), wena weluhlanga (you of the reed), mlangeni lomuhle (beautiful one of the sun).
  • Boys and men wear loin-skins of selected wild animals. Girls wear grass skirts. A woman with a child wears a cow-skin skirt, and puts her hair up in a bun/"bee-hive" hairstyle. A married (lobola'ed) woman wears a goat-skin apron over her shoulder.
  • Every man belongs to an age-regiment, for war and tribute labor. Formed by the king about every five years, young men opt to be permanent warriors attached to royal homesteads. Color of cow-hide shield and other decorations identify the regiment. King calls them out four times a year for the Incwala ceremony (January or December), the most sacred of all the Swazi rituals; weeding King's sorghum fields, and harvesting and threshing sorghum. ( (Thanks to: Richard M. Patricks, SNTC)

To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.
This is power, it is glory on earth, and it is yours for the taking.
                                                                          Agnes DeMille

Swaziland is not only about cultural tribal dances. It is also about the empowerment of the people. For instance:

  • The Kingdom of Swaziland is boosting a tourism industry for this little jewel in the rough country.
  • An ongoing campaign against makwapenny (your secret lover) is slowly making its way into the minds of the natives, historically a taboo topic, but an enthusiastic form of liaison here. Even the king has 13 wives; most men and women have multiple partners. This program is directly affecting the spread of AIDS in Swaziland.
  • Ms. Sisana Mdluli is an active lecturer in SiSwati, a translator and presenter for SABC Mopani TV news. She is a cofounder and former president of Umdlandla Swaziland Authors’ and Writers Association and is prompting the writings in some of the 11 official languages spoken here. Most current books are written in English.
  • Swazi Secrets began life as the Swazi Queen Mother’s dream to help poor rural Swazi women generate an income from natural products that grow around them. She formed Swazi Indigenous Products, a nonprofit company, seeking to build a natural products industry. Marula oil is a product of the king of African trees, and is the main ingredient in a line of cosmetics and pharmaceutical products beginning to be noticed internationally.

Mhlangamphepha falls - Photographer: K Braun

When we watch dancers moving through space, we are struck by both science and alchemy, by the real and imagined. As embodiments of physical laws, dancers constantly convert one form of energy into another - from stasis to movement and back again - oscillations or waves of air and light. As alchemists, dancers make evident what is hidden from us - turning dreams into realities, and back again into dreams - turning matter into spirit.
Alejandra Chaverri - Photographer

And so we come to Alister Miller. One of the most prominent white settlers in early Mbabne, capital of Swaziland, was Alexander Mitchell Miller, after whom the city’s main street is named. The Alister Miller house was the site of the soil collection for Swaziland. Born in 1864 on a ship off Singapore, he arrived in Swaziland in 1888 and became secretary of the White Committee. Miller was a man of diverse talents—journalist, author, politican, and cartographer. He produced the first topographical maps of Swaziland and surveyed a canal which, when dug many years later, enabled the sugar industry to start at Big Bend. He founded the Times of Swaziland in 1897 and started many of the country’s key agricultural activities. Miller became unpopular with the Swazi authorities for pressing white settlers’ claims in the land issue, but when he died in 1951, the Kingdom’s flags flew at half mast. Mbabane was declared a city by His Majesty King Mswati III in 1992.

When AIDS is stopped we will dance for joy.
Until then we will dance for life.

* * *

”Most of the high-level economic activity in Swaziland is in the hands of Whites, but ethnic Swazis are becoming more active. Small entrepreneurs are moving into middle management positions. Still, 70% of Swazis live in rural areas and are being ravaged by drought and the resulting food crisis that threatens hundreds of thousand with hunger. The unemployment rate is approximately 40% and nearly 70% of the population live on less than one American dollar per day. (Life expectancy at birth is 32.23 years.) …Nearly 60% of Swazi territory I sheld by the crown in the trust of the Swazi nation. The rest is privately owned, much of it by foreigners. The question of land use and ownership remains very sensitive.” www.wikipedia.org

All people look the same inside—red blood, white bones and teeth, blue veins, gray matter in the head. But some folks do not dance; they play the deadly real estate game’, often founded on skin color. Swazi people dance—king, queen and commoners—barefoot, on the soil of the first, real Queen Mother: Earth. Where is the spirit of first-world dance—toe shoes deforming feet and hurting knees; soul-less electronic music; the inane tapping of metal-toed shoes; the intellectual writhing of “modern” dance—all done far from the surface of the soil? Native people like those in Swaziland dance with feet on the ground, touching their land, the Earth Mother. This is visible in each of the pictures above. It is with great praise that we thank Swaziland for the dance of its soil. The word for peace in Swaziland is kuthula.

You know you’re dancing when tears of pain and happiness
Blend in with your sweat.





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