What Is Umhlanga, or the Swaziland Reed Dance Festival?
Who would have thought that Swaziland*, the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, would play host to one of Africa’s biggest and most spectacular cultural events?
Every year at Umhlanga, known more commonly in English as the Swaziland Reed Dance Festival, thousands of unmarried women and girls pay homage to the King and the royal family in an eight-day ceremony full of dancing, rites and rituals.
According to local newspaper reports, more than 100,000 girls and women from all over Swaziland, as well as Swazi girls from South Africa and other neighboring countries, participate in the festivities. It's without a doubt one of the most incredible African celebrations.
To be honest, Nick and I had never heard of Umhlanga before we arrived in South Africa, and we had no plans to visit Swaziland during our three-month trip around southern Africa.
But when our tour guide on a day trip to Blyde River Canyon told us that the festival was coming up in just a few days, a quick Google search was enough to convince us to change our travel plans.
The images we saw of the festival looked spectacular, and indeed, it was even more impressive to witness in person. It was hard to find much practical information about attending Umhlanga, though, which is why I’m writing this article.
First of all, let me clear up some common misconceptions about Umhlanga.
What Happens During Umhlanga?
Even though it’s referred to as the “reed dance festival”, dancing takes place only on the sixth and seventh days of the eight-day annual reed dance ceremony.
Most tourists will probably not be interested in staying for the whole duration of the ceremony, as the rest of it is not as visually spectacular.
Also, the girls don’t actually carry the reeds while they are dancing. They have already presented them to the Queen Mother by that point.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s a day-by-day rundown of what happens during Umhlanga:
The girls gather at the royal residence of the Queen Mother. There are about 200 regiments, one from each Swazi chiefdom, and each regiment is supervised by men appointed by the local chief. The girls sleep at the homes of relatives who live nearby or in the classrooms of local schools.
Participants are separated into two age groups. The younger group includes girls about 8 to 13 years old, while the older group includes young women about 14 to 22 years old. In the afternoon, they march out to the reed beds.
The older girls go to reed beds about 30 kilometers away, while the younger girls go to closer ones about 10 kilometers away. They reach the reed beds after dark and sleep in tents that night.
Each girl cuts about 10 to 20 reeds, using a long knife. She then ties her reeds into a bundle.
In the afternoon, the girls start their journey back to the Queen Mother’s village and arrive after nightfall.
This is a day of rest, when the girls make their final preparations, fixing their hairdos and making any necessary adjustments to their dancing costumes.
This is the first day of dancing, which takes place from about 3pm to 5pm. First, the girls present their reeds to the Queen Mother, leaving them outside her residence as a form of tribute labor. They then march to the stadium and perform their dance, each regiment singing a different song.
This is the second and final day of dancing. This time, the King is present. Traditionally, he chooses a new wife from among the dancers, although the last time he did this was in 2013. The King already has 15 wives and 35 children.
The King issues a command for about 20 to 25 cows to be slaughtered. Each girl collects a piece of meat from the slaughtered cows and then returns home.
Swaziland Reed Dance Video
In this video, you can see one of the regiments of Swazi girls heading towards the stadium to begin dancing after they have given their reeds to the Queen Mother.
Swazi Traditional Attire Worn by Swaziland Girls
The costume that the girls wear varies according to their social status. The costumes of girls from the royal family are more elaborate than those worn by the other girls.
At a minimum, all the girls will wear a sash called an umgaco and a small skirt called an indlamu. The girls are discouraged from wearing any underwear underneath the indlamu.
Other possible costume elements include a whistle, bird feathers worn in the hair, and colored tassels hanging from the umgaco, all of which hold special symbolic meaning. When dancing on the last day, they will hold a knife in one hand and a shield in the other.
When Is the Umhlanga Reed Dance?
The royal family appoints a commoner to act as captain (induna) of all the maidens. The induna announces the dates of the ceremony over the radio.
The exact dates may not be set until a few weeks before the ceremony, but it usually takes place in late August or early September. The full calendar of events is spread over eight days, but days six and seven are when the dancing happens.
Locals will tell you that day seven is the main event. To a foreign eye, the festivities on the two days seem pretty much the same.
The main difference is that the crowd is much larger on day seven. If you can only attend on one of the two days, consider going on the sixth day.
Where Is the Umhlanga Festival?
The festival takes place in the royal stadium, within the grounds of the Royal Residence in Lobamba. The Reed Dance is one of the very rare occasions when the Royal Residence is open to the public.
Lobamba is located in the Ezulwini Valley, just a short drive from Mbabane – the capital of Swaziland.
Where to Stay During the Swazi Reed Dance
Legends Backpacker Lodge
This is where we stayed. It’s just a 45-minute walk away from the stadium. The hostel is friendly and has some private rooms as well as dormitories.
