Feet on the Ground
By Jheri St. James
is not about weathering the storm,
but learning to dance in the rain …
View - Photographer: Niall Enright)
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
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…
* * *
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.
Bird Men Cave Art, Photographer: Bob Forrester
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.
are among the most passionate and dedicated of artists,
And rarely take their work for granted.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful,
This is power, it is glory on earth, and it is yours for
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.
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.
falls - Photographer: K Braun
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
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.
AIDS is stopped we will dance for joy.
Until then we will dance for life.
* * *
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
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
know you’re dancing when tears of pain and happiness
Blend in with your sweat.
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