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Cultural Significance of South Africa's Zulu Reed Dance Festival

Jan 30, 2023 11:00AM ● By Victoria Ezechukwu-Nwagwu

South Africa’s Reed Dance Festival is an ancient tradition of the Swazi and Zulu people known as the Umkhosi womhlanga, or the Zulu Reed Dance. It is an annual event in early September at the Enyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The festival’s name is derived from the riverbed reeds. 

Zulu Reed Dance Festival is a time-honored tradition that has existed for generations. The festival is held in honor of the Zulu people's ancestors and is a way to give thanks for the bountiful harvest. One of its most important aspects is the reed dance itself.

In the past, young Zulu men would go into the mountains to find reeds. They would then use these reeds to make weapons and shields. The young women would also go into the mountains to gather reeds but would weave them into baskets and mats. 

This culture-influenced festival aims at paying respect to women and preparing young girls for womanhood. It is a celebration of virginity and fertility and an avenue for young Zulu women to show respect for their elders. Thousands of young women travel from all over South Africa to participate in the Reed Dance every year. For many of them, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Another critical aspect of the festival is the virginity test. It is a ritual performed on all the young women attending the festival. A group of older women inspects each girl's virginity before she is allowed to participate in the reed dance. Upon passing the virginity test, their senior princess leads thousands of Zulu girls, carrying the reeds, singing, and dancing. They appear bare-breasted in traditional accessories defined by their beadwork, which dramatically emphasizes traditional beauty. 

As a sign of honor and respect, they present their reeds to the Queen Mother, an important figure in the Zulu community. It is also an opportunity for them to learn about their culture and traditions. 

Zulu Reed Dance is a three-four-day event characterized by art, dance, music and cuisine. It brings communities and families together to celebrate their heritage. It is usually a joyous occasion that honors the fertility of the Zulu people. Families prepare traditional dishes such as umngqusho (a cornmeal dish) and beef stew, and everyone enjoys music and dancing well into the night. Young people also get a chance to meet potential partners.

While the lessons and ceremonies are steeped in Zulu tradition and culture, this mass gathering of young people is also an opportunity to discuss contemporary social issues that affect them.

In recent years, the Reed Dance has become more popular with tourists. While some believe this commercialization detracts from the event's cultural significance, others argue that it helps preserve Zulu traditions by providing an income for those who participate and allows visitors from all over the world to experience South African culture in all its glory. 

Those looking for something different and off-the-beaten path during their travels should take advantage of a visit to South Africa for this festival.

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 Victoria Ezechukwu-Nwagwu is the Executive Assistant to the Publisher of FunTimes Magazine. She is a communication enthusiast with a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication. She is passionate about learning new things and influencing creative innovations.

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