Google lifted restrictions on Youtube from showing eSwatini’s reed dance famous for featuring bare-breasted young "maidens" in 2017. Nobukhosi Mtshali, a South African who participated in the protests for lifting of the restrictions told Mail and Guardian, "Having my photos labelled as inappropriate or regarded as porn, I take that as a direct attack on my cultural heritage. I take it as a sign of ignorance. If I’m posing in a sexually suggestive manner that is one thing, but if I’m posting pictures of me standing there in my traditional attire, that is a completely different context." As such, the videos are now available for all to watch on YouTube.
However, there is a sect of people who are not interested in pixelized breasts and who choose to travel to eSwatini because, "it's a unique celebration and it's one of the few places we can see bare-breasted women". These were the words of Jan Willem, of the Netherlands who, in 2006, waited for a month for the reed dance. In fact, IOL carried a report of a man from Chile claiming to be a "freelancer" and standing among the girls in the Lusushwana River, taking photographs.
The girls obviously had no agency over those pictures and who knows where they ended up. When the IOL reporter confronted the Chilean over why he was not taking photographs where the ceremony took place at Ludzidzini, he said: "I do not like your line of questioning, lady. I don't have to explain anything to you." He did not have to explain anything to the girls too! This story also appeared on Swazi Media Commentary which went on to claim that pictures are surfacing online on pornographic sites.
But it is culture
In 2013, a car crash claimed more than ten girls who were getting reeds for the annual Reed dance. The Communist Party in eSwatini called for a boycott of the reed dance and said the tradition was nothing more than a "porn fest for the King and his brothers". While the Communist Party has obvious political interests and a consequent bias, there is something to be said about the allegations of it being a "porn fest".
For starters, the King used to choose a wife from the group of girls though this was not an absolute mandate. Naturally, an observer would find the whole activity to be an anachronistic display of almost nude girls battling for the satisfaction of the King. It is, however, a dangerous observation as it ignores the fact that this is a culture that most of the participants love.
A post by Prophetess LaNdwandwe for the Zambian Watchdog, for example, is boldly titled: Swaziland’s reed dance is not soft porn. Mtshali's vehement protests against YouTube censorship also show that these are people who love their culture. King Mswati, at one point told an American lobbyist, "I understand the whole thing with the West, but we look at breasts like you look at feet." It is no big deal!
However, where the world finds it a big deal and it attracts sex tourists (and probably a number of molesters and monsters among their number), is it worth it? Prophetess LaNdwandwe in her article for the Zambian Watchdog admits, "It is unfortunate that our umhlanga ceremony has been turned into a superficial tourism event for viewing breast and bums; without focusing on its ancient teachings of self-preservation, chastity, and self respect which is taught to worthy regiments." She admits they have lost agency. The event has been hi-jacked.
Is it worth it?
Young girls, some below the age of majority, are being filmed and they have no ability to control where their digital images end up. The bolder perverts are visiting Eswatini and seeing the glorious nudity of budding young women for themselves. Needless to say, some would have been awakened to the existence of the cultural fest by the pictures they see.
The kingdom cannot stubbornly hold on to this cultural event without appreciating the risks in a modern society. If the event cannot be dropped, then tighter controls need to be adopted.
Let it be clear who gets to film or watch the ceremony and let limits be clear. Denial only perpetuates a festering problem. This year's annual reed dance ceremony ends on the 3rd of September and it remains to be seen what controls the kingdom is putting in place to protect its girls from predators from far and wide.
Header Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons