Monday, August 29, 2005

Just Like Zembla! 

Students of anthropology take note: although our kingdoms are half a world apart, and we have never met King Mswati III -- nor he us! -- the royal mating customs of Swaziland and Zembla are all but interchangeable:
More than 50,000 bare-breasted virgins vied to become the king of Swaziland's 13th wife Monday in a ceremony that critics say ill befits a country with the world's highest HIV/AIDS rate.

King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, is due to attend the annual Reed Dance ceremony, which he has used since 1999 to pluck new brides from thousands of dancing girls dressed in little more than beads and traditional skirts. [Just like Zembla! -- S.]

Clad in short beaded skirts and colorful tasseled scarves and carrying machetes, the girls sang tributes to the king while marching around the royal stadium flanked by male minders dressed in animal skin loincloths. [Just like Zembla! -- S.]

"I want to live a nice life, have money, be rich, have a BMW and cell phone," said one dancer, 16-year-old Zodwa Mamba. "But the king will not choose me, I am too ugly." [Move to Zembla! -- S.] . . . .

"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." [Just like Zembla! -- S.]

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 [Just like Zembla! -- S.]," said Tsandzile Ndluva, 21, another one of the dancers.

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 that catching the royal eye could curtail their freedom and force them into a polygamous marriage.

"This thing of many wives is not good, how does he satisfy them all?" [Just like Zembla! -- S.]

After a week of preparations, the girls, some swathed in cloth bearing the king's image, streamed into the royal compound on Sunday with towering reeds gathered to present to the Queen Mother, who is also known as the "Great She-Elephant." [Just like -- NO! NO! Sorry, ma -- Not at all like Zembla -- S.]

Monday's ceremony before the king is the finale. This year's event also 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, 37, married a virgin and fined himself one cow. [Just like Zembla! -- although, having long since moved off a barter economy, we fined ourselves not a cow but a quarter -- S.]
It certainly beggars credulity to suppose that two such rituals, identical in almost every regard, could develop independently. We cannot help but wonder whether King Mswati has ever visited the obscure principality of Los Angeles -- which is, we must admit, where we got the idea, after a long and memorable weekend in 1989.

(Thanks to Zemblan patriot J.M. for the link.)

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