Beyond the outward displays of conviviality that attends most cultural festivals, there is often a thick shroud of mysticism and hidden rites that are performed away from public view. While these rites may not necessarily be evil, they are considered sacred by the initiates and public eyes are not allowed to witness them. In essence, the elements of secrecy and unknown rituals all add up to what make these festivals what they are.
One of such festivals is the Incwala, regarded as the most important cultural festival in Swaziland. Often translated or classified as the festival of first fruits, Incwala, however, transcends tasting of the season’s first offerings and is better appreciated as Kingship Ceremony. The festival symbolizes purification and the spiritual renewal and is centered on the monarch. For when there is no king, there is no Incwala.
The festival occurs between around late November and January, although actual dates are determined by the moon.
The Small Incwala…
It begins with Incwala lencane (small Incwala) and ends with Incwala lenkhulu (big Incwala). Once it is a full moon in November, a class of people known as Bemanti (water people) set off in two groups from the home of the Ndlovukati (Queen Mother).
While the bigger group go all the way to Catembe, south of Maputo to collect water from the sea, the other group go to north to collect from rivers. Both groups arrive Lobamba the royal capital; with the sighting of the new moon and the Incwala lencane, two days of dance, songs and rituals take place.
The Big Incwala…
Exactly 14 days later, the Incwala lenkhulu, a 6-day affair begins. On the first day, single male youths gather at the Ndlovukati residence from where they go a distance of about 50km to gather branches of the sacred shrub known as lusekwane, guided by the full moon. The youths return on Day 2 with lusekwane and drop them at the national cattle byre. Elders take over and weave the branches between the poles of the inhlambelo (the king’s private sanctuary).
Early in the morning of Day 3, the youths go to get branches of the ‘black’ imbondvo (red bush willow), which are also weaved into the inhlambelo. In the afternoon, as the king undertakes special rites inside the inhlambelo, a bull ‘escapes’ from the byre. In an act seen as a test of valor, the beast is pummeled and subdued with bare fists by the lusekwane boys and returned.
Eat the First Fruit and the Gourd…
Day 4 is usually the main event of Incwala and the best time to see the festival. You get to witness the feasting, dancing and see the people dressed in their war regalia. The king eats the first fruit, after which the rest of the people can now eat. At the height of the dances, the king emerges from the inhlambelo and throws the sacred gourd which is caught on a shield by one of the lusekwane boys.
The fifth day is characterized by abstinence and the Bemanti become the enforcers of the law as they roam the royal capital to ensure nobody is contravening the rules. Sexual contact, sitting on chairs/mats, bathing, singing, dancing, scratching, wearing adornments are all forbidden. The king too remains in the inhlambelo and can only see the ritual wives.
Day 6 marks the final day, and is referred to as ‘Day of the Log.’ Firewood is gathered from the forest with which the elders make a great bonfire in the midst of the cattle byre. Certain ritual objects are tossed into the fire to signify the end of the old year, while the main players sing and dance in the byre until the rain comes to put out the fire. Afterward, follows feasting and celebrations.
The king remains in seclusion however until the next full moon. Then the lusekwane branches are burnt.
While visitors interested in knowing more are often welcomed, Incwala has not really been opened up for major tourism involvement. As such, utmost respect should be shown for the custom and practice of the people, while dos and don’ts of the festival must be strictly adhered to.
Dos & Don’t
- Men are not allowed to wear hats or headgears except they are not traditional ones.
- Women are expected to wear skirts or a sarong, not trousers or shorts.
- Shoes are not allowed on the dance arena.
- Pictures can be taken if you have permits. However, no pictures of the inhlambelo or what transpires inside it are allowed.
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