Swaziland’s annual Reed Dance, a ceremony which is meant to be a traditional show of virginity by thousands of maidens, is acquiring a seedier reputation for events off stage.
About 60,000 bare-breasted girls from across the landlocked kingdom, some as young as 10 years old, were presenting reeds they had cut from surrounding hills to the royal kraal on Monday, while they danced before King Mswati III.
Mswati, who already has 13 wives, has often used the ceremony to choose a new spouse.
However, the presence of tens of thousands of teenage girls, far from parental supervision and with plenty of free time on their hands, has also proven a magnet for men who have anything but marriage on their mind.
“You get the choice here. There are so many of them,” said Sifiso Ngomane, one of the many men hanging around near the entrance to one of the camps where the girls are temporarily housed during the week.
“All you have to do is call them through the fence,” he said.
The girls are supposed to be protected by male overseers from their home regions, while police also stand guard at the base camps.
The camps hum with laughter and song, while the atmosphere is heady and festive, akin to a scout camp.
However, only a short distance away, it is different story.
A nearby river where the girls bathe naked at dawn attracts ogling eyes, while a hot spring dubbed the “cuddle puddle” has become a byword for sex.
“We are going to the cuddle puddle tonight and clubbing tomorrow,” 18-year-old Patricia said proudly.
The southern African kingdom, where life expectancy is just 49, has the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate.
A 2007 study led by the UN Children’s Fund found that a staggering one out of three Swaziland girls between the ages of 13 and 24 reported having been sexually abused. Victims of sexual violence were four times more likely to be HIV positive and twice as likely to be suicidal.
For nongovernmental organizations (NGO) working in HIV prevention, the Reed Dance is an ideal opportunity to reach people that are especially vulnerable. Thirty percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive compared with 20 percent of men.
However, since condom promotion is outlawed at an event that is all about virginity, they instead have to encourage abstinence and warn about the dangers of sleeping with several men at once.
“I am a vigin and proud of it. I love my culture,” 18-year-old Tsabile Dlamini said.
A minor royal herself, she has attended the Reed Dance several times and now works for the NGO Population Services International.
Wearing a T-shirt that says, “I am a maiden, I protect my flower,” she encourages the other girls to talk about their bodies and about sex — taboo subjects up until now for many girls brought up in the countryside.
A Trade Fair in Manzini coincides with the Reed Dance, offering music concerts and all night parties.
However, officially the revelers are expected to resist temptation.
“They must be on their best behavior. We do not want any news of pregnancies from the Reed Dance,” the region’s governor said in a radio announcement in the lead-up the event.