Week One(ish)

While I had the best of intentions to share a Week One update on the one week anniversary of our departure from the US (I even had a witty intro written up) I was thwarted Thursday evening by an invitation to happy hour, followed by an extended weekend away from the office/wifi and now here we are, day 12 – the time seems to be flying by.

Our first week was quite a busy one. When booking our travel, we didn’t realize that we would be arriving in Eswatini (Swaziland was renamed by King Mswatii III earlier this year – apparently they were tired of being confused with Switzerland) during the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance*, a cultural event lasting eight days where young ‘maidens’ from across the country come together to honor the Queen Mother and to dance for the King – and possibly for the King to pick a new wife, although the particulars of that component are a bit unclear to me. We missed the first few days, but were fortunate enough to be tipped off for the seventh day, which is open to the public and hosted near where we’re staying, so we took the opportunity to attend.

Day Seven is one of the actual days of dancing during the Reed Dance festivities. By day seven, the participating young women (of which they said there were around 100,000!) have already come together, gathering at the royal residences. They’ve already make their 30k trek to the river to cut reeds and presented them to the Queen Mother, and they’ve finalized preparations for their hair and attire in anticipation of the seventh day. On Day Seven, the King and his family welcome dignitaries and representatives from all over the world, along with public spectators who crowd the seats of a stadium, to watch the young women dance.

During the ceremony, the ‘maidens’ assemble in groups based off age and region, dressed in beautiful, colorful, celebratory attire and parade across a large field in formation, dancing and singing as they pass by the King.

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The sheer number of women participating was staggering – taking well over an hour for the seemingly never-ending line of dancers to finally conclude. After their initial pass in front of the stands, they assemble in the field, where some groups continued to sing and dance, filling the field with movement and noise. We took video but apparently we’re not paying enough to WordPress for our blog to support video so… I’ll have to figure something else out.

Once all the young women were gathered in the field, a small group of women stepped up to a microphone and began to sing. At this time, the King, brandishing a solid gold axe, and his entourage came out on to the field and greeted each group, dancing with them one at a time. With SO many groups participating, the King had to hustle to get to each group, and even then still, it was bound to be a long process!

In the end, I’m told that often the King announces his new bride near the conclusion of the Umhlanga ceremony, pulling her forward from one of the dancing groups, but with the sun setting and the evening growing chilly – and a large field of maidens still to meet – our little group decided to depart early.

The following day was our first day of work. Our small but mighty team is captained by our host, Kerry, who owns and operates Tsandza weaving. Temphilo, Tsandza’s Office Manager has made us feel quite at home, and we’re also joined by Katrina, a volunteer through the Australian Government Funded Volunteer Program (AVI) – and of course Spooks, the office cat. Our office is located on the second story of the weavery and there’s a constant hum of conversation from the women downstairs, combined with the methodical click of the shuttle shooting brightly colored fibers back and forth across the looms. While working on getting our bearings this first week, Jon was able to successfully sort out an IT issue and I’ve been getting familiar with other social enterprises in Swazi to see what guidance we might glean from their experiences.

This week we’ve also been thoroughly enjoying the vibrant nature that surrounds us daily. My binoculars hardly see the inside of their case and I’m constantly on the porch looking for birds and creatures. To date, from our own little porch, we’ve spotted colorful birds like black-collared barbets, brown-hooded kingfisher, and scarlet-chested sunbirds. We’ve also seen blue-headed lizards, countless geckos and even one monkey, climbing through a nearby tree. At night, we enjoy a chorus of frog calls combined with the cheerful chirp of bats. The days range from temperate to hot, and the evenings have been cool. We’re entering the rainy season and for the last few nights have been thrilled with rolling thunderstorms that light up the sky, shake the house and fill the river that we can now hear flowing rapidly just down the hill.

All in all, we’re settling in well, enjoying our surroundings and slowly getting acclimated and acquainted. I’d call it a successful first week.

*Please note: I, by no means, am any expert on the history/rules/traditions of Umhlanga so if you’re interested in learning more, the Kingdom of Eswatini’s tourism site provides a more thorough overview: http://www.thekingdomofeswatini.com/eswatini-experiences/events/umhlanga-reed-dance/

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