December 17, 2011
Despite being a very unexpected and busy week, we had a great time. Sandwiched in between an ‘inspiring’ visit to another PCV couple’s site, and a not-so-inspiring visit to the med unit, was a short detour to attend part of the Incwala Ceremony in the king’s Royal Kraal.
[Quick pronunciation note… Say it just like you would in English, except replace the ‘c’ with a ~click~ of the tongue—In~click~wala … there you go, you got it!]
Incwala stands in stark contrast to Swaziland’s other big cultural event—Umhlanga or Reed Dance- in that it is a much more secretive and sacred ritual. In a little pamphlet about the event it specifically says that ‘spectators are permitted, but not encouraged’ and several of the items on the schedule have vague names like “Rituals” which keep outsiders from coming to close to this combination new year/first-fruits and warrior/kingship ceremony (yeah…it is a little of everything).
Luckily, we are not complete outsiders—Peace Corps gave us the skinny on the whole process. However, in an effort to avoid causing a stir (distributing photographs of this event is a crime) I will keep my description brief and without commentary.
The Ceremony actually starts months earlier than the official ‘Incwala Day’ which is celebrated as a national holiday (and Peace Corps gets to close the office for the day). At a time chosen by Swazi astronomers (based on the phases of the moon), two groups of men called the ‘water parties’ are sent to travel to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique (biggest group) and Swaziland’s rivers (smaller group) to collect water. The significance of this point in Mozambique is that all the rivers in Swaziland flow to the ocean at this point. Also at this time, the king goes into seclusion. This seclusion is only broken to dance in the ‘Little Incwala’ and the ‘Big Incwala.’
Upon the return of these water parties the ‘Little Incwala’ is held (the following New Moon) which includes two days of dancing and the first break of the king’s seclusion.
Now on the last full-moon before the longest day of the year the king calls for the young Swazi warriors to collect lusekwane branches. It is vital that the youth be unmarried and not have any children. If, however, you are tempted to lie about this—your branch will wilt along the way and you will suffer the consequence. These branches are then woven into the king’s private sanctuary. This year, 40,000 young men participated in this event.
After this comes the ‘rituals part’ which involves ceremonial cow slaughtering and bathing with the water collected by the previously mentioned water party. I won’t go into any further detail because—well I’m assuming it is secret for a reason—and, while we pride ourselves here at twoyearsinthekingdom for breaking big stories like ‘Ants: A Home Invasion’ and ‘The Struggle for Transport’, we still have our integrity to think about.
Then… the whole Swazi nation converges at the king’s Royal Kraal near Lobamba (conveniently located in the Ezulweni Valley). Everyone is wearing traditional attire (except for a few of us lame foreigners hanging around) with animal skins, cow tail shawls, and sometimes huge feather headdresses—and, of course, a stick. Everyone holds a stick.
As the ceremony begins, small regiments of Swazi Warriors take turns charging into the Royal Kraal (which is somewhat reminiscent of the wall around an fort– it is a place for the cows to stay and consists of a circular fence of enormous sticks). After entering the kraal one falls into ranks with the traditionally dressed Swazis of your given gender (men across from women) and everyone begins to dance back and forth. This repetitive dance move is occasionally interrupted by loud calls or lunges all signifying the desire of the nation for the king to join them in the Kraal. After other members of the Royal Family trickle in (all wearing red feathers in their hair), the king arrives with his entourage.
After dancing the sacred Incwala dance (which can only be danced at Incwala) and singing the sacred Incwala song (which…you guessed it… can only be sung at Incwala), the king bites and spits out the first-fruits of the season and later throws a sacred gourd (luselwa) which is caught by one of the boys. Dancing continues well into the night.
The next day is a day of rest and the rules are strictly enforced in and around the royal capital. Namely that there is no sexual contact, no touching water, no wearing decorations, no sitting on chairs or mats, no shaking hands, no scratching, and no singing or dancing.
This is then followed by a day when all the implements use in the ceremony are burned in a ritual fire. This burning signifies the end of the old year. The king continues his seclusion until the next full moon—in January.
While wonderful events, one thing that has typified our attempts to participate in Umhlanga and Incwala is the fact that there seems to be nowhere where any accurate and reputable information can be gathered on how to best attend. While we have hit roadblocks each time, I will end with some of the information we’ve learned on the off chance that someone reading this can learn from our experience.
Incwala Dancing in the Royal Kraal (December) — They do not announce the date until a couple days before (this year it was on a Tuesday and was announced on the previous Thursday)—so you really have the be flexible. However, find the full moon (simple Google search) nearest to the Summer solstice (Southern Hemisphere) and add three days. Once you have the date, it seems like the best time to show up at the Kraal is about 2:30-3:00pm. We arrived at about 2:45 and after a few minutes hanging around things started to get under-way. However, to see really anything you must either have your own transport or be spending the night at one of the nearby backpackers or hotels (Lidwala is really nice and affordable). Also, do NOT bring anything with you. Cell phones, bags, cameras, etc. are all not allowed in and you will be stuck outside holding the bag listening to the event happening inside.
As with all Swazi cultural festivities, women MUST wear a skirt (or traditional attire of course). Women and men enter separately and are kept at opposite ends of the kraal throughout the event. Bring a stick (or buy one from a vendor outside) to minimize the awkwardness as you attempt to follow along.