More than 25 000 Zulu virgins gather at the King’s Enyokeni Traditional Residence for this very colourful and meaningful ceremony every September which promotes respect for young women, and preserves the custom of keeping girls as virgins until marriage. In the olden days, the women gathered at the Zulu Reed Ceremony (Umkhosi woMhlanga) and men at the First Fruits Ceremony (Umkhosi wokweshwama).
The Zulu Reed dance is an educational experience and opportunity for young maidens to learn how to behave before the Zulu King .
This is done whilst delivering reed sticks, singing and dancing. Maidens learn and understand the songs while the young princesses lead the virgins. The maidens wear ‘izigege’ and ‘izinculuba’ that show their bottoms. Traditional attire includes beadwork to symbolise African beauty at its best.
At this stage the maidens are taught by senior females how to behave themselves and be proud of their virginity and naked bodies. That allows maidens to expect respect from their suitors who intend approaching them during the ceremony.
The second phase is educating the young maidens ‘amatshitshi’ by their older sisters ‘amaqhikiza’ on how to behave in married life. Young maidens are encouraged not to argue or respond immediately but to wish the suitor well on his journey back.
After protracted discussions the older sisters then approach the mother of the impressed maiden about the impending love relationship. If the father accepts the suitor the two families meet and gifts are exchanged as a sign of a cordial relationship.
After this the young maiden ‘itshitshi’ takes the next step of being ‘iqhikiza’ – a lady in charge of the young maidens. By then they are experienced chief maidens who act as advisors to the younger maidens – and are ready for married life.
The Zulu Reed Dance plays a significant part of Zulu heritage in reflecting diverse African customs. This ceremony is still close to the heart of many traditional leaders and citizens. It portrays and instills a sense of pride, belonging and identity among the youth.
This ceremony has been tirelessly celebrated by countless generations in early September of each year. Thousands of maidens converge on King Zwelithini kaBhekizulu’s palace to dance to the delight of the King, loyal subjects and guests. Only virgins are permitted to take part in this ritual.
Each maiden has to carry a reed from the river and present it to the King in a spectacular procession at the Enyokeni Palace. The girls converge in groups from the Zululand regions on the Kings Palace the day before the ceremony. The activity promotes purity among the virgin girls and respect for women. The Zulu Reed Dance ceremony is the key element of keeping young girls virgins until they are ready to get married.
On the day of the ceremony the girls start walking to the main hut of the King’s palace. As the King appears to watch the procession of girls he is praised by his poets or praise singers (isimbongi). The girls collect a reed from a huge pile and proceed in a very long procession. They are led by the senior princess. As they pass the King they lay their reed down and head towards where the King delivers his speech. While this is happening the men sing their songs and engage in mock fighting. After the festivities the King delivers a speech. This speech is a very direct and forthright message on the expected mores and traditions of the Zulu nation. The King is very direct and nothing is left to the imagination. He is a great proponent of celibacy until marriage.
Afterwards the maidens join in unison ululating and singing the Kings praises in a joyous mood. As a cultural gesture, the group of maidens then get a name from the King to distinguish themselves from other women.
The King’s Speech
These are some items taken from the King’s Speech to the maidens at the Zulu Reed Dance in 2004. (Translated from isiZulu into English)
“On the dawn of this day I am always overjoyed, this caused by seeing all of our beautiful flowers (our children) and our culture. I would like to thank you for this opportunity to address and welcome ‘izintombi’ (young, virginal girls) who have come from far and wide to attend uMhlanga (Reed Dance) which shows that the dreams of our forefathers are still coming true and that our children want a brighter future. Thank you to all who have helped make this day possible.
“Most of us know that this year the ceremony is a little different from past years, this is caused by the fact that we are celebrating 12 years since the re-introduction if this ceremony.
“This ceremony was re-introduced in 1984 with a few ‘izintombi’, there were also ‘amabutho’ (young warriors). I have asked all those ‘izintombi’ and ‘amabutho’ who are now ‘omama’ (married women/mothers) and ‘obaba’ (married men/fathers) to be here.