Incwala, the Kingship ceremony.

Incwala 1What is, quite literally, a horde of bare chested warriors, armed with staff and shield, shift rhythmically back and forth within the Royal Kraal. Mswati III, King of the Swazi’s, is amongst them somewhere, along with his 14 wives, 23 children and a poodle for all I’m able to see.

Attendance is better than your standard Sunday morning service. The kraal (cattle byre) is packed. In fact, it’s such a tight squeeze that I inevitably end up stepping, barefoot, in several of the royal cow pats I tried so hard to dodge earlier.

A monotonous but nonetheless emotive chant of hundreds resonates around the compound. They are the voices of a nation – warriors, politicians, teachers, chiefs and gardeners; all chanting and swaying together within the fenced arena. No entrance requirement exists as such, only that you leave your weapons and shoes outside.

Spears to be left outside, please.

Spears to be left outside, please.

The King’s role as absolute monarch is the subject of much debate within the country, mostly privately – open criticism of the royal family is ‘discouraged’. But despite its failings, the Swazi identity and pride that ceremonies like the Incwala demonstrate is one very important reason that Swaziland has avoided the internal strife of most other African countries.

“When there is no king, there is no Incwala,” and being a ‘Kingship’ ceremony, this stands to reason. To mount ones own private Incwala is regarded as high treason, regardless of whether you’ve notified the neighbours in advance or not. This all seems pretty self-explanatory, but nowhere in the literature does it really specify what constitutes an Incwala. I suppose the King plays a fairly important role, so you’ve either got the real deal or some chap who fancies himself on the throne, and then you’re just asking for it really.

The ceremony itself is a relatively extensive, and labour intensive one. Preparations start a month before the ceremony, when the bemanti, the water people, set off from the Queen Mother´s place to collect river water from the north and seawater from the Mozambican coast. Tradition prevents anyone from nipping over to the garden tap to save themselves what is rather a substantial two-week trek. Precisely what purpose this serves remains a mystery to me. It’s believed that the Swazi’s originally came from the coastal area of southern Mozambique, so perhaps its a reference to their saline roots. The freshwater from the north could simply be a reference to those years when the sea seemed just a little too far.

Everyone plays their part. After the bemanti, the young men are dispatched to cut the lusekwane poles that will eventually make up the fence of the Royal kraal I find myself in. They march a relatively mere 50 kilometres to where they harvest the wood under the light of the full moon, and then return the material to the elders who set about weaving it into place. The lusekwane boys play a prominent role in the third day of the festival as well, when they are charged with overpowering a black bull and returning it to the sacrificial sanctuary to be slaughtered. Granted, the bull is outnumbered, but the boys are unarmed and I’m certainly not signing up for it.

Neither salt water nor fresh is really the the tipple of choice. Despite being a sacred ceremony there’s plenty of ‘the stronger stuff’ to be found, and you don’t need to look too hard. Standard beer is sold on site but if you’re lucky enough you could find yourself plied with the dangerously tasty, yet infinitely more potent umcombotsi, traditionally brewed beer. The sweet taste of fermented maize and sugar lulls you into a false sense of bliss until the alcohol hits you like a bored lusekwane boy. I can only pity the poor bull even more.

"So when does this thing start?"

“So when does this thing start?”

A chance encounter earlier in the day has led to me finding myself in the company of a prince. A nameless prince for the sake of publication but the King’s brother nonetheless. He encourages me to take some photos of him and his entourage as they prepare to join the rest of the Royal Family in the main kraal. Things get a little awkward when his three daughters are presented for their photographs in traditional attire. That is to say, topless. Models, when referring to nude or semi-nude photo shoots often talk about how the photographer ‘made them feel comfortable and confident’ about taking their clothes off. I’m not really sure how I can go about doing that, given that I’m surrounded by royalty, and quite probably an inappropriate remark away from public hanging. As it happens, the women are far more at ease than I am, and more concerned with how long the whole thing is going to last.

As I dry my sweating palms, the horn sounds for the warriors to begin entering the kraal and start swinging and shifting. The ‘horn’ turns out to be an old euphonium, well used and rough round the edges.

As the young warrior blasts out the call across the encampment, one can’t help wondering why more people don’t celebrate these kinds of things anymore.

Swaziland National Trust Commission – Incwala Ceremony

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