It’s close to The Gables shopping center, which contains a large supermarket and several restaurants, including Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options.
Lidwala Backpacker Lodge
We weren’t able to stay here because it was full, but it comes highly recommended. The lodge is set in a beautiful location among boulders, indigenous trees and a flowing stream. On Wednesdays, they serve traditional Swazi food with vegetarian options.
Click here to see photos of the lodge, read reviews and book your stay.
What to Bring to the Swaziland Festival
You will need to pass through a metal detector when entering the stadium, but the security check is pretty minimal. All of the items listed below will be allowed through security.
- If you’re male, wear long pants (no shorts)
- If you’re female, wear a long skirt (no miniskirts, shorts OR long pants)
- If you ignore the advice above, bring some money to purchase a piece of fabric to wrap around yourself. You won’t be allowed in the stadium if you are not sufficiently covered up.
- A cushion or backrest if you think you’ll have difficulty sitting on a concrete bench for several hours
- A poncho if rain is forecast (the stadium seating is exposed to the elements)
- Sunblock if it’s sunny
- A warm outer layer (the temperature drops quickly when the sun sets)
- A flashlight (if you stay until the end, you’ll probably be heading back to your accommodation in the dark)
- A camera (the bigger the zoom, the better)
- Snacks and drinks (see the “What to Eat” section below
What to Eat at the Reed Dance Festival
Snacks are sold at the makeshift stalls outside the royal residence grounds. These include popcorn, potato chips, French fries, and mafetsi (a local snack that’s similar to a doughnut hole).
On the grounds, but outside the stadium, there was also a restaurant tent. This offered a Western-style buffet, some Chinese dishes and some traditional Swazi food.
Quite a few of the traditional Swazi dishes are vegan, as is the case with many African cuisines.
For more on traveling as a vegan in other African countries, see these articles:
- 6 Ways to Find Vegan Food in Africa
- What to Eat as a Vegan in Morocco
- Vegan-Friendly Safari Tour in Namibia
- Where to Eat the Best Vegan Food in Malawi
- 20 Traditional Vegan Foods in Mozambique
- Going on Safari in the Okavango Delta with a Vegan Guide
- Vegan Guide to in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Vegan Food in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo
- What to See, Do and Eat in Lesotho
- The Best Vegan Food in Casablanca Morocco
Apart from a few roaming vendors, there was no food sold inside the stadium itself, so be sure to eat before you enter, or pack some snacks.
Photography Tips for the Umhlanga Festival
- Once inside the stadium, stand at the far-right corner to take photos of the regiments as they enter. This is the best way to get close-up shots.
- On day six, it’s easy to get a good seat in the center of the stadium, as it’s not very crowded. On day seven, you’ll need to arrive much earlier to get the same seat. But unless you have a humongous zoom lens, you’re better off following the advice above rather than trying to take photos while seated.
- On day six, as you head towards the stadium you will see regiments of maidens carrying their reeds through a gate up on a hill to your right. Follow them. This is when they will drop their reeds outside the Queen Mother’s quarters. Once they enter the stadium, they will no longer be carrying the reeds.
* I have used the name “Swaziland” in this article because that’s currently how most people know the country. However, in April 2018 the King declared that the name of the country would be changed to Eswatini. The new name means “place of the Swazi” and is how the Swazi people refer to their country in their local language.
Looks like a beautiful set of ceremonies.
One question: “The girls are discouraged from wearing any underwear underneath the indlamu.” Did you get any sense as to why that is?
It’s because it’s not part of the traditional attire. I read an article in a local newspaper that included an interview with one of the older women in charge of organizing the regiments. She was complaining about some of the girls wanting to wear underwear underneath their skirts, and she said it goes against tradition.
Hello. Thank you for your article. Very useful!
We are visiting eSwatini when we believe the reed festival will occur (hasn’t yet been announced for 2019). I believe we will arrive late day 6, so we will be there day 7 the Monday (public holiday). I’m wondering what’s the best way to get around during the festival?
We are staying very close to where you stayed. Safe to walk to the stadium during the day and after sundown or better to taxi?
What time do the festivities start & when would you recommend arriving?
I’m so glad the article is helpful for you! I’m sure you will have an amazing experience at the reed festival. It’s definitely safe to walk to the stadium during the day. There will be loads of people in the streets and lots of festivities. I was a bit nervous about walking back after dark, but we did it and nothing bad happened. We left a bit early, just after sundown, so it wouldn’t be pitch-black dark. I would definitely bring a flashlight/torch if you do this, as there isn’t much street lighting. Taking a taxi would probably be the smarter option, but they will be in high demand, so you might have trouble finding one. If I recall, we arrived around 2 or 3pm. The dancing didn’t start until later, but on day 7 it’s good to get there early to get a good seat. It’s probably best to ask the staff at your accommodation what time they recommend arriving. Have a wonderful time!
