Following exchange visits in August and October between Tanzania’s First Lady Mrs Salma Kikwete and The Swazi Queen Mother, the Ndlovukazi, who rules Swaziland jointly with King Mswati – Mrs Kikwete found herself under strong criticism from Tanzanian feminist activists. During her time in Swaziland Mrs Kikwete attended the famous ‘Reed Dance’ during which maidens reaching maturity dance before their King (and before hundreds of young men looking for wives!) and he chooses one to be his next bride. He has recently married his fourteenth wife.
The East African reported that Tanzanian gender activists had condemned Mrs Kikwete for for saying in Mbabane: “The reed dance encourages girls to abstain from sex because they know if they are not virgins they will not be allowed to participate. This also prevents them from contracting HIV/Aids”. She exhorted African governments and leaders to emulate Swaziland and protect indigenous cultures.
The Tanzania Media Womens’ Association, FemAct, said that instead of supporting the ritual, Mrs Kikwete should have condemned the King for depriving young girls of their right to education, sex, economic empowerment and socialisation. This was the first time Mrs Kikwete had attracted such stinging criticism.
Fem Act questioned the First Lady’s assertion that the reed dance protects young women from HIV/Aids. ‘In fact, girls who get married at the same age as King Mswati’s virgins, are more vulnerable to HIV/Aids because they lack control over their sex life and education. They are financially dependent on others.’
During her address, the First Lady said she liked the Swazi culture because it “unites maidens from rich and poor families by giving them an opportunity to socialise and work together and teaches them to adhere to their traditional tribal values and norms”.
She had been impressed to see a princess, the King’s daughter, leading the girls in the reed cutting ceremony.
The feminists were said to have also criticised Tanzania’s ‘traditionally tame media’ for gleefully carrying the remarks without the slightest criticism of the event where ‘young half-naked girls are paraded in front of the King and other guests for their pleasure’.
The Tanzanian Guardian then broadened the debate by publishing a long article debating the issue of tradition versus modernity. It reported that the activists had condemned Swazi traditional practices as antediluvian and an abuse of human rights. It was abusive, they said, to allow some individuals to use their high positions in society to subject women to a dance in which they dispose their body parts in public. They went further and said the purveyors of the reed dance claimed that the aim was to protect the girls from promiscuous sex but, in fact, it represented one of the most regressive aspects of African culture, which humiliated, degraded and devalued women.
However, the Guardian writer was critical of their attitude. ‘This is where our women folk go wrong’ he wrote. ‘Though I am not a Swazi, I believe that in carrying out the legendary tradition, the King does so as a state institution so that the transactions that are conducted around the dance become a continuous reproductive reality of the Swazi state. The aim of the dance is not therefore only to have the Swazi King pick a new wife or pursue his pleasures, but to reproduce the Swazi state. Furthermore, the tradition stresses the importance of the girls remaining virgin and committed to societal ideals up to the time they are ready to meet their husbands. …. ‘Only when the Tanzanian First Lady visited and attended the dance did the feminists come out to ridicule her visit…. But how many of our sisters walk naked in the city streets everyday, and yet they are not engaged in a socially meaningful programme like the Reed Dance…..In May this year, Mrs Kikwete officiated at the Miss World Tourism gathering in Dar es Salaam and the pageant girls were televised as they performed on the catwalk in half-naked swimming bikinis to be seen by the whole world. The feminists were there but did not even make a yelp. Is it because Miss World, Miss Universe, or Miss World are English, American and international respectively and the ‘Miss Reed Dance’ is Swazi, African? ….It is sad to learn that those who walk naked in the streets are praised because they display the proudly cherished Western ‘civilised’ culture…Many people are wondering what is so special about this issue, because the main elements of the reed dance are omnipresent in almost all traditional African cultures…. To be realistic, the Swazi King, the institutional setting and the guidance associated with it, offers a better way of salvaging the girls (and boys) from the shackles of the market than any other traditional institution we know of today….But relatively, and in comparison to western market values, which have almost bought most of our people….. the Swazi paradigm is far better and more African in terms of origin…..In Tanzania where we have an amalgam of cultures which brush aside everything traditional as if it is useless as we crave for Western values in the belief that they are the solver of all our cultural problems. Western norms should therefore not be let to dominate everybody’s mind and render us to remain mere copy cats.’
The Times of Swaziland also gave considerable publicity to another event during the exchange of visits. The Ndlovukazi and her entourage had suffered considerable alarm and panic when the aeroplane she was in almost failed to make a safe landing at Zanzibar airport. ‘The plane first flew in the direction of a cliff, before the pilots managed to bring it to land on the runway” said one passenger. It was said to have lost its radar. “It was really a scary situation. Everyone was shaken and a lot of them said short prayers as it struggled to land” he said.