LUDZIDZINI ROYAL VILLAGE, Swaziland (Reuters) – More than 50,000 bare-breasted virgins vied to become the King of Swaziland’s 13th wife on Monday in a ceremony which critics say ill befits a country with the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rate.
King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, arrived dressed in a leopard-skin loincloth to watch the Reed Dance ceremony, which he has used since 1999 to pluck new brides from the girls dressed in little more than beaded mini-skirts.
Wielding machetes and singing tributes to the king and queen mother, also known as the Great She-Elephant, the girls danced around the royal stadium in the hope of catching the eye of the 37-year-old monarch.
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“I want to live a nice life, have money, be rich, have a BMW and cellphone,” said one dancer, 16-year-old Zodwa Mamba, who wore a traditional brightly coloured tasselled scarf.
Critics say Mswati, who has courted controversy for his lavish lifestyle while two thirds of his subjects live in abject poverty, sets a bad example by encouraging polygamy and teenage sex in a country where 40 percent of adults live with HIV.
Some say the Reed Dance, traditionally meant to celebrate womanhood and virginity, has become little more than a showcase for the king’s young would-be brides.
“The Reed Dance has been abused for one man’s personal satisfaction,” Mario Masuku, leader of the banned opposition party, told Reuters. “The king has a passion for young women and opulence.”
But many Swazis say the young monarch has a right to do as he pleases, defending his penchant for young brides as Swazi tradition and arguing that ceremonies like the Reed Dance, which this year drew a record 50,000 maidens, cement national identity.
“The king takes a wife whenever he wants and that’s the way it is. This is our culture and we will never change,” said Tsandzile Ndluva, 21, another dancer.
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Many maidens, who come from villages across the country, dream of joining the king’s wives who each have their own palace and BMW car. But others were scared catching the royal eye could curtail their freedom and force them into a polygamous marriage.
“Marriage is about love, not money,” said trainee police officer Patience Dlamini, who jazzed up her traditional outfit with a fake diamond necklace. “This thing of many wives is not good, how does he satisfy them all?”
The king has also drawn censure from rights groups and the international community for entrenching a ban on political parties in the nation of 1 million people squashed between South Africa and Mozambique.
But despite criticism of Mswati abroad, Masuku’s outlawed People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) has failed to muster much support at home, partly because many ordinary people back the king and ceremonies like the Reed Dance as symbols of national identity.
Monday’s ceremony was the culmination of a week of preparations, which included the lifting of a royal ban on sex with virgins, decreed in 2001 to help rein in HIV.
Days after reviving the ancient ban, Mswati in 2001, married a virgin and fined himself one cow. Last week he lifted the five-year ban a year early, ordering thousands of maidens to throw off chastity scarves worn to ward of preying men.
“What the king did by taking another wife was not good, because he was meant to keep virginity,” said 20-year-old Zanele Dlamini, a health worker who chose not to join in the dance. “He is not a good leader because multiple wives can spread HIV.”
Palace officials said that if the king did select a new wife at Monday’s dance, the announcement would not be made immediately.