Hi! I.m planning to go this year with my girlfriend and this article is very helpful! Thanks!
Is it necessary to buy any kind of tickets? If so, should we do it on advance? I can´t find any information about it!
I’m pretty sure the entrance to the Umhlanga is free. I can’t remember buying any kind of ticket. If there is an entrance fee to pay, it’s not very expensive, and it’s definitely not something you need to do in advance. Have a great time! I’m so glad the article is helpful for you.
As an update, we attended this year and it was free & felt very safe. We decided to leave while it was still light out, but sort of wish we hadn’t because there was a royal proposal (by a Prince, not the King) around dusk. Still had a wonderful time. Got there around 1-2PM, but we were early. It allowed us to get good seating (shaded but still close to the middle), but we did just kind of hang out for some time. However, there were people dressed up and walking around even at that time, so it wasn’t too bad to wait around.
We actually had no issues getting around in Swaziland once we arrived in the Ezulwini area. We felt safe, even using the kombis & the kombi rides were cheap. We were a little worried taking kombi rides from the Gables as they did come up to us to ask if we needed a ride – but it was clear they were legit when we saw that the kombis all lined up in the same area. We easily found where the kombi drivers would do pickups outside the Royal Palace gates for the way back, as well.
Thanks again for the guidance on this post, there’s very little that I could find online about this cultural event & it was one of the highlights of our trip to Southern Africa!
Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I’m sure it will be helpful for others since, as you rightly noted, there’s not much info about the Umhlanga online. It’s great to know that you felt safe while you were there.
This is so stunning!!!! loved each and every picture. dont they serve Ugali? thats vegan as well, no?
I’m so glad you like the post! Yes, they do have ugali, but they call it liphaslishi. They also have samp and beans, which they call umncushu.
And there are many vegan options to be found at Woolworths more like the British Marks & Spencer than the American Woolworths like soy milk and other products that might be vegan by default Also there are kitchens at the hostels that one can make one’s own food but certainly you can expect oatmeal as breakfast food almost daily
Thanks for the tip on Woolworths! I was fascinated by Swaziland during my short stay and would have loved to have spent some more time there.
I love visiting Swaziland One feels quite safe and the hostels are really reasonably priced and one meets so many interesting people from all over the world
Hi! Awesome page! Love your enthusiasm!
Corrections: the maidens wearing green cloth skirts are from the Zulu kingdom, as well as the ones in white tassels. There is a deep kinship between the two kingdoms and they frequently support each other’s cultural events.
Another correction: the king does not “traditionally pick a wife from among the maidens” – the Reed Dance is usually the first time a Liphovela (betrothed) is unveiled, the first time she is presented to the nation as his wife-to-be.
Hope you’re taking all these corrections in the right spirit they are meant…!
Absolutely, always happy to learn. Thanks so much! That’s really interesting, because I heard/read that about the king picking a wife from several different sources, including some locals.
Wendy, I am going there this year. Having trouble figuring out how to get to the grounds as I will not have a car. Are there plenty of taxi’s around. I have been booked at the Royal Swazi hotel with my niece. Not sure how close that is to the Royal Stadium. We are going for both days….is that over kill? Loved your article…so helpful
Thanks for the kind words! When my husband and I went we just walked, since our accommodation was pretty close by. I imagine taxis will be in high demand, but your hotel should be able to organize one for you. I wouldn’t say going for both days is overkill, although the festivities are fairly similar. Enjoy!
Hi Wendy. Thanks for the article, really helpful. I want to participate in the event as one of the maidens to get the whole experience but I can’t find any info on this. I don’t know if you can connect me with someone who can assist me? Thanks.
That’s a really cool idea! Unfortunately, I don’t have any connections in that regard. I do know that the year I attended Umhlanga there was an Israeli tourist who did make friends with a group of maidens and joined in with them, so I guess it is possible. I think your best bet is to go a day or two earlier and talk to some of the maidens. Good luck!
Hi Wendy! Thanks for your response. I just spoke to someone and they recommended the same thing. Great, thanks! 🙂
Thanks so much
umhlanga and tourism in swaziland?
This is super cool Wendy. Africa – my continent amazes me all the time. I’d heard of this festival before but wasn’t so sure.
Africa is indeed an amazing continent! I really hope to return there and explore more of it — including Nigeria — once international travel becomes viable again. Glad you enjoyed the article!
At what stage does the world banned this practice is completely so degrading to